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Book Review: 1001 Inventions That Changed the World by Jack Challoner, ed.

Review by Sid Perkins

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Countless inventions, large and small, have played defining roles in human history. But when editor Jack Challoner began to compile a list of these innovations, he wondered if 1,001 might be too many. He quickly realized the number was far too small.

The items that made Challoner’s list form a fascinating collection. People use many of them every day yet often take them for granted. Written by a team of more than 50 historians, designers, scientists and anthropologists, the entries in this book tell the stories behind the inventions, from stone tools —appearing about 2.6 million years ago — to the Large Hadron Collider, an atom-smashing particle accelerator that switched on last September.

A quick flip through this hefty book, arranged in roughly chronological order, reveals that many items have been around longer than commonly realized: In 2000 B.C., Egyptian doctors were using anesthesia — compressing a patient’s carotid artery to induce loss of consciousness — to limit pain during surgery. The sandwich, though popularized by the Earl of Sandwich in 18th century England, originated in the Middle East, where Hittite soldiers received rations of meat between slices of bread as early as 1000 B.C.

Some of the inventions merely make life easier or more pleasurable, while others can often mean the difference between life and death. From the tea bag to the traffic light, from the paper clip to Prozac, many products are inspired responses to perceived needs. Indeed, Challoner notes, if necessity is the mother of invention, then ingenuity is surely its father.

Barron’s Educational Series, 2009, 960 p., $35.

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