Summer Reading: Invention and Innovation

Our list of books to spark creativity for kids of all ages!

There are many reasons to read over the summer, but one thing is certain-- it should always be a pleasure. Tastes may vary, but as J.K. Rowling once said, “If you don’t like to read, you haven’t found the right book.”

For 2016, SB&F has compiled a list of engaging books for all ages centered on the theme of Invention and Innovation. To help readers find the right books, we’ve included titles that tell the inspirational stories of great inventions and inventers as well as ones that help readers develop tools and skills that can help them light their own creative sparks and think like inventors! 

Books for Elementary Students

Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem, Raymond Obstfeld, Ben Boos, and AG Ford. What Color Is My World?: The Lost History of African-American Inventors. Somerville, MA: Candlewick, 2012.

Basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and his collaborators highlight little-known African-American inventors in this lively, kid-friendly book. It includes James West, inventor of the microphone in cell phones; Frederick Jones, inventor of the refrigerated truck that supermarkets rely on to transport foods; and Dr. Percy Julian, who pioneered the chemical synthesis of plants that led to such drugs as cortisone. The profiles are augmented by informative sidebars and a framing narrative featuring two young children as they learn about the inventors of the gamma electric cell and the ice-cream scoop, improvements to traffic lights, open-heart surgery, and more—inventors who persevered against great odds.

Anderson, Maxine. Amazing Leonardo Da Vinci Inventions You Can Build Yourself. Norwich, VT: Nomad Press, 2006.

From armored tanks and gliders to "plastic glass" and drawing machines, this interactive book explores the incredible mind of Leonardo da Vinci through hands-on building projects and activities. Most of Leonardo's inventions were never made in his lifetime and remained sketches in his famous notebooks; kids examine some of these original sketches and learn about the models he made of his inventions. From there they delve into detailed step-by-step instructions, diagrams, and templates for each project, which are interspersed with historical facts, biographical anecdotes, and trivia. Most of the building can be done using simple household supplies: construction paper, tape, markers, glue, cardboard tubes, aluminum foil, and cardboard boxes. Background about the Renaissance as a period of remarkable achievement in art and science appears throughout the book.

Barton, Chris, and Don Tate. Whoosh!: Lonnie Johnson's Super-soaking Stream of Inventions. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge, 2016.

The Super Soaker is one of top twenty toys of all time. And it was invented entirely by accident. Trying to create a new cooling system for refrigerators and air conditioners, inventor Lonnie Johnson instead created the mechanics for the iconic toy. A love for rockets, robots, inventions, and a mind for creativity began early in Lonnie Johnson’s life. Growing up in a house full of brothers and sisters, persistence and a passion for problem solving became the cornerstone for a career as an engineer and his work with NASA. But it is his invention of the Super Soaker water gun that has made his most memorable splash with kids and adults.

Carlson, Laurie M. Thomas Edison for Kids: His Life and Ideas: 21 Activities. Chicago, IL: Chicago Review Press, 2006.

This well-written book contains nine chapters that take the reader through Edison’s life from his birth in 1847 to his death in 1931. In addition to getting to know Edison as a person, readers will learn about his work as an inventor, especially in the areas of electricity and magnetism. The book opens with a brief introduction to Edison himself, followed by a timeline that marks significant events in his life. The content represents an excellent view of the relationship between science, technology, and society; in addition, the history and nature of science provides a backdrop for the narrative description of Edison’s curiosity, experimentation, inductive reasoning, and many inventions. The narrative text is augmented by many illustrations, including drawings, sketches, and photographs. Each chapter is strengthened by the inclusion of two or three related hands-on activities. This book is made to order for those who seek to demonstrate how social studies and science are naturally connected.

Davis, Kathryn, and Gilbert Ford. Mr. Ferris and His Wheel. Boston, MA: HMH Books for Young Readers.

Capturing an engineer's creative vision and mind for detail, this fully illustrated picture book biography sheds light on how the American inventor George Ferris defied gravity and seemingly impossible odds to invent the world's most iconic amusement park attraction, the Ferris wheel. The fun, fact-filled text by Kathryn Gibbs Davis combines with Gilbert Ford's dazzling full-color illustrations to transport readers to the 1893 World's Fair, where George Ferris and his big, wonderful wheel lifted passengers to the skies for the first time.

