Short histories of nearly everything

28th October 2005 at 01:00
Ideas and Inventions: Food and Farming; Generating Power; Life and Death; Sea, sky and space; Communication; Building a world; Making work easier; Materials and their uses. By Philip Wilkinson. Illustrated by Robert Ingpen. Chrysalis Children's Books. pound;12.99 each.

The Picture History of Great Explorers. By Gillian Clements. Frances Linclon pound;12.99

Where did the potter's wheel come from? When was money invented? These questions and many more are answered by author Philip Wilkinson in the "Ideas and Inventions" series from Chrysalis.

Technology timelines are something of a growth industry but the neat captions ("c2000bc Near Eastern metalworkers discover how to make bronze") can give a false impression of the sheer complexity of innovation - the immense time scale, the simultaneous discoveries, false starts and blind alleys.

The strength of this series is that it takes the time to go behind the captions and give a clear narrative of the way in which different technologies developed over the millennia. It's a formidable task. Between them, the eight books cover pretty well every aspect of life from food and farming to communication, transport and power and describe the change from prehistoric times to today.

Indeed the problem must have been what to leave out and, in at least one case, Making Work Easier, the author abandons the attempt, moving from the wheel to the steam engine in a single giant stride. The result is a lucid text which avoids over-simplification while placing different inventions in their historical context.

Underlying the story are some complicated scientific concepts and these are clearly explained with the help of diagrams. Generating Power takes us at a brisk pace from the first windmills via steam engines and electricity to the theory underlying the nuclear reactor and manages to get the ideas across in a minimum of words.

Despite the emphasis of the national curriculum on the role of inventors and innovators, history remains a largely science-free zone and it makes a nice change to see Newton and Faraday take centre stage. It's good, too, to come across a global perspective which acknowledges the debt we owe to the great Arab scientists of the Middle Ages. That said, the series has a stodgy feel, not helped by the children's encyclopedia-style of illustration and dull page layout. It seems to be targeted at the upper primarylower secondary stage and many children of that age will be fascinated by the ideas it contains - assuming they get past the cover.

The Picture History of Great Explorers by Gillian Clements from Frances Lincoln tells the stories of some 80 pioneers in a lively picture book, crammed with maps and sketches and bustling with timelines and snippets of information. The explorers are a mixed bag ranging from Julius Caesar to Yuri Gagarin, with the welcome introduction of a few less hackneyed choices, such as Sherpa Tenzing, who is rightly included alongside Sir Edmund Hillary. Her eye for a telling detail, coupled with the humour and charm of her illustrations, make this a sure-fire winner for younger children.

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