WONDROUS CONTRIVANCES: Technology at the Threshold

Merritt Ierley, Author . Clarkson Potter $21 (320p) ISBN 978-0-609-60836-4

Popular history with a dose of gee-whiz gadgetry worship, this work by technology writer Ierley (The Comforts of Home) covers some fascinating ground without much direction. Beginning with the gentle reminder that "there was once a time when people never talked to each other except in each other's company," Ierley offers a survey of the inventions in transportation, entertainment and communications that have most transformed the American land- and mind-scape over the past century and a half. Ierley focuses on the public response to these inventions, using diaries, advertisements and records of local fairs and carnivals to document ordinary citizens' initial reactions to the contraptions that would inevitably change their world. It's intriguing to note which innovations were immediately embraced by the masses (automobiles, photography), and which met with skepticism (airplanes—though one early commercial passenger did gush that the "pretty stewardess" looked "quite trim and dapper" in her uniform). Ierley's chapter on the bicycle reveals an astonishing level of hyperbole from exuberant everyday users ("the most remarkable, ingenious, and inspiring motor yet devised upon this planet"). From record players to personal computers, Ierley gives each overanalyzed subject a fresh look. The book is not much more than a series of sketches, but taken together, they are a powerful testament to the appetite for novelty and convenience so important in American culture. B&w illus. Agent, Faith Hamlin. (Jan.)

Reviewed on: 12/17/2001
Release date: 01/01/2002
Genre: Nonfiction
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