by Paul Niemann
Published by Horsefeathers Publishing
168 pages, 2004
Reviewed by Aaron Blanton
In 1965 a chemical engineer named Stephanie Kwolek accidentally invented Kevlar, the practically impenetrable material used in bulletproof vests and goalie masks. Julie Newmar, the original catwoman to Adam West's GBatman on the old TV series, patented ultra-sheer, ultra-snug pantyhose. Thomas Edison is often thought of as the greatest inventor of all time: he held 1093 patents. And a lot of the stuff he patented actually worked.
All of these facts -- and a whole lot more -- are covered in Invention Mysteries: The Little-Known Stories Behind Well-Known Inventions by Quincy University adjunct professor of business, Paul Niemann. Niemann is himself an inventor. He created a card game called Impeachment in 1998 and, since then, has been writing a regular column for Inventors' Digest magazine. Invention Mysteries collects 47 of Niemann's columns.
The column's heritage is perhaps what contributes to Invention Mysteries' sprightly tone. Anything about history can feel leaden and unappealing in the wrong hands. But it's clear that Niemann loves his topic and that history lives for him. Because of this, he makes it live for us, as well.
Though Invention Mysteries is as good a title as any, it's not perfectly apt. We get the skinny not only on true mysteries as they relate to the world of inventions, but also on the world of inventions in general. In Invention Mysteries Niemann covers which U.S. Presidents were the most successful inventors; who invented the World Wide Web; the difference between trademarks, copyrights and patents; Mark Twain's inventions; accidental inventions; and more and more and more.
Invention Mysteries is not The Map That Changed the World for inventors and Niemann is no Simon Winchester. Invention Mysteries is the sort of book that all family members can enjoy. We won't talk about "prose" here, but rather lots of information cheerfully given out. For example, Niemann begins telling us about Stephanie Kwolek's discovery of Kevlar by setting up the time:
The year was 1965. A half gallon of milk cost just 53 cents, delivered to your front door. Miniskirts were in fashion, Sonny & Cher's "I Got You, Babe" was a hit song and Lassie was one of the most popular shows on TV.
And so on and engagingly on. Invention Mysteries is a good and interesting book, but don't expect to be moved by it.
One thing that Niemann should be aware of, however, is that there is more to creating a book than stringing together a bunch of previously published columns. While non-fiction books often have their roots in previously published material, most writers take some time to rework their columns for a different medium. Too many of Invention Mysteries' chapters begin with the words "In the previous column." They don't move the book along at all and serve only to remind us that this is material that was published elsewhere. While there's nothing wrong with that, the material would be more effective without that jolt. Also, since time has obviously passed since Niemann first wrote the various essays that make up the book, it's possible not all of his information will be up-to-the-minute and the fact that he didn't seem to edit the beginnings of his stories makes me think he didn't edit the balance of his content either. And, truly, if he's expecting readers to shell out the price of the book, he should be prepared to deliver something that is the best that it can be.
Quibbles aside, Invention Mysteries is a worthwhile addition to the family library. | October 2004
Aaron Blanton is an expatriate Kentuckian writer and musician living outside of the United States.