By Alec Foege
Basic Books, $26.99, 216 pages
If you enjoy scores of great true stories about American tinkerers and inventors, you will be fascinated by The Tinkerers. Author Alex Foege is an excellent and entertaining writer with a light, easy-to-read writing style not unlike a good short-story writer. In fact, reading this book is better than reading a novel. You can stop anywhere and pick the book up later without losing continuity. It is hard to believe that he could write example after example of tinkering and inventing for 200 pages and make each one absorbing reading. These are not only physical inventions (like Bell’s telephone) but span all aspects of life; there are examples of innovations in financial engineering, technological innovations (like the electronic ink project that produced Kindle), synthetic biology (that gave us the artemisinic acid to treat malaria), educational programming language, music, the development of digital music and more.
“This book has identified the processes and thought patterns intrinsic to a uniquely American style of tinkering.”
Some names are household ones (Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak), many are little known (Karlheinz Brandenburg), but the results of their tinkering are very familiar. Foege also touches on the subject of corporate tinkering (often doomed to stagnancy and failure). Apart from well-known early inventors, most examples are from the 20th century. A brief bibliography by chapter and an index conclude this wonderful volume.
Reviewed by George Erdosh