BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

A remarkable history of modern science ...

It's a vanishingly rare occurrence that I give a “star rating” over on, in fact I have rated exactly six books out of the 2,186 books I have cataloged over there, all of which got 5 stars “in the heat of the moment” of enthusiasm I had for a particular book. This is the sixth of those.

Frankly, this is somewhat surprising as the book came into my hands as a Library Thing Early Reviewer program “win”, and, more often than not, LTER books tend towards the “meh” rather than the “wow”. However, Conquering the Electron: The Geniuses, Visionaries, Egomaniacs, and Scoundrels Who Built Our Electronic Age by Derek Cheung and Eric Brach is definitely on the “wow” side of the spectrum, being one of the best “history of science” books I've encountered.

One of the notable things about this was that it was first published in Chinese in Taiwan in 2011, with the English translation coming out in late 2014. I don't know how many books make that transition, but I'm guessing it's only a few … although with growing globalization, that may not be the case for long. Given this reality, it is especially admirable how seamlessly the book in hand reads … it's not only informative, but is beautifully executed, a feat that I can only imagine being “Herculean” in moving the material between such divergent languages.

The book is structured in three parts, with 20 chapters between them, and nearly 100 sections on specific subjects (from 3 to 11 sections in the various chapters). While I realize this is seen as something of “a crutch” for writing a review, I think it might be useful to give an over-view of the book by listing the parts and chapters here:
Part I: Age of Electromagnetism
  1. The Knowledge Foundation

  2. The Telegraph

  3. The Telephone

  4. Wireless Telegraphy

  5. Lighting and Electrification

Part II: Age of Vacuum Electronics
  1. Current Flow in a Vaccum

  2. Controlling the Flow of Electrons

  3. Radio

  4. Television

  5. Radar

  6. Computer

Part III: Age of Solid-State Electronics
  1. The Semiconductor

  2. The Birth of the Transistor

  3. Launching the Electronics Industry

  4. The Dawn of Silicon Valley

  5. The Integrated Circuit and the Chip

  6. Chip Technology Blossoms

  7. Evolution of the Electronics Industry

  8. LEDs, Fiber Optics, and Liquid Crystal Displays

  9. The Information Age and Beyond
As you might imagine, if there are only a handful of individuals profiled in each of those sections (and there are often quite a few), that is a vast number of stories … which means that I'm only going to touch on the broad strokes here.

The book starts with a description of the modern smart phone, and pretty much frames the whole as an investigation of “how did we get here?”. The first discoveries go back thousands of years, to ancient Greeks finding that rubbing a cloth on a chunk of amber (“elektron”) produced what we know as static electricity, and how, some centuries later, another Greek (from Magnesia in Thessaly) discovered a stone which attracted other stones including iron, being thus known as a “magnet”. At the same time, similar discoveries were being made in China, producing working compasses. Despite the early awareness of these phenomena, the West had study in them smothered by the Church for over a thousand years, and it only began to flower in the Renaissance … a key figure establishing “the scientific method” was Queen Elizabeth I's Royal Physician, William Gilbert, who in 1600 published extensive research (such as it was at the time) on electricity and magnetism.

Over the next 200 years discovery led to discovery, and advance to advance, with many “familiar names” from the measurement of electrical and magnetic scales and phenomena, including Coulomb, Galvani, Volta, and even Franklin (who didn't, as far as I know, end up lending his name to a gauge, but being on the hundred dollar bill has got to be some consolation). In 1800, Volta demonstrated what was to come to be known as the “Voltaic pile” battery. Volta was also one of the key individuals behind the expansion of the knowledge, as he made all his information public, retiring into a cushy position in Napoleon's government … at numerous points in the over-all arc of the story here there are similar “open source” diffusions that boosted the development of new technologies. In Volta's case, within two years of his releasing his research there were commercially available batteries based on his initial design.

From that point on, a lot of names roll through the book, Humphry Davy, Hans Oersted, André-Marie Ampère, Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, Heinrich Hertz, bringing the basic science story up to the late 1800's. At this point the tale shifts to the telegraph, and the first of several “competing technology” stories, this one with Samuel F.B. Morse and Englishman William Cooke. These competitions were not strictly on the systems' technological merits, as the political sphere came in, along with issues of economics. Another notable science name comes into the mix with telegraphs, when the competition was laying cables across the Atlantic … Professor William Thompson (Lord Kelvin) was instrumental in the successful cable installation, which went live in 1865. At the same time, another familiar name (for the company that's still thriving) was developing telegraph systems in Germany, and eventually Russia … Werner von Siemens.

