NONFICTION

THEY ALL LAUGHED: From Light Bulbs to Lasers: The Fascinating Stories Behind the Great Inventions That Have Changed Our Lives by Ira Flatow (HarperCollins: $20; 238 pp.). While our schoolbooks suggest that inventors such as Thomas Alva Edison conjured up their brilliant gadgets after a preternatural burst of inspiration, the pithy, lively stories collected here by National Public Radio science reporter Ira Flatow leave little doubt that invention is more likely 79% perspiration, 1% inspiration and 20% machination.

We learn that history might have recorded Elisha Gray as the inventor of the telephone, for instance, had Alexander Graham Bell not beaten him to the patent office by a few hours. Similarly, many inventors built working light bulbs before Edison; his genius was to discern that the lamp had to match the electrical system of a city so the two could work in tandem. Moreover, as Flatow writes, "It was Edison's enormous wealth, influence and power that allowed him to create the entire system from scratch in his New Jersey laboratories . . . and influence an eager press and public into believing his bulb to be superior to all others."

Luck also figures in the equation, for as Flatow writes, "inventors don't always produce the objects they set out to make. Bell didn't set out to invent the telephone, nor Edison the phonograph. Each was looking for a device that would make it easier for businessmen to transmit and store facts and figures." Some of these stories are padded with trivia, but all are colorful because of the sheer eccentricity of these inventors, from Giovanni Caselli, the Italian priest who invented the commercial fax machine in (believe it or not) 1843 , to Fred Waring, the band leader who crisscrossed America with his portable bar, concocting strange drinks to promote his newfangled Disintegrating Mixer for Producing Fluent Substances, a.k.a. the Waring Blender.

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