DiPiazza, Francesca. Remaking the John: The Invention and Reinvention of the Toilet. Minneapolis, MN: Twenty-First Century Books, 2014.

Remaking the John explores the many ways people across the globe and through the ages have invented and reinvented the toilet with examples ranging from ancient Roman sewers to the world's first flush toilets. The book also introduces the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge an engineering contest designed to spur creation of an ecologically friendly, water-saving, inexpensive, and sanitary toilet sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Freedman, Russell. Becoming Ben Franklin: How a Candle-maker's Son Helped Light the Flame of Liberty. NY: Holiday House, 2013.

This detailed biography of Benjamin Franklin gives valuable insight into the life of an ambitious and inventive historical American figure. This book chronicles Franklin's life starting from his childhood in Boston and ending with his death after becoming a pillar of American history. The author describes Franklin's inventions in such a way that would be identifiable to younger students of science. When describing Franklin's fascination with electricity, for example, the author offers a short, yet necessary recap of static electricity. The parallel between Franklin's childhood and his discovery of electricity may be instructive for students and their own individual aspirations. As a boy, Franklin would use a kite to pull himself across a Boston pond; as an adult, he used this same resourceful idea to attempt electricity conduction through a kite, a string of twine, and a metal key.

Griffith, Saul, Nick Dragotta, Ingrid Dragotta, Arwen Griffith, and Joost Bonsen. Howtoons: Tools of Mass Construction. Berkeley, CA: Image Comics, 2014.

Howtoons is a comic book series resulting from the collective imaginations of a comic book artist, an inventor, and a toy designer. This book presents the best of 10 years, plus new material, photos, and essays. Projects include soda bottle rockets, origami robots, marshmallow shooters, ziplines, zoetropes and more. Co-created by MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient Saul Griffith, Joost Bonsen, Nick Dragotta (East of West), and Ingrid Dragotta, the comic follows characters Celine and Tucker as they learn through play. Challenged to make something “other than trouble,” this brother-and-sister pair use everyday objects to invent toys that readers can build. Combining comics and real-life science and engineering principles, this series is designed to encourage kids to become active participants in the world around them.

Lee, Dora, and Margot Thompson. Biomimicry: Inventions Inspired by Nature. Tonawanda, NY: Kids Can Press, 2011.

Biomimicry is a fascinating book that illustrates how engineers and inventors used tnature to inspire designs that improve our world. Thompson's appealing art helps reader's decode the sometime complex information and keeps them turning the pages. “Nature got there first” is the opening statement, and human innovations such as camouflage, echolocation, Velcro, and even motors are shown to have been inspired by the natural world. Copying nature is a good thing, especially since one of the premises we observe in nature is balance. We humans do not recycle as well as nature nor are we able to repair ourselves as well as some of the plants and animals around us. There are other fascinating things we can learn and the author provides real examples. The book concludes that “Doing it nature’s way” promises to change the world in a good way. The book is one that may really open the eyes of readers and make them look more closely at the world they live in and start thinking about ways to achieve development with less harm to the earth. The information, illustrations and entire concept make for a truly outstanding book.

McCarthy, Meghan. Earmuffs for Everyone!: How Chester Greenwood Became Known as the Inventor of Earmuffs. NY: Simon & Schuster, 2015.

As a young boy, Chester Greenwood went from having cold ears to becoming a great inventor in this nonfiction picture book from the acclaimed author-illustrator of Pop! and Daredevil. When your ears are cold, you can wear earmuffs, but that wasn’t true for Chester Greenwood back in 1873. Earmuffs didn’t exist yet. But during yet another long and cold Maine winter, Chester decided to do something about his freezing ears, and he designed the first pair of ear protectors (a.k.a. earmuffs) out of wire, beaver fur, and cloth. He received a patent for his design by the time he was nineteen, and within a decade the Chester Greenwood & Company factory was producing and shipping “Champion Ear Protectors” worldwide.