There are stories of intellectual property fights, outright corruption in government, and massive egos going head-to-head here, with the likes of Edison popping up in the telegraph arc. However, things really got ugly when the telephone came around … Elisha Gray and Gardiner Green Hubbard are names not so well known, vs. that of Alexander Graham Bell, but it was Hubbard that pushed Bell to assemble a patent application, which he then bribed clerks at the patent office to register a few hours earlier than that of Gray's ... giving Bell precedence, despite his filing being only vague material on the concepts, while Gray's was a substantial work from the Western Union company. Hubbard additionally pushed Bell's patent through the system, getting it approved in a matter of weeks (as opposed to many months or even years), and arranging for Bell to have (totally illegal) access to Gray's filing … aspects of which were immediately incorporated into Bell's demonstration units. So, when you hear of “Bell System”, it probably should have been Western Union, with Gray being the poster boy for the telephone!

Wireless telegraphy brings us to Marconi, but that's a prelude to the Radio story. The next big element here is electrical lighting, which, of course, brings in Thomas Edison, with General Electric, and Nikola Tesla, with George Westinghouse, and the great AC/DC battle. Which brings the story up to about 1900.

At this point we hit a phase where the names and stories don't have the recognition factor that their “mythologized” predecessors have, so I'm going to gloss over a lot. However, the book has fascinating details of who did what with particular technologies, and how the advancements proceeded. Cathode ray tubes led to x-rays, which led to discoveries about how electrons behaved, leading to the vacuum diode, and the development of the triode, when then led to the basics of radio, TV, and radar … and eventually to the computer. “Computers” had been around in various forms for centuries (arguably an abacus or slide-rule is a mechanical computer), but starting with the ENIAC this moved to all-electronic systems (if based on highly unreliable tube technology – as many as 18,000 tubes that regularly needed to be replaced). The ENIAC project at Iowa State was, however, another one of those key points,
Since {John} Atanasoff was the inventor of the computer but neither he nor Iowa State College had ever followed through in applying for a patent, the courts ruled that the patent rights would be assigned to the public domain. This ruling allowed any individuals or companies to develop computer products without having to worry about basic patent infringement, clearing the path for the rapid growth of the computer industry.
This, along with the massive cold-war investment that the military was making in basic research, set up the eventual explosion of computer technology.

A similar pattern played out in the early days of “Silicon Valley”. Again, there are many names involved, both individuals and companies, as chip technologies grew … but one, William Shockley, seems to be the reason that “Silicon Valley” happened where it did. He had been a major figure at Bell Labs, but had been frustrated by not getting significant paydays for the patents he produced for the company, and opted to eventually (after a brief stint as a professor at CalTech) to form his own company, which he did in his home town of Palo Alto. He tapped a pool of brilliant students in the area, and founded Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory. Unfortunately, although a top-notch engineer, Shockley was an abysmal businessman, and eventually a team of eight key engineers sought to leave the company en mass … finally entering into a deal with the New York based Fairchild Camera and Instrument company to found Fairchild Semiconductors. After some time, key players began to leave Fairchild to set up their own companies and “... Fairchild management chose not to litigate against any of these coporate offspring, and this turning of a blind eye served as tacit encouragement for people to go off on their own. … Maybe it was just that they appreciated the fact that {their previous employers} had never tried to sue them, and they collegially paid this genteel treatment forward.” … thereby setting the pattern for much of the growth in the industry.

Anyway, Conquering the Electron continues through the development of ever more sophisticated chips and displays, walks through the rise of Asian manufacturing concerns and how they integrated with the growing computer field, and eventually ends up at the now fairly ubiquitous smart phone. All in all, it is a remarkable read.

The (English version) of the book just came out last October, so it should still be around in the brick-and-mortar book vendors who have books on science, and the on-line big boys have it at around ¼ off of cover. This is one of my favorite reads of late, and would recommend it to anybody with an interest in Science, history, business, computing, or biography. It's a really impressive book!

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Tags: book review
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