Book: Imagination and a pile of junk


Bill Condie reviews a droll history of inventions.


Imagination and a pile of junk: A droll history of inventors and inventions,
by Trevor Norton
Coronet (2015)

Trevor Norton is a marine biologist who has retired from the University of Liverpool to his home on the Isle of Man. Clearly in another life he would have liked to be an engineer or inventor. His fascination in the endless creativity of people is immense and his admiration clear.

“Modern man has been around for only 200,000 years or so in a Universe 13.7 billion years old and in that time he has achieved so much.”

In this entertaining read, originally issued last year and republished for the first time in paperback, Norton rattles through an enormous number of inventions from the steam engine, to torpedo guidance systems, from lighthouses to longships, diving bells to dentures – his range is far and wide.

He has a keen eye for the absurd and points out that the more groundbreaking the invention, the more they are ridiculed initially. When presented with a device that allowed communications over vast distances, the Admiralty declared, “telegraphs of any kind are wholly unnecessary”.

New technologies were also often quickly co-opted for cunning schemes. When smaller hand-held cameras became available, it became possible to take pictures of street scenes, including the plight of the poor in Victorian London. Irish philanthropist Thomas Barnado quickly saw the benefits of taking before and after pictures of his rescued children to drum up more support for his eponymous homes “but he wasn’t above dirtying up the ‘before’ boy … to increase the contrast with the spruced-up ‘after’ young gent …”

This is all handled with a light touch, although from time to time “droll” drifts into “Dad joke” territory. Still, he more often hits than misses the mark and this rapid-fire little volume is packed full of interesting and obscure facts.

Who knew, for instance, that the world’s first road traffic lights were installed near the Houses of Parliament in Westminster so members could cross safely? Or that Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr knew how to stop radio waves being jammed?

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