Ng, Sandy. Makey Makey. 21st Century Skills Innovation Library: Makers as Innovators. Ann Arbor, MI: Cherry Lake Publishing, 2016.

Makey Makey is a kit that helps you turn everyday objects into touchpads that control your computer's keyboard. With this book, students learn the art of innovation through detailed explanations and hands-on activities built to foster creativity and problem solving. Fun, engaging text introduces readers to new ideas and builds on maker-related concepts they may already know. Additional tools, including a glossary and an index, help students learn new vocabulary and locate information.

Parker, Lucie. Exploralab: 150 Ways to Investigate the Amazing Science All around You. San Francisco, CA: Weldon Owen, 2013.

Exploralab is an action-packed, hands-on interactive book from the Exploratorium that takes curious kid scientists through a day and night's worth of household investigations, experiments, and discoveries. If you've ever wondered what makes your alarm clock tick, how to defy gravity in your bathroom, or what magnets have to do with your breakfast cereal, Exploralab is for you. Packed with fun extras like a magnifier, polarizing filters, glow-in-the-dark ink, and more, it's the perfect guide through 24 hours of amazing everyday science.

Rhatigan, Joe, and Anthony Owsley. Inventions That Could Have Changed the World ... but Didn't! Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge, 2015.

While many inventors might believe that their inventions will change the world, unfortunately most of them do not. This book, while highlighting some of the wackier ideas that were just too strange to succeed, also presents inventions that seemingly had potential but ultimately failed. Some inventions failed the first time around, but ultimately, through the perseverance of the inventor did succeed in changing the world.  Henry Ford’s first automobile is a perfect example. Only one of his original design was sold and it was another 12 years before Ford’s incredibly successful Model T was introduced. The book also includes examples of what seem like useful inventions that, on second thought, clearly were not fully thought through. An alarm clock that tips your bed mattress and throws you out of bed to be sure you wake up is a fun example.

Roberts, Dustyn. Making Things Move: DIY Mechanisms for Inventors, Hobbyists, and Artists. NY: McGraw-Hill, 2010.

Dustyn Roberts is a traditionally trained engineer with non-traditional ideas about how engineering can be taught.  Making Things Move reveals practical mechanical design principles to readers who may have no background in engineering and shows how to apply those principles through a wide range of sample projects, from art installations to toys to labor-saving devices. This book is for anyone who has ever wanted to make something that moves but didn’t know where to start. Maybe you’re a sculptor who wants your artwork to spin around on a pedestal, or a musician who wants to make custom musical instruments that come alive. Whatever the case may be, this book will show you how to turn your ideas into reality.

Rusch, Elizabeth, and Oliver Dominguez. Electrical Wizard: How Nikola Tesla Lit up the World. Somerville, MA: Candlewick, 2013.

When a Serbian boy named Nikola Tesla was three, he stroked his cat and was enchanted by the electrical sparks. By the time he was a teenager, he had made a vow: Someday I will turn the power of Niagara Falls into electricity. Here is the story of the ambitious young man who brought life-changing ideas to America, despite the obstructive efforts of his hero-turned-rival, Thomas Edison. From using alternating current to light up the Chicago World’s Fair to harnessing Niagara to electrify New York City and beyond, Nikola Tesla was a revolutionary ahead of his time. Remote controls, fluorescent lights, X-rays, speedometers, cell phones, even the radio — all resulted from Nikola Tesla’s inventions. Established biographer Elizabeth Rusch sheds light on this extraordinary figure, while fine artist Oliver Dominguez brings his life and inventions to vivid color.

Slade, Suzanne, and Jennifer Black Reinhardt. The Inventor's Secret: What Thomas Edison Told Henry Ford. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge, 2015.

This wonderfully illustrated book tells the story of the friendship between Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. Though 16 years apart the two great inventors met and forged a friendship based in large part on their shared qualities of perseverance, resilience, and learning through failure, all critical to the successful navigation of the invention process. The book also contains a timeline of the lives of Edison and Ford (p. 46-47), and a bibliography of both books and online sources. This is an inspirational story that every parent of a young child should read to/with their child.

