American Inventions: A History of Curious, Extraordiary, and Just Plain Useful Patents

Stephen Van Dulken, Author, Stephen Dulken, Author
Stephen Van Dulken, Author, Stephen Dulken, Author New York University Press $30 (288p) ISBN 978-0-8147-8813-4
Reviewed on: 03/01/2004
Release date: 03/01/2004
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A patent librarian for the British Library, van Dulken (Inventing the 19th Century; Inventing the 20th Century) once again demonstrates his skill for compiling an impressively thorough catalogue of inventions. In this volume, he focuses on creations that were approved by the U.S. Patent Office during the last two centuries, puncturing his history with dozens of quaint black-and-white patent drawings. From the disposable diaper to bubble gum to Amazon's one-click ordering system, the objects and ideas that van Dulken presents are by turns ingenious, amusing and perfectly sensible. Readers may be disappointed by his text's awkward structure, however; each chapter consists of a dizzying narrative that races through a history of""eureka"" moments, often mentioning as many as four patented objects on a page. (Subheads are curiously absent from the text--as is an index.) This structure (or lack of it) does highlight how a stream of seemingly unrelated patents affected the way that citizens lived out the American Dream, but it sometimes makes for exhausting reading. Van Dulken's style is most successful in chapters whose themes can be easily contained and defined, such as""The Sporting Life,"" and less so in chapters with larger, more complex themes, such as""Working Towards the Paperless Office."" Just below the surface of this winding narrative lie fascinating nuggets of information--like the origin of the catcher's mask (which began as a modified fencer's mask designed by the captain of the Harvard baseball team)--and these are sure to delight both trivia seekers and history buffs.
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