Review of “50 Things You Should Know About Inventions” by Clive Gifford


As the author explains at the outset, “Inventions are machines, objects, materials, or processes that did not exist before. . . . Many inventions fail, but those that succeed can transform the way we live and work.”

He then proceeds to review the development of notable inventions from batteries to rockets to trampolines to robots.

Like other books in the “50 Things” series, this small book is replete with excellent illustrations, fascinating fact-boxes, and easy to understand information.

Social ramifications are not part of the story. For example, as author Elan Mastai pointed out in All Our Wrong Todays, “when you invent a new technology, you also invent the accident of that technology. When you invent the car you also invent the car accident. When you invent the plane, you also invent the plane crash.” And so on. It’s an interesting concept that could have added to the depth of the content.

Moreover, inventors who are white and male get primary coverage. The author calls Thomas Edison the “King of Inventors,” and he gets a large write-up in the book.

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison

But there is no mention of Granville T. Woods, the most prolific African-American inventor of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who came up with numerous inventions including a steam-boiler furnace, telephone, telegraph system, electric railway and automatic air brake for railroad safety. As a black man, however, Woods often had difficulties in enjoying his success as other inventors made claims to his devices. Thomas Edison made one of these claims, stating that he had first created a similar telegraph and that he was entitled to the patent for the device. Woods was twice successful in defending himself, proving that there were no other devices upon which he could have depended or relied upon to make his own device.

Granville Woods

Granville Woods

Over the course of his lifetime Granville Woods would obtain more than 50 patents for inventions; nevertheless, he spent the last years of his life in virtual poverty as he battled in court for control of them. Thomas Edison, meanwhile, had an estimated net worth upon his death of $12 million in 2013 dollars.

Then there is Charles Drew, the African-American who described a technique he developed for the long-term preservation of blood plasma, and convinced hospitals to set up blood banks. His invention saved countless lives. Similarly, the black doctor Daniel Hale Williams was an important pioneer of open heart surgery. There is a section in this book for medical inventions that have saved lives, but these men don’t appear in it. (You can learn about many more important black inventors here.)

Charles Drew on the right (the caption only mentions the white man on the left)

Charles Drew on the right (the caption only mentions the white man on the left)

Women also rarely appear. In the section on computers and coding, there is no mention of Ada Lovelace, an English mathematician and writer, chiefly known for her work on Charles Babbage’s early mechanical general-purpose computer. She is often regarded as the first computer programmer.

Ruth Wakefield gets a mention in the text for her chocolate chip cookies. And Ruth Handler for the Barbie Doll. But there are many more who deserved inclusion, and for inventions more sophisticated than “women’s matters” like cookie recipes and doll development. These include Hedy Lamarr (a pioneer in the field of wireless communications), Mary Anderson, who invented windshield wipers, and Giuliana Tesoro, who obtained more than one hundred and twenty-five patents, just to name a very few.

Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr

[In the “Who’s Who” of great inventors at the back of the book, which includes little thumbnail pictures and bios, there is one black (Otis Boykin) and two women (Katharine Blodgett and Grace Hopper).] Otis Boykin could also have been included in the section for inventions that save lives. He created an improved electrical resistor that is used today in computers, radios, and tv sets, but also pacemakers.

Otis Boykin

Otis Boykin

Nevertheless, there are lots of positives about this book. The author selected many interesting and fun aspects of a huge subject, and includes lots of fascinating factoids. (Did you know the first mechanical flushing toilet was invented by Queen Elizabeth I’s godson for her use?) It might not have occurred to many readers to realize that such everyday items like can openers and safety pins had to be invented by someone. Combined with some great photographs and infographics, I don’t think anyone is going to be bored by the subject matter.

Evaluation:  This book does a very good job at introducing the depth and breadth of inventions. All of the pictures and facts will make the time fly, and no doubt inspire further inquiries, at which time any omitted portions will become clear. In addition, the author summarizes very potentially complex subjects, such as how to breathe underwater, how submarines navigate, and how rockets accelerate. A brief glossary is at the back of the book.

Rating:  3.5/5

Published in the US. by QEB Publishing, 2016


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3 Responses to Review of “50 Things You Should Know About Inventions” by Clive Gifford

  1. Beth F says:

    Bummer this isn’t more diverse.

  2. BermudaOnion says:

    I’d like to see more diversity in a book like this too.

  3. Rachel says:

    Thanks for pointing out the lack of diversity in this book.

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