I am an avid reader of books about scientists, inventors and innovators. I’ve been particularly happy about the evolution of the narrative nonfiction genre that has occurred since the publication in 1995 of Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, Dava Sobel’s award-winning book on John Harrison’s invention of the first truly mechanical clock.
I haven’t even made a large dent in my “to be read” stack of books on inventors and innovators, a stack that is increasingly shrinking only because it’s being transferred to my Audible account and to my Kindle. But friends and colleagues have been asking me with increasing frequency for recommendations of the books I’ve read on these subjects. I’m happy to provide this list, as these books have deepened my understanding of the history of science and technology, as well as the nature of innovation and the role of patents in securing the fruits of productive labors to innovators. I have in fact relied on many of these books in producing my scholarship, including my article on the Sewing Machine War of the 1850s and another article, A Simple Conveyance Rule for Complex Innovation, which explains how and why American patent law has long secured commercialization rights to patentees.
The following list is by no means complete, as it does not include books I am still reading (I’m currently reading a book on Da Vinci and another book on Edison, and I don’t like to recommend books that I haven’t read to the end). I may have forgotten some books I read a long time ago. It also excludes books that I have read that I have not enjoyed for various reasons.
I hope people enjoy the following books as much as I have enjoyed them. (The list is in alphabetical order by last name of author.)
Harold Evans, They Made America: From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine: Two Centuries of Innovators (2004) [purchase here]
John Steele Gordon, A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable (2002) [purchase here
Thomas Hager, The Demon Under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor’s Heroic Search for the World’s First Miracle Drug (2006) (the book steers into unnecessary politics toward the end, although this is still an interesting history on how the FDA’s authority was expanded as a result of the use of sulfa antibiotics) [purchase here]
Sam Kean, The Disappearing Spoon, and Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements (2010) [purchase here]
David McCullough, The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge (1983) [purchase here]
Richard Preston, American Steel: Hot Metal Men and the Resurrection of the Rust Belt (1991) [purchase here]
Richard Preston, First Light: The Search for the Edge of the Universe (1996) [purchase here]
T. R. Reid, The Chip: How Two Americans Invented the Microchip and Launched a Revolution (2001) [purchase here]
William Rosen, The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention (2012) [purchase here]
Charles Slack, Noble Obsession: Charles Goodyear, Thomas Hancock, and the Race to Unlock the Greatest Industrial Secret of the 19th Century (2003) [purchase here]
Dava Sobel, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time (reprint ed., 2007) [purchase here]
Dava Sobel, Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love (1999) [purchase here]
Les Standiford, Meet You in Hell: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the Bitter Partnership That Changed America (2006) [purchase here]
Barry Werth, The Billion-Dollar Molecule: One Company’s Quest for the Perfect Drug (1994) [purchase here]