Thimmesh, Catherine, and Melissa Sweet. Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

In kitchens and living rooms, in garages and labs and basements, even in converted chicken coops, women and girls have come up with ingenious innovations that have made our lives simpler and better. Their creations are some of the most enduring (the windshield wiper) and best loved (the chocolate chip cookie). What inspired these women, and just how did they turn their ideas into realities? From Sybilla Masters, the first American woman with a documented invention (although the patent had to be in her husband's name), to twelve-year-old Becky Schroeder, who in 1974 became the youngest girl to receive a patent, Girls Think of Everything tells the stories of these women's obstacles and their remarkable victories

Wilkinson, Karen, and Mike Petrich. The Art of Tinkering: Meet 150 Makers Working at the Intersection of Art, Science & Technology. San Francisco, CA: Welden Owen, 2014.

The Art of Tinkering is a collection of exhibits, artwork, and projects that celebrate a whole new way to learn, in which people create their own knowledge through making and doing, working with readily available materials, getting their hands dirty, collaborating with others, problem-solving in the most fun sense of the word, and, yes, oftentimes failing and bouncing back from getting stuck. Each artist featured in The Art of Tinkering goes through this process, and lovingly shares the backstory behind their own work so that readers can feel invited to join in on the whimsy. Whether it’s sharing their favorite tools (who knew toenail clippers could be so handy?) or offering a glimpse of their workspaces (you’d be amazed how many electronics tools you can pack into one pantry!), the stories, lessons, and tips in The Art of Tinkering offer a fascinating portrait of today’s maker scene.

Woodcock, Jon. Coding Games in Scratch: A Step-by-step Visual Guide to Building Your Own Computer Games. NY: DK Children, 2015.

Coding Games in Scratch shows how kids can start coding their own games, too, using Scratch, a popular free programming language. With Coding Games in Scratch, kids can build single and multiplayer platform games, create puzzles and memory games, race through mazes, add animation, and more. All they need is a desktop or laptop with Adobe 10.2 or later, and an internet connection to download Scratch 2.0. Coding can be done without download on https://scratch.mit.edu. Dr. Jon Woodcock has a degree in Physics from the University of Oxford and a PhD in Computational Astrophysics from the University of London.

Books for High School Students and Adults

Beyer, Kurt. Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009.

A Hollywood biopic about the life of computer pioneer Grace Murray Hopper (1906--1992) would go like this: a young professor abandons the ivy-covered walls of academia to serve her country in the Navy after Pearl Harbor and finds herself on the front lines of the computer revolution. She works hard to succeed in the all-male computer industry, is almost brought down by personal problems but survives them, and ends her career as a celebrated elder stateswoman of computing, a heroine to thousands, hailed as the inventor of computer programming. Throughout Hopper's later years, the popular media told this simplified version of her life story. In Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age, Kurt Beyer reveals a more authentic Hopper, a vibrant and complex woman whose career paralleled the meteoric trajectory of the postwar computer industry. Both rebellious and collaborative, Hopper was influential in male-dominated military and business organizations at a time when women were encouraged to devote themselves to housework and childbearing. Hopper's greatest technical achievement was to create the tools that would allow humans to communicate with computers in terms other than ones and zeroes. This advance influenced all future programming and software design and laid the foundation for the development of user-friendly personal computers.

Dyson, George. Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe. NY: Pantheon Books, 2012.

In this revealing account of how the digital universe exploded in the aftermath of World War II, George Dyson illuminates the nature of digital computers, the lives of those who brought them into existence, and how code took over the world.  In the 1940s and ‘50s, a small group of men and women—led by John von Neumann—gathered in Princeton, New Jersey, to begin building one of the first computers to realize Alan Turing’s vision of a Universal Machine. The codes unleashed within this embryonic, 5-kilobyte universe—less memory than is allocated to displaying a single icon on a computer screen today—broke the distinction between numbers that mean things and numbers that do things, and our universe would never be the same. Turing’s Cathedral is the story of how the most constructive and most destructive of twentieth-century inventions—the digital computer and the hydrogen bomb—emerged at the same time.

Finn, Ed, and Kathryn Cramer. Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future. Reprint Edition ed.  NY: William Morrow, 2015.

