Ideas that take off

10th March 1995 at 00:00
Inventions. A Visual History By Richard Platt, Dorling Kindersley Pounds 9.99, 0 7513 5225 X. History and Invention, series.The Chip and How It Changed the World By Dan Locke, 0 7500 1514 4. The Lightbulb and How It Changed the World, By Michael Pollard, 0 7500 1515 2 Simon Schuster, Pounds 8.99 each.

Richard Platt's Inventions is packed with useful snippets of information and a wealth of small pictures. It makes a real attempt at accuracy and balance; this is a book that can be trusted in children's hands.

Inventions does not have the same quirky humour as Incredible Cross Sections; nor is it a connected history to read through. But as a fun book to dip into and for reference, it is highly recommended. The only error I found was the statement that early Colt revolvers had cartridges - in fact, gunpowder was put into each chamber, and then a lead bullet; it was set off by a little percussion cap like a copper thimble.

The Chip and How It Changed the World is an account of the microprocessor and allied topics like mathematics, code-breaking and robotics. It leaves the impression of information which has been researched but not understood. The mathematical sections do not bring out the fact that it is very difficult to calculate in Roman numerals; and it mentions, but does not explain, the importance of zero, or that it originated in India. The section on code-breaking does not mention the British wartime electronic machine Colossus.

More serious are the errors. The Harvard Mark 1 machine was developed in 1943, not 1933 as stated. I would be sorry if children took seriously the statement, "In 1944 an American devised a new rapid process of production called welding". Many forms of welding - forge, gas, even electric - existed long before this. Again, it is simply wrong to say that "In 1938, Germany began making random code machines in Poland" - the German coding typewriter goes back to the early '20s, and in 1938 the Poles were busy cracking its codes, not making the machines for the Germans.

The Lightbulb and How It Changed the World is really a general history of electricity. It would be a clearer book if it gave an idea of what volts and amps are. Early experimenters knew voltage as "electricity of intensity" and measured it by how far they could feel the shock up their arms. The book should also have explained the difference between alternating current (which let transformers step down high voltages for long distance transmission) and DC which didn't - indeed there was a "Battle of the systems" between the two camps. Once again, welding is misrepresented as "only possible with the immense heat that could be generated by electricity". However, as an attempt to link history and technology, the book has some merits.

Books about the history of invention are still at the stage of telling facts. If we want to inspire children, we must find a way to convey the excitement of creative thought. Surely, it would help them to think clearly and creatively if they were given well-told examples of how, for instance, Watt or Faraday broke through problems and uncertainty into a new understanding.

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