BOOK REVIEW / There has to be a way, there just has to be: 'The Power of the Machine' - R A Buchanan: Viking, 20 pounds

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The Independent Online
THERE used to be a great many films based on the lives of inventors. Decent chaps like Spencer Tracy or Jimmy Stewart would be up all night tinkering with little models in the garage, while their wives brought them glasses of milk and talked on the phone (which in some cases hadn't been invented yet) about the struggle to make ends meet. Unpaid bills would pile up on the doormat; men in suits would poke the fire and talk of the need for a miracle; doctors would mutter on about the strain, the intolerable strain. The lonely, heroic boffins would ignore them all. There's got to be a way, they'd whisper, rubbing the sleep out of their short-sighted, far-seeing eyes. There's got to be.

Inventiveness is one of the great human attributes, and one of the most dramatic. Any book narrating the creative adventure that gave birth to the modern world is bound to be full of blistering breakthroughs and agonising reversals. But R A Buchanan, Professor of History and Technology at the University of Bath, has come up with something utterly new: he has hit upon a method that purges the story of almost every element of surprise and interest.

The residue sounds like this: 'Copper has acquired great significance in electrical engineering, on account of its high conductivity, and tin is used in food preservation - thin sheets of steel are covered with a veneer of tin which can then be rolled and sealed to form the ubiquitous tin can.'

On account of its high conductivity . . . the 'ubiquitous' tin can . . . Eureka]

Who knows what exhilarating brainwaves are hidden by the drab, incurious austerity of those lines. Did someone receive an electric shock from a copper coin and suddenly have a fantasy involving a transatlantic cable? Did some Cornish smuggler scrape his boots on a seam of tin and conjure a vision of supermarket shelves piled high with trim cylinders of food? The book is not interested in this sort of thing.

Occasionally Buchanan comes upon a ball that seems to be sitting up nicely, but even then he doesn't take a swing at it. In his chapter on transport he mentions the first great canal-builder, James Brindley, who was 'a natural genius for the job' and 'an engineering legend'. Here it comes, we think: we're about to see a vivid demonstration of what it is to be a canal genius, what it means to have a mind full of locks and barges and towpaths and aqueducts. But no, we are simply told: 'He was a rough-and-ready sort of man, of humble origins and few social graces, but he discoursed with surprising eloquence to parliamentary committees on the virtues of canals.'

Surprising eloquence . . . bingo]

It is all very puzzling. Buchanan has three centuries' worth of progress to relate, so perhaps it is inevitable that he should err on the side of generalities. But in attempting to sketch the broad outline of the story he has lost all the luminous episodes that make it gripping. A series of chapters on power, transport, infrastructure, communications and so on are boiled down into a reliable but unexciting list of well-known major industries.

The pity of it is that the author is painfully alert to the importance of his subject, and worried that readers might not twig how substantial it is. At the beginning he keeps repeating that the history of technology - as distinct from the history of science - is worth exploring, and he's right. But towards the end he can still say that printing was 'an innovation of profound significance in Western Civilisation because of its popularisation of books, with its consequent effects on the dissemination of information, both literary and scientific'.

Well, well, well. An innovation of 'profound significance' indeed. Caxton might have thought twice had he known what it would all lead to. The book is full of 'profound significance' - but what significance? We already know that novelties such as steam engines, aeroplanes, televisions, toasters and biros made a big difference. A serious analysis of such advances surely needs to take a harder look at their precise ramifications.

At the end, Buchanan reaches a genuinely intriguing conclusion. He points out that Mandarin rule suppressed, in China, the spirit of invention which led to experiments with gunpowder, pottery and printing at a time when people in the West were still experimenting with berries. And this leads him to identify a link between creativity and something like capitalist democracy. It seems a persuasive thesis: we think of the inventiveness of Greece, the poverty of the Dark Ages. Inventions are inspired by a rare coincidence of individual freedom, financial clout, business opportunism and legal rights. Authoritarian rule dislikes all of these, so inventiveness becomes a kind of non-conformism.

This would have a made a good starting point. It would have allowed Buchanan to consider the precise conditions that surrounded various revolutionary new ideas - a worthwhile task for anybody. In such a framework he might also have had room to follow through the effects of the dynamic changes he ticks off one by one. How dramatically has the telephone altered everyday human intercourse? How did life change when people were suddenly able to electrify their homes? What kind of pyschological or aesthetic expansion or disruption was provoked by the idea of recorded music? Buchanan just says that 'the gramophone became immensely popular as a means of recording all sorts of music for leisure enjoyment'.

In neglecting both the springs of invention and the subtle social changes wrought by progress, the book will offend nobody. But anyone who uses the term 'leisure enjoyment' as a synonym for listening to music needs to spend a few late nights in the garage fiddling with a dictionary, ignoring those who urge him to give up before he ruins his eyes, refusing to give up until he's cracked it.