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Much Ado About Almost Nothing: Man's Encounter with the Electron

by Hans Camenzind
BookLocker.com, Bangor, ME, 2007
240 pp., illus. 59 b/w. Trade, $14.95
ISBN: 978-0-615-13995-1.

Reviewed by John F. Barber
Digital Technology and Culture
Washington State University Vancouver

jfbarber@eaze.net

Electricity, available on demand, is so much a part of our everyday lives as to be transparent, nondescript, seemingly without a story. But, as Hans Camenzind makes clear in his new book, Much Ado About Almost Nothing: Man's Encounter with the Electron, the history of electricity, electrical invention, and the application of electricity in a myriad of contexts, is both long and interesting.

Camenzind, a microchip designer, has an affinity for the oddballs and eccentrics who discovered and tamed electricity. Scientists, engineers, inventors, self-promoters, professors, visionaries, speculators, moguls, geniuses, politicians, venture capitalists, and con artists all receive coverage.

There are the well-known historical figures: Benjamin Franklin, Michael Faraday, Samuel F. B. Morse, Alexander Graham Bell, Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, and Guglielmo Marconi, as well as the lesser-known but still important contributors like Lee de Forest (the self-proclaimed "Father of Radio") and John Baird, who built the first television set in his attic in 1923. Camenzind briefly sketches the lives, education, achievements, fortunes and misfortunes of these and dozens of other electrical explorers. The results are (to pun) illuminating.

For example, Benjamin Franklin's experiments with electricity are well known. Less known is that following his famous experiment flying a kite into an electrical storm, Franklin championed lightning rods to protect buildings and people from lightning strikes. But Puritan church leaders rallied against the rods, calling them the devil's instrument, until they realized their churches, with their high steeples, were favorite targets for lightning bolts.

Lee de Forest helped invent the vacuum tube, a component instrumental in the development of radio broadcasting. Calling himself "Father of Radio," de Forest rode the entrepreneurial wave of fortune before settling down with a Hollywood starlet.

Using and old tea chest, a biscuit box, darning needles, wood scrap, secondhand vacuum tubes, a bicycle lamp lens, and a used motor, John Baird built the first television set in his attic in 1923, which he then demonstrated in London's Selfridge's department store for 25 a week. He presided over the first trans-Atlantic television broadcast in February 1928. In quick order afterwards he got rich building and selling his television sets, but went broke in the late 1930s when a competing system was chosen by the BBC as the basis for their television broadcasts.

Augustus H. Garland, neither scientist nor inventor, but rather Attorney General under President Grover Cleveland, used his office to wage an 11-year challenge against the patents of the Bell Telephone Company, all while holding a 10% "gift" stake in a competing telephone company.

It is these stories, and others, that make Much Ado About Almost Nothing a rich and informative read. Camenzind bounces like a charged electron through the history of electronic discovery, discussing topics like electricity, magnetism, electromagnetism, X-rays, cathode rays, subatomic particles, transmitters, receivers, amplifiers, vacuum tubes, transistors, integrated circuits, telegraph, telephone, radio, television, microchips, calculators, and computers.

Camenzind's historical overview shows how the electron at first bothered those that discovered or knew of its existence and implications. But, as more and more of the electron's secrets were discovered, the power and potential of electricity became desired and useful. Today, electricity dominates our lives, far more so than fuel for our automobiles.

Like the invisible electron, its subject, Much Ado About Almost Nothing speaks to a story much deeper and richer than might be first realized. Requiring no prior knowledge of technology, the end result of this book is to provide an understanding of electricity and the technology it has wrought.

 

 




Updated 1st September 2007


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