Hieroglyphs, Stories and Visions for a Better Future provides the reader with an optimistic and refreshingly straightforward scientific exploration of how a better world and a better future can be a realistic goal for the next century. Editors Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer have bundled together some of the best science fiction writers and scientists of the present. This volume is an outgrowth of Arizona State University's Center for Science and the Imagination founded in 2012 as a response to a conspicuous absence of creative scientific thinking that was not afraid to think big thoughts. Hieroglyph offers the reader an enjoyable science fiction reading backed by sound science principles, issues, reasoning and plausible solutions. Essays by such writers as Cory Doctorow, Elizabeth Bear, Neal Stephenson and Lee Konstantinou, among others, take the reader beyond the impossible to the why not of science. This book emphasizes that the power to change the world for the better begins with the creative thoughts of individuals who dare.

Gertner, Jon. The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. NY: Penguin Press, 2012.

From its beginnings in the 1920s until its demise in the 1980s, Bell Labs—officially, the research and development wing of AT&T—was the biggest, and arguably the best, laboratory for new ideas in the world. From the transistor to the laser, from digital communications to cellular telephony, it's hard to find an aspect of modern life that hasn't been touched by Bell Labs. In The Idea Factory, Jon Gertner traces the origins of some of the twentieth century's most important inventions and delivers a riveting and heretofore untold chapter of American history. At its heart this is a story about the life and work of a small group of brilliant and eccentric men—Mervin Kelly, Bill Shockley, Claude Shannon, John Pierce, and Bill Baker—who spent their careers at Bell Labs. Today, when the drive to invent has become a mantra, Bell Labs offers us a way to enrich our understanding of the challenges and solutions to technological innovation. Here, after all, was where the foundational ideas on the management of innovation were born.

Hager, Thomas. The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler. NY: Harmony Books, 2008.

Thomas Hager, veteran science and medical writer, has written a captivating, yet balanced, biography of Carl Bosch and Fritz Haber. Even though their names and work are unknown to most people, their discoveries and inventions changed the lives of millions. While on a technical subject, the book reads like a novel, and its discussion includes the personal dilemmas each man faced, as well as the scientific endeavors they undertook. Bosch and Haber developed a process for extracting nitrogen from the air and converting it into a useable form for fertilizer and, inadvertently, for explosives. The book is set against the historical and political developments in Germany from World War I through World War II. It gives an accurate picture of the nature of scientific research and the influence of politics, power, and personal ambition. Bosch was the first director of IG Farben, the world’s largest chemical company, until it was broken up after World War II. He was business entrepreneur, a Nobel Prize winner, and a staunch anti-Nazi who ended up heading the most infamous Nazi chemical company. Bosch was a very private person and kept a low profile. In contrast, Haber, who was Jewish, sought out public recognition and glory as much as Bosch tried to avoid it. Both men eventually rejected what was done to their inventions before their own tragic deaths.

Isaacson, Walter. The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. NY: Simon & Schuster, 2014.

Walter Isaacson presents to the reader a panoramic history of how the innovators included in the book worked and what made them so creative along with their ability to collaborate and use team work. Isaacson's account details the development of the computer, programming languages, the internet and artificial intelligence. An overview of some of the major and pivotal innovators included in the book, with, explanations of their visionary ideas and brief biographical sketches includes the following: Charles Babbage, designer of the analytic engine; Ada Lovelace, pioneer of early(1840s) computer programming; Alan Turing, developer of artificial intelligence; Grace Hopper, author of a history and users guide for the usage and programming of the Mark I; JCR Licklider, developer of concepts which laid the foundations for the development of the Internet; Robert Noyce, co-founder of Fairchild Semi-conductor and INTEL corporation; Bill Gates: co-founder of Microsoft Corporation, responsible for the subsequent development of Microsoft Basic(MSDOS), Windows, and Internet Explorer; Steve Wozniak, designer and developer of the Apple I and Apple II computers and co-founder of Apple Computer Corporation; Larry Page,co-founder of Google INC. and inventor of Page Rank; Jimmy Wales, co-founder of the on-line encyclopedia, Wikipedia.

Johnson, Steven. Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. NY: Riverhead Books, 2010.

