Many scientists have followed the advice of the great Victorian doctor Jack Haldane to “never experiment on an animal if a man will do” and “never ask anyone to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself.” He and his father inhaled poisonous gasses to test the efficacy of the prototype gas mask they had invented. When breathing gasses under pressure he suffered the smoking ears and screaming teeth of the title.
The stories in Norton’s new book are astonishing, disturbing or absurd. The zoologist Frank Buckland made a concentrated effort to widen the nation’s diet by personally testing everything that crossed his path, from boiled elephant’s trunk to slug soup. Some medics deliberately contracted deadly blood diseases in the hope of finding cures. Then there was the surgeon who was fired and subsequently won the Nobel Prize for thrusting a catheter into his own beating heart.
Trevor Norton is an emeritus professor at the University of Liverpool, having retired from the Chair of Marine Biology. He has published widely on ecological topics. His much acclaimed books include Stars Beneath the Sea; Reflections on a Summer Sea; Under Water to Get Out of the Rain; and Smoking Ears and Screaming Teeth.
With the attention to detail of a historian and the storytelling ability of a novelist, New York Times science writer George Johnson celebrates these groundbreaking experiments and re-creates a time when the world seemed filled with mysterious forces and scientists were in awe of light, electricity, and the human body. Here, we see Galileo staring down gravity, Newton breaking apart light, and Pavlov studying his now famous dogs. This is science in its most creative, hands-on form, when ingenuity of the mind is the most useful tool in the lab and the rewards of a well-considered experiment are on exquisite display.
Trevor Norton, who has been compared to Gerard Durrell and Bill Bryson, weaves an entertaining history with a seductive mix of eureka moments, disasters and dirty tricks.
Although inventors were often scientists or engineers, many were not: Samuel Morse (Morse code) was a painter, Lazlow Biro (ballpoint) was a sculptor and hypnotist, and Logie Baird (TV) sold boot polish. The inventor of the automatic telephone switchboard was an undertaker who believed the operator was diverting his calls to rival morticians so he decided to make all telephone operators redundant.
Inventors are mavericks indifferent to conventional wisdom so critics were dismissive of even their best ideas: radio had 'no future,' electric light was 'an idiotic idea' and X-rays were 'a hoax.' Even so, the state of New Jersey moved to ban X-ray opera glasses. The head of the General Post Office rejected telephones as unneccesary as there were 'plenty of small boys to run messages.'
Inventomania is a magical place where eccentrics are always in season and their stories are usually unbelievable - but rest assured, nothing has been invented.