Sunday, October 18, 2015

Gavin Weightman's "Eureka: How Invention Happens"

Gavin Weightman is a journalist, historian, and former documentary filmmaker. He has published more than twenty books, including The Frozen Water Trade: A True Story and Children of the Light: How Electricity Changed Britain Forever.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Eureka: How Invention Happens, and reported the following:
Page 99:
...obsolete their creators are liable to be dismissed as misguided or backward. But it is their pioneer work that generates optimism and draws out the backing for the more advanced technologies which replace them.

However, when Farnsworth began his labours, the industry view was still that some version of mechanical scanning of images was the most promising way forward for the transmitter. It was not that people were unable to see that a cathode ray tube camera would be superior. That was not in question. Very little work was being done on it because the problem of discovering how to manipulate electrons in a vacuum tube involved experimentation with a much less accessible technology than the Nipkow disk or any of the other mechanical scanners. With the mechanical scanners you could pretty much see what was going on with the naked eye. How electrons were behaving in a sealed glass tube was not apparent and involved a highly sophisticated understanding of physics.

The key discovery that electrically charged particles a thousand times smaller than atoms would travel through a vacuum had been made in the nineteenth century. It had been shown, too, that when these particles, or electrons as they became known, hit a photoelectric surface they could produce an image. Farnsworth’s all-electric television system would have to manipulate this laboratory equipment in some way so that the cathode ray tube performed the same function as the Nipkow disk and the selenium cell. He was not the first to attempt this but he had a chance to be the first to make it work. The biggest problem was with the camera.

As Everson had anticipated, California provided Farnsworth with some much-needed expertise as well as with financial backing. Bill Cummings, in charge of glass blowing for the University of California in Berkeley, who had made them their first tubes, taught Cliff Gardner the art. In time he became very skilful. Meanwhile, Everson and Pem worked with Farnsworth making magnetic coils and experimenting with the photosensitive materials. At the outset, Farnsworth was wildly optimistic about what he could achieve in a short space of time. In 1927…
Page 99 of Eureka: How Invention Happens lands the reader somewhere in the middle of a chapter I called “Seeing with electricity”. Looking at it a good while after I wrote it I would say it reads well enough, though it is not especially evocative or enticing. No publisher would chose it as an extract for publicity: there are other pages in this account of the invention of television which are much more fun. The page 99 test originally was a way of judging fiction. My book is non-fiction and is bound therefore to contain a good few pages of prose which I hope are readable and interesting but which are not going to dazzle the reader. How much the text on page 99 would give a sense of the central theme of the book I am not sure: it is there alright but, out of context, I suspect it is not really evident.

Eureka is an account of what I have called the “ancient history” of five twentieth century inventions: the aeroplane, television, the bar code, the personal computer and the mobile phone. Each of these inventions was made possible by a long accumulation of scientific understanding, technological advance and inventive genius stretching back at least as far as the eighteenth century. One invention would lead to another and technologies would merge. Scientific understanding was always crucial but the breakthrough–what I have called the “eureka moment” when an invention works for the first time, however crudely–has often been achieved by an amateur or outsider. This is not so surprising when you consider that only one of the inventions in my book, the bar code, could be said to have been a “necessity”. Established industries had no need for television, the mobile phone, the aeroplane or the personal computer.

Some of the flavor of the book is there on Page 99 as a rank outsider, the American Philo Farnsworth, struggles with the near impossible task of creating an electronic television system in the 1920s. He nearly made it but the effort broke read on!
Visit Gavin Weightman's website.

--Marshal Zeringue