The printing press, the pencil, the flush toilet, the battery--these are all great ideas. But where do they come from? What kind of environment breeds them? What sparks the flash of brilliance? How do we generate the breakthrough technologies that push forward our lives, our society, our culture? Steven Johnson's answers are revelatory as he identifies the seven key patterns behind genuine innovation, and traces them across time and disciplines. From Darwin and Freud to the halls of Google and Apple, Johnson investigates the innovation hubs throughout modern time and pulls out the approaches and commonalities that seem to appear at moments of originality.

Johnson, Steven. How We Got to Now: Six Inventions that Made the Modern World. NY.: Riverhead Books, 2016.

In this illustrated history, Steven Johnson explores the history of innovation over centuries, tracing facets of modern life (refrigeration, clocks, and eyeglass lenses, to name a few) from their creation by hobbyists, amateurs, and entrepreneurs to their unintended historical consequences. Filled with surprising stories of accidental genius and brilliant mistakes—from the French publisher who invented the phonograph before Edison but forgot to include playback, to the Hollywood movie star who helped invent the technology behind Wi-Fi and Bluetooth—How We Got to Now investigates the secret history behind the everyday objects of contemporary life.

Kamkwamba, William, and Bryan Mealer. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope. NY: William Morrow, 2009.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is the immensely engaging and inspiring true account of an enterprising African teenager who constructed a windmill from scraps to create electricity for his entire community. In this poignant and uplifting story of inspiration and personal triumph, William Kamkwamba shares the remarkable story of his youth in Malawi, Africa—a  nation crippled by intense poverty, famine, and the AIDS plague—and how, with tenacity and imagination, he built a better life for himself, his family, and his village.

Klein, Stefan. Leonardo's Legacy: How Da Vinci Reimagined the World. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2010.

Revered today as, perhaps, the greatest of Renaissance painters, Leonardo da Vinci was a scientist at heart. The artist who created the Mona Lisa also designed functioning robots and digital computers, constructed flying machines and built the first heart valve. His intuitive and ingenious approach—a new mode of thinking—linked highly diverse areas of inquiry in startling new ways and ushered in a new era. In Leonardo’s Legacy, award-winning science journalist Stefan Klein deciphers the forgotten legacy of this universal genius and persuasively demonstrates that today we have much to learn from Leonardo’s way of thinking. Klein sheds light on the mystery behind Leonardo’s paintings, takes us through the many facets of his fascination with water, and explains the true significance of his dream of flying. It is a unique glimpse into the complex and brilliant mind of this inventor, scientist, and pioneer of a new world view, with profound consequences for our times.

Malone, Michael S. The Intel Trinity: How Robert Noyce, Gordon Moore, and Andy Grove Built the World's Most Important Company. NY: Harper Collins, 2014.

Intel is one of the premier technology companies in the world and has played a dominant role in the creation of the modern world of electronics and computing. Moore's Law, microprocessors, microchips, and many other inventions and developments within this stellar American company at the epicenter of Silicon Valley have markedly impacted the lives of human beings around the world and many of the procedures, processes, and strategies of modern corporations are emulations of things that were first done at large scale at Intel. This extensive, detailed history of the development of the company and its impact in myriad ways is in part a by-product of the author's forty years of covering the corporation as a reporter for the San Jose Mercury-News. As a consequence of this extensive exposure, regular interviews with key Intel leaders and other prime movers in technology and business, and an understanding of the growth of Silicon Valley itself over this time period, this book is without equal in presenting a humane, intimate portrait of the people, ideas, challenges, mistakes, technologies, science, courage, audacity, and other aspects of the growth of this technology giant. Black and white period photographs, endnotes, and an index make it easy to follow up on the many ideas and angles that the book features. The story gives every reader a profound appreciation of the work of entrepreneurs and innovators who shaped the modern world we inhabit and take for granted.

McCullough, David G. The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge. NY: Simon & Schuster, 2004.

