Best book title of the year?

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Author Judy Wearing deserves kudos for the title of her popular science book, ‘Edison’s Concrete Piano: Flying Tanks, Six-Nippled Sheep, Walk-on-Water Shoes and 12 Other Flops from Great Inventors.’ It immediately conjures questions: Could a concrete piano work? How many nipples do sheep normally have? And what were these inventors thinking?

It was no less than Alexander Graham Bell who, when not thinking about telephones, found himself dreaming of sheep. Bell and his wife owned a large estate in Canada, and he noticed that sheep only have two nipples, rather than six, like pigs and dogs. If sheep had more nipples, Bell figured, they could have litters, and he set about breeding in the multi-nipple trait the best he could. He also had to try to breed in multiple births, because if-you-build-it-they-will-come doesn’t apply to teats, apparently -- litters don’t spontaneously appear because there are things for all the babies to suckle from. In any event, Bell’s efforts never really came to fruition, as the book’s title suggests.


The book also includes flops by Buckminster Fuller, Nikola Tesla, George Washington Carver, Leonardo da Vinci and Thomas Edison. Geniuses all, their ideas failed for various reasons -- some were loopy, others ran afoul of big business.

Certainly inventors need to be willing to take risks, even seem crazy, to come up with the ideas that are so brilliant that they transform society (electric lights? in houses? no way). This book would have done enough if it had just focused on successful inventors’ ideas that were really, really far out.

But it also endeavors to teach us something about each inventor, and the biographies aren’t exactly definitive. About Da Vinci: ‘The disrupted bonding between mother and child undoubtedly had an influence on his psyche in negative ways that could have contributed to his failures; Freud would agree.’ Would Freud really agree? Does it make sense to backread Freud, with his modern anxieties, on a man who died in 1519? How about we get back to him inventing walk-on-water-shoes?

Nevertheless, the popular science is fun and easily accessible, and there’s more to the inventors experiments than the title can contain. That crazy Edison -- not only did he imagine a concrete piano but also thought poured concrete houses could be the answer to the wooden firetraps that housed the poor at the turn of the last century. The concrete piano would have simply been one musical accessory -- like the concrete gramophone he also imagined -- in his all-concrete houses. And 10 of the 11 concrete homes built in the early 1900s -- which, while priced below the market rate in 1917, went unsold long enough for the project to be abandoned -- are still being lived in on Ingersoll Terrace in Union, N.J. ... presumably with conventional furniture.
-- Carolyn Kellogg