Saturday, April 5, 2008

Inventors and Inventions

The past hundred and fifty years have seen progress of a nature and magnitude that is hard to conceptualize. I try and put it in human terms to our kids. My mother was born in the early 1930's. When she was young, her grandmother lived with them and she had been born in the late 1850's. The chain of living connection that I put to our kids is that they know their grandmother who can tell them the stories she heard from her grandmother so that they effectively have a living family memory going back to the 1850's.

The question I put to them is: What do they know and experience that their great-great-grandmother would not have? Sometimes I twist it and ask what she would have known and experienced that they have not. To the first question these are some of the obvious and material answers: electricity, cars, jets, telephones, cell phones, elevators, skyscrapers, computers, the internet, refrigerators, television, movies, etc. Then they usually get on to some of the less obvious and even somewhat esoteric answers that are just as pertinent: food out-of-season, surfaced roads, heavy freight trains, heavy-lift cranes, x-ray machines, electric or gas ovens, ice on demand, universal voting rights, toothpaste and toothbrushes for everyone, stores everywhere with everything you might need at all hours, friends that you talk to all the time but never see, etc. If they are really energized with this game they then move onto some really quite interesting discussions; absence of hunger, long life, good health, universal education, instant information about weather/politics/the economy and so on.

In trying to make these changes real and pertinent, I give the example from Reginald Hegarty's biographical The Rope's End in which he is signed on as a crewman to a whaling ship when he was only ten or twelve. A couple of years into their cruise, his service comes to a close when they speak another sailing ship and discover that, unbeknownst to them, the US and Germany have been at war with one another for four months. Such isolation is virtually inconceivable today.

The consequence of this cumulative wave of inventions and development is hard to describe. People live twice as long as they did one hundred and fifty years ago. Not only do they live longer; they enjoy far better health. Infant mortality is a tiny fraction of what it was. Death in childbirth is vanishingly rare instead of commonplace. Remarriages are as commonplace as before but because of the choice of divorce rather than widowhood. Incomes are many, many times what they were a century and half ago. Our poorest citizens enjoy a material wealth beyond that of all but a tiny few from that distant historical age.

This is all a round about way of getting at a core proposition. While there are all sorts of cultural, economic and politic forces in play that affect how countries develop, the core engine driving these changes is individuals and groups of people - engineers, entrepreneurs, scientists, inventors - taking ideas and turning them into reality. Our collective debt to these men and women is enormous. But where are they in our children's books?

It is an interesting absence that really only struck me in preparing this essay. When I recollect my reading from childhood I began to realize that perhaps the absence is not in the storytelling but in the particular medium. In other words, when I try and think of particular books that had an inventor as the central character, I could only really come up with the Professor Brainstawm series out of the UK and a couple of childhood mystery series stories such as one in the Hardy Boys where the plot revolved around an inventor. All the other examples I came up with, I realized, were short stories in anthologies. Hummph. Don't know what to make of that but there it is.

So maybe nothing is different today. I don't read many children's stories anthologies these days, so maybe the stories of inventors are still out there and I am just not seeing them. I certainly hope so, because these are heroes in as every important way as the traditional military, political and historic heroes.

In terms of central characters or plots in fiction that evolve around the act of inventing things, I only came up with Professor Brainstawm (out of print), Rube Goldberg, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Violet Beauregard in the Lemony Snickett series. Ouch! Some of the Homer Price stories kind of skirt the small town inventor such as the one about the automatic donut fryer.

The Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford get a look-in from a picture book, independent reader and young adult level of reading but after that the pickings are pretty slim. Benjamin Franklin's activities as both a scientist and inventor also usually draw reasonable attention. In particular, the Childhoods of Famous Americans series does a pretty decent job at the Independent Reader level of exposing kids to the lives of inventors in a way that is entertaining and informative.

There are plenty of books that are essentially reference books on particular inventions or inventors. There are a disproportionate number of books serving a gender or race balancing function - inventions by women, inventions by African-Americans, etc. and they are good so far as they go, though suffering, as most these books do, of a surfeit of message and a diminution of exciting writing and passionate story-telling.

The issue would appear to me to be not that inventors of one race or gender or religion or some such are not receiving enough attention but that there is just too high a level of inattention at all. We need more books that feed the desire to build, to create, to invent, to make that which did not exist before.

The bright lining in this general cloud is that, somewhat uncommonly for the general trend, the number of really good books actually increases as you move up to the Young Adult reading level. In fact, there are a lot of good stories at Young Adult. We just need to feed their imagination and excitement earlier.

The booklist created below is dominated of necessity by biographies and by reference type books. I put out the request to TTMD community members, let's identify those stories that revolve around inventors and inventions that hook children early on the idea of creating their own future which will be as exciting and different as the progress of the past one hundred and fifty years has been.

Picture Books

Young Thomas Edison by Michael Dooling and illustrated by Michael Dooling Recommended

The Wright Brothers by Russell Freedman Recommended

Accidents May Happen by Charlotte Foltz Jones and illustrated by John O'Brien Suggested

My Brothers' Flying Machine by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Jim Burke Recommended

Independent Readers

Thomas A. Edison by Sue Guthridge Recommended

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl and illustrated by Quentin Blake Highly Recommended

They All Laughed by Ira Flatow Suggested

To Fly by Wendie C. Old and illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker Suggested

Eureka! Great Inventions and How They Happened by Richard Platt Suggested

Girls Think of Everything by Catherine Thimmesh and illustrated by Melissa Sweet Suggested

Great Inventions: Geniuses and Gizmos: Innovation in Our Time by Time Magazine Recommended

Rube Goldberg by Maynard Frank Wolfe and Rube Goldberg Suggested

Young Adults

Inventing Modern America by David E. Brown Recommended

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson Recommended

The Scientists by John R. Gribbin Recommended

Rocket Boys - by Homer H. Hickam Highly Recommended

Invention by Design by Henry Petroski Suggested

The Evolution of Useful Things by Henry Petroski Recommended

To Engineer Is Human by Henry Petroski Recommended

Great Inventions: Geniuses and Gizmos: Innovation in Our Time by Time Magazine Suggested

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