The dramatic and enthralling story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, the world’s longest suspension bridge at the time, a tale of greed, corruption, and obstruction but also of optimism, heroism, and determination is told by master historian David McCullough.This monumental book is the story of one of the greatest events in our nation’s history, during the Age of Optimism—a period when Americans were convinced in their hearts that all things were possible. In the years around 1870, when the project was first undertaken, the concept of building an unprecedented bridge to span the East River between the great cities of Manhattan and Brooklyn required a vision and determination comparable to that which went into the building of the great cathedrals. Throughout the fourteen years of its construction, the odds against the successful completion of the bridge seemed staggering. Bodies were crushed and broken, lives lost, political empires fell, and surges of public emotion constantly threatened the project. But this is not merely the saga of an engineering miracle; it is a sweeping narrative of the social climate of the time and of the heroes and rascals who had a hand in either constructing or exploiting the surpassing enterprise.

Rhodes, Richard. Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World. New York: Vintage Books, 2012.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes delivers a remarkable story of science history: how a ravishing film star and an avant-garde composer invented spread-spectrum radio, the technology that made wireless phones, GPS systems, and many other devices possible. Beginning at a Hollywood dinner table, Hedy's Folly tells a wild story of innovation that culminates in U.S. patent number 2,292,387 for a "secret communication system." Along the way Rhodes weaves together Hollywood’s golden era, the history of Vienna, 1920s Paris, weapons design, music, a tutorial on patent law and a brief treatise on transmission technology. Narrated with the rigor and charisma we've come to expect of Rhodes, it is a remarkable narrative adventure about spread-spectrum radio's genesis and unlikely amateur inventors collaborating to change the world.

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. NY: Random House, 2010.

In The Most Powerful Idea in the World, William Rosen tells the story of the men responsible for the Industrial Revolution and the machine that drove it—the steam engine. In the process he tackles the question that has obsessed historians ever since: What made eighteenth-century Britain such fertile soil for inventors? Rosen’s answer focuses on a simple notion that had become enshrined in British law the century before: that people had the right to own and profit from their ideas. The result was a period of frantic innovation revolving particularly around the promise of steam power. Rosen traces the steam engine’s history from its early days as a clumsy but sturdy machine, to its coming-of-age driving the wheels of mills and factories, to its maturity as a transporter for people and freight by rail and by sea. Along the way we enter the minds of such inventors as Thomas Newcomen and James Watt, scientists including Robert Boyle and Joseph Black, and philosophers John Locke and Adam Smith—all of whose insights, tenacity, and ideas transformed first a nation and then the world.

Swift, Earl. The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.

Perhaps nothing changed the face of America more than the creation of the interstate system. At once man-made wonders, economic pipelines, agents of sprawl, and uniquely American sirens of escape, the interstates snake into every aspect of modern life. The Big Roads documents their historic creation and the many people they’ve affected, from the speed demon who inspired a primitive web of dirt auto trails, to the cadre of largely forgotten technocrats who planned the system years before Ike reached the White House, to the thousands of city dwellers who resisted the concrete juggernaut when it bore down on their neighborhoods. The Big Roads tells the story of this essential feature of the landscape we have come to take for granted. With a view toward players both great and small, Swift gives readers the full story of one of America’s greatest engineering achievements.

Weber, Robert J. Forks, Phonographs, and Hot Air Balloons: A Field Guide to Inventive Thinking. NY: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Much has been written on the development and utilization of inventions, but the mental process of inventing has been overlooked until this bit of theorization by Weber. The title belies the author's heuristic approach, which implies a rule of thumb for generating ideas that is different from formal reasoning. The rule is to generate a few good ideas and evaluate and develop them rapidly. Such factors as the observation of nature, accident, intuition, intelligence, fear, superstition, and, most of all, "inventive talent" similar to musical and artistic ability are not explored. Nonetheless, this is strong beginning—even a necessary one—for the inventive mind in today's technical area. It could trigger the invention of another hammer in addition to the 500 kinds already manufactured in Birmingham, England, another pocket knife in addition to the 131 kinds that were sold at one time by Montgomery Ward, or inventions leading to significant technical and scientific breakthroughs. This book is almost a must for scientists, teachers, hobbyists, experimenters, and serious inventors.

«Editor’s Note: All  annotations are excerpted from either published SB&F reviews or publishers descriptions.