One of my favorite parts of the movie “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” is how the historical characters are both fascinated and frightened by the modern world. I’m a sucker for a good “Joan of Arc leads an aerobics class” gag.
In all seriousness, we surround ourselves every day with inventions and innovations that we take for granted. The computer you are reading this review on, the clothes you are wearing, the medicine you’ve been given in your lifetime…how many of them didn’t exist 50 years ago? How many of them have changed the world?
In this Gear Diary Book Review, we’re looking at “Big Ideas: 100 Modern Inventions That Have Transformed Our World” by Alex Hutchinson. It’s a book that will give you a new appreciation for many items we take for granted every day. Read on for a review and an interview with the author!
The book is laid out in sections, based upon the discipline impacted by the invention. There are the obvious sections: Computers, medicine, scientific research; and also some not as obvious ones: convenience, transportation, leisure. The best part about the book were the entries that really surprised me. I could predict that the personal computer would appear (with requisite Steve Jobs photo!), that lasers and liquid crystal displays would make it into the book, but super glue? Smoke detectors? These are items I don’t even think about, let alone realize they logically would be relatively modern products.
I had the opportunity to send some questions over to Alex Hutchinson, who was gracious enough to answer them thoroughly for me!
Gear Diary: What was it like researching this book? Were there inventions that you never would have thought to put on this list when you first started that you found qualified for it?
Alex Hutchinson: If I had just sat down at my computer and hammered out the most important 100 inventions I could think of, the list would have been very different – it would have reflected my unique experiences and biases. To avoid that, we consulted a panel of 25 experts from museums, science centers and universities around the country. As a result, there are lots of inventions I wouldn’t have thought of – and a few that I’d never even heard of (e.g. “float glass,” which is the way 90 percent of window glass in the world is now made, and “kermantle rope,” which revolutionized mountain climbing).
Gear Diary: Was there a conscious decision to limit the scope to 1947 or later, or did that arise out of the origins of the inventions themselves?
Alex Hutchinson: The project actually started as a magazine article in Popular Mechanics back in 2005, which presented the top 50 inventions of the past 50 years. The topic turned out to be pretty addictive (everyone has an opinion of what should be on the list!), so we decided to expand it to a book – but by the time the book came out, it would have been the top inventions of the past 54 years, which didn’t really make sense…
We spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out an appropriate starting point. It turns out that World War II spurred a huge amount of innovation, so a lot of consumer products emerged shortly after the war. As a result, we considered starting in 1945. But we eventually realized that the most seminal invention in the book was the transistor, which was invented in 1947. Probably three-quarters of the other inventions in the book wouldn’t have existed without the transistor – so we decided to honor the transistor by making it the starting point.
Gear Diary: Were there any preconceived ideas of what the mix would be of computer vs medical vs other inventions? if so, what were they?
Alex Hutchinson: Our main preconceived notion was that the list shouldn’t be dominated by one field. We could easily have filled the book up with various computer and electronics breakthroughs, but the goal was to present an overview of the developments that have affected every aspect of our lives. So we started with as broad a mandate as possible, assembled the big list, and then afterwards grouped them into the categories you see in the book.
Gear Diary: After researching the various inventions and seeing the changes over the last 50 years, where do you think we will see innovation and invention in the next 50 years?
Alex Hutchinson: The process of invention has certainly changed a lot over the years. We have a romantic notion of the lone genius in the attic coming up with a brilliant idea. That’s never really been very common, but I think it’s becoming even harder for a single person to come up with a transformative idea. Most of the big developments in recent years have been large industrials efforts, whether you’re talking about MP3 players or hybrid cars. Of course, inspiration and perspiration are still key ingredients.
In terms of fields, energy seems to be the hottest area these days – but I’d predict that the biggest breakthroughs over the coming decades will be incremental improvements on ideas that are already out there, rather than radical new approaches that no one has thought of. (Though that’s probably what pundits have always said right before the next out-of-left-field breakthrough!)
Gear Diary: Was there debate among the various collaborators regarding whether or not some of the inventions should have made the list?
Alex Hutchinson: Lots of healthy debate! But ultimately everyone understood that the subjective nature of lists like these means there’s no “right” answer. (Or, to put it another way, it’s my book, so I get to decide the right answer!) After we assembled the first brainstorming list, we actually went back to our panel of experts and asked them to vote on which they felt were most worthy – so in that sense, everyone had their say.
Gear Diary: Of all the inventions listed in the book, was there one you felt you could not live without?
Alex Hutchinson: People are always asking what the top five inventions were, and I always refuse to rank a top five – it’s just impossible to choose. Fortunately, choosing a top one is easier: the transistor really does stand head and shoulders above the rest, simply because it has enabled so many different devices. Of course, there are times when I’m pretty fond of other ones, like the remote control.
Gear Diary: Did any inventions just miss the cutoff that might deserve honorable mentions?
Alex Hutchinson: The most ruthless culling we did was in the computer section – there are so many computer-related inventions and developments that have had a significant impact, but we didn’t want a book that was totally dominated by computers. With that in mind, I’d say the Altair 8800 home computer kit, which was released in 1975, is the one I’d put in 101st place.
Gear Diary: Did researching this book make you a fearsome quiz night player in your local bar?
Alex Hutchinson: That’s a nice way of putting it – the flip side is that I became a really annoying cocktail party conversationalist while I was immersed in the research for the book. It seemed like only a few sentences could ever go by without someone mentioning one of the inventions I’d been researching, and I’d feel absolutely compelled to tell them that, say, the microwave oven was invented after a scientist named Percy Spencer noticed a chocolate bar melting in his pocket when got too close to a magnetron in his lab, and that the first microwave ovens, in 1947, were five and a half feet tall and weighed 750 pounds. Fortunately, those symptoms are finally starting to fade away.
You can find “Big Ideas” on Amazon.com or in your local bookstore. I highly recommend it if you are interested in the origins of your everyday gear!