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The 100 Greatest Inventions Of All Time by…

The 100 Greatest Inventions Of All Time

by Tom Philbin

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The selection of the most important 100 inventions of all times is, in a sense, an impossible task, and the present volume only represents an honest attempt at it, rather than anything that can be called truly definitive. Other historians of technology would have a list that would only partially overlap this one to varying degrees. It might be interesting to see other lists of this sort, and to be able to examine their pros and cons. But it appears, unhappily, that this volume is meant more to entertain us, than it is to provide the best of all possible lists.
The inventions cited range from the prehistoric to the latter half of the twentieth century. They concentrate, it seems, more on inventions that require some sort of mechanical embodiment, leaving out any that deal with compositions of matter, with the lone exception of paint. Thus he ignores bakelite, polyethylene, and other plastics which have transformed our century. And also he forgets the invention of bronze, iron, steel, ceramics and clear glass. Chemical inventions such as tanning, Haber's nitrogen fixation, electrolysis, and other synthetic methods are ignored. He forgets soap, and antisepsis.

Cloth and rope are not here. Nor are the crops or the inventions of agriculture included: hay and wheat, all methods for the preservation of food, fertilizer, domestication of animals, methods for breeding animals and plants, irrigation. These are the basic inventions that moved us from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists, and would seem to belong in a list that includes the plow and the wheel.

There is also, it appears to this reader, a distasteful pre-occupation with weapons of war: the tank, submarine, nuclear weapon, bow and arrow, gunpowder, pistol, rifle, cannon, rocket, barbed wire, dynamite, radar are all given. The spear, atlatl, personal armor, pike, trebuchet, machine gun and land mine are sundry examples of man's deviousness and ingenuity in the killing arts which might just as well have been included.

The methods used for the selection, and the apparently intentional ignoring of entire fields of innovation, is not discussed. No bibliography nor acknowledgements of previous attempts along these lines are provided either.

Philbin's greatest omission,though, is that he forgot to include the invention of the scientific method, used as a basis for many of the inventions he does list. This too, together with the invention of logic, geometry and mathematics, is certainly at least on a par with the VCR! Financial innovations, as well as any business oriented methods are left out, as is the Web, ebay and Amazon!

The book is lavishly illustrated with many diagrams and excerpts from the patent literature, and is thought provoking at times, but on the whole is rather inadequate to the task, I think. The writing style is rather leaden and it was hastily written, one discerns at a glance. And the insulting remark about Shockley, inventor of the transistor: "One other thing is remarkable about his life: he died of natural causes." is juvenile and gratuitous. ( )
  DonSiano | Oct 19, 2006 |
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