Sunday, December 30, 2018

Book Review: 'Throughout the Centuries: Famous Inventors and Inventions (History for Everyone Book 1)' by George Owen

Throughout the Centuries by George Owen
'How about those other inventions which might just be too farfetched to happen?’

Kansas author George Owen has a profound interest in history – the past periods, the people, and animals and the enlightenment gifts to our world. His previous book Is AWESOME DINOSAURS and now he turns to a topic that will interest every reader – the inventions that have changed our lives and the people and times that created those inventions. 

George addresses his topic by centuries AD 1 through 21 – a clever concept for putting all of the information in perspective. His Introduction itself is inviting: ‘There has been just over 2000 years since we started using the AD suffix. Anno Domini, and in almost every century something has been created that has made life better, or at least different. This book is a gentle trawl through some of the most important, and often bizarre, inventions of mankind, a light-hearted look at the things that have improved lives for people of the time, and often into the future. Many of us believe that Stephenson’s Rocket signaled the beginning of life of the steam engine. In fact, a Roman invention predated it by over 1600 years. Read of how the early centuries following the death of Christ were dominated by inventions from not only the Romans, but also the Chinese. See how far back in time the classic games of Chess and Backgammon were invented, and discover for how long street lighting has been around. Learn about the inspiring and ultimately tragic story of a wartime hero who is responsible for probably the most significant technological change impacting on our current lives. And, for those of you staring short sightedly through spectacles, find out about the origins of these useful accessories. Read on, and enjoy a whistle-stop tour through the inventiveness of mankind over the centuries.’

A winning aspect of this rich volume is the manner in which George relates the inventions and their precursors: he has the knowledge of a researcher and the humor of a fine comedian. For example, ‘Mind you, that dim and unknown past was not as dark as we might think. The Romans were in charge, their Empire was lighting corners of the world (literally, as soon we will see). No, dark days were ahead, we shall peer our way into them in a few chapters’ time, but back then, life was civilized. Of a fashion. The Roman Empire had begun before the birth of Jesus. Indeed, that old scab Pontius Pilot was one of its gentry. By the first century, Caligula was exerting his uncompromising brand of tyranny and the empire was still expanding. But for all that, conditions were not bad to live in. The Romans’ use of sponge sticks for sanitary purposes might not overly appeal, but then, they might not approve of the modern tendency towards toilet paper (a Chinese invention). But they still had central heating and an organized society. Plus, a pretty ruthless army. Against this backdrop emerged the aeolipile. Basically, this was a kind of early steam engine. A cauldron of water was lit, and the steam that emerged was channeled up through a couple of pipes and directed on a kind of large globe. This was secured by a thin rod around which it could rotate. As is easily imagined, as steam is projected on to the globe, it began to spin. Its use was probably as some kind of temple decoration, in which the glory of science could be celebrated. Aeolipiles might also have been rich men’s toys, or perhaps just novelties to enjoy in their own right.’

And so it goes down through the centuries with surprise inventions - games, spectacles, the seismometer from 2nd century China!, printing, street lighting, Greek Fire, gunpowder, paper money, type setting, the compass, knitting, whiskey, telescopes, pocket watches, the computer – and on and on. Each invention is proffered as a story form the time of its origin and that adds a look at history that makes the book a joy to read. Highly Recommended. 

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Grady Harp. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.

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