Over the course of a little less than twenty years, inventor Frank J. Sprague (1857-1934) achieved an astonishing series of technological breakthroughs—from pioneering work in self-governing motors to developing the first full-scale operational electric railway system—all while commercializing his inventions and promoting them (and himself as their inventor) to financial backers and the public. In Engineering Invention, Frederick Dalzell tells Sprague's story, setting it against the backdrop of one of the most dynamic periods in the history of technology. In a burst of innovation during these years, Sprague and his contemporaries—Thomas Edison, Nicolas Tesla, Elmer Sperry, George Westinghouse, and others—transformed the technologies of electricity and reshaped modern life. After working briefly for Edison, Sprague started the Sprague Electric Railway and Motor Company; designed and built an electric railroad system for Richmond, Virginia; sold his company to Edison and went into the field of electric elevators; almost accidentally discovered a multiple-control system that could equip electric train systems for mass transit; started a third company to commercialize this; then sold this company to Edison and retired (temporarily). Throughout his career, Dalzell tells us, Sprague framed technology as invention, cast himself as hero, and staged his technologies as dramas. He toiled against the odds, scraped together resources to found companies, bet those companies on technical feats—and pulled it off, multiple times. The idea of the “heroic inventor” is not, of course, the only way to frame the history of technology. Nevertheless, as Dalzell shows, Sprague, Edison, and others crafted the role consciously and actively, using it to generate vital impetus behind the process of innovation.
The Economist called Stanford R. Ovshinsky (1922–2012) “the Edison of our age,” but this apt comparison doesn't capture the full range of his achievements. As an independent, self-educated inventor, Ovshinsky not only created many important devices but also made fundamental discoveries in materials science. This book offers the first full-length biography of a visionary whose energy and information innovations continue to fuel our post-industrial economy.
In The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, Lillian Hoddeson and Peter Garrett tell the story of an unconventional genius with no formal education beyond high school who invented, among other things, the rechargeable nickel metal hydride batteries that have powered everything from portable electronics to hybrid cars, a system for mass-producing affordable thin-film solar panels, and rewritable CDs and DVDs. His most important discovery, the Ovshinsky effect, led to a paradigm shift in condensed matter physics and yielded phase-change memory, which is now enabling new advances in microelectronics. A son of the working class who began as a machinist and toolmaker, Ovshinsky focused his work on finding solutions to urgent social problems, and to pursue those goals, he founded Energy Conversion Devices, a unique research and development lab. At the end of his life, battered by personal and professional losses, Ovshinsky nevertheless kept working to combat global warming by making solar energy “cheaper than coal”—another of his many visions of a better tomorrow.
Plenty of biographies glamorize Tesla and his eccentricities, but until now none has carefully examined what, how, and why he invented. In this groundbreaking book, W. Bernard Carlson demystifies the legendary inventor, placing him within the cultural and technological context of his time, and focusing on his inventions themselves as well as the creation and maintenance of his celebrity. Drawing on original documents from Tesla's private and public life, Carlson shows how he was an "idealist" inventor who sought the perfect experimental realization of a great idea or principle, and who skillfully sold his inventions to the public through mythmaking and illusion.
This major biography sheds new light on Tesla's visionary approach to invention and the business strategies behind his most important technological breakthroughs.