What’s a fine book on a technological innovation from history?
I asked this question because I’m preparing to teach a couple of classes this fall. One’s a seminar on innovation and technology. The focus will be on the digital world, so our readings (and other media) will address that, and I’ll share the syllabus for those interested next month. But I’d also like to add some predigital, historical examples of invention for perspective, as well as to test out students’ thinking and theory. I have in mind stories of technological innovations from their inception, development, usage, and unto naturalization or decline.
To start the selection process I began assembling some books on railroads, the car, and radio, and asked some historians for their suggestions. Then I asked friends on Facebook for their recommendations. Over several days they offered such a fine list I wanted to share it here.
The titles don’t have a uniform approach. Some are business histories, while others are biographies or cultural studies. Some focus on a short period of time, while others stretch out over generations or even centuries. A couple have media connections (ahem).
Most of the books are stories of specific inventions, from the telephone to the birth control pill to a glass-making technique. I admitted some exceptions to that principle. For example, one history of the early internet, another on the PC, and one on AI. Several are a bit broader, incorporating several innovations together. A few are more general still, but the spirit of the list is dedicated to specific creations.
Amir Alexander, Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World (2014).
W. Brian Arthur, The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves (2009).
Tim Berners-Lee, Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web Paperback (2000).
David Bricknell, Float: Pilkington’s Glass Revolution (2010).
Fred Brooks, The Mythical Man-Month (1975).
James Burke, Connections (1995).
Gene Carter, Wow! What a Ride!: A quick trip through early semiconductor and personal computer development (2012).
Arthur C. Clarke, How the World Was One (1992).
Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of. Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (1983).
Carl Djerassi, The Pill, Pygmy Chimps, And Degas’ Horse: The Remarkable Autobiography Of The Award-winning Scientist Who Synthesized The Birth-control Pill (1992).
Susan J. Douglas, Listening In: Radio And The American Imagination Paperback (2004).
Paul du Gay et al, Doing Cultural Studies The Story of the Sony Walkman (2013).
George Dyson, Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe (2012).
David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old (2007).
Claude S. Fischer, America Calling A Social History of the Telephone to 1940 (1994).
Charles Fishman, One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon (2019).
James Gleick, The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood (2012).
John Steele Gordon, Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable by (2016).
Katie Hafner, Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins Of The Internet (1996).
Steven Johnson, How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World (2014).
____, Wonderland : How Play Made the Modern World (2016).
Sam Kean, The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of The Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery (2014).
Elmer Keith, Six Guns (1961).
Julia Keller, Mr. Gatling’s Terrible Marvel: The Gun That Changed Everything and the Misunderstood Genius Who Invented It (2008).
Tracy Kidder, The Soul of a New Machine (1981).
Ross King, Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture (2013).
Mark Kurlansky, Paper: Paging Through History (2016).
David S. Landes, Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World (2000).
Jill Lepore, What the Gospel of Innovation Gets Wrong (2014).
Marc Levinson, The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger (2008).
Steven Levy, The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness (2007).
Wendy Moore, The Knife Man: Blood, Body Snatching, and the Birth of Modern Surgery (2005).
Carolyn Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century (1988).
Robert O’Connell, Of Arms and Men: A History of War, Weapons, and Aggression (1989).
Henry Petroski, The Pencil, A History of Design and Circumstance (1992).
Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1997).
William Rosen, The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention (2012).
Witold Rybczynski, One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw (2001).
Dava Sobel, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time (1995).
Cliff Stoll, The Cuckoo’s Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage (2005).
Max Tegmark, Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence (2017).
Cecelia Tichi, Electronic Hearth: Creating an American Television Culture (1992).
Simon Winchester, The Map That Changed the World (2001).
_____, The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World (2018).
Stephen Witt, How Music Got Free: A Story of Obsession and Invention (2016).
Tim Wu, The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires (2011).
Tom Zoellner, Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock That Shaped the World Kindle Edition (2009).
What other titles would you suggest?
If people find this list useful, I’ll gladly maintain it. I can also add Amazon links.