Recently, I’ve been twitching for a more rigorous intellectual challenge for the science and engineering side of me, which has led to me researching the millennium problems, designing scientific experiments, and adding books like Eight Amazing Engineering Stories to my reading list. In other words, I was rather looking forward to this as an interesting and in-depth look at a selection of technologies and the stories of how they came to be. Unfortunately, it turns out that what I consider in-depth is a little different from what people writing a companion book for a series of YouTube videos considers in-depth; so yes, I have to admit that I found this book a little disappointing, and am glad that it only took me a couple of days to read, but that does not mean you should stop reading this review, or even that you shouldn’t read the book. Let me explain.
I knew going in that some of the topics covered in this book would be less interesting to me than others, simply because of my previous familiarity with them. I’ve studied in a fair amount of detail how lasers, nuclear physics, and microwave ovens operate, either through my work or on my own, but since I had what I would consider only a cursory knowledge of CCDs, atomic clocks, and other technologies included in the book, I thought it would be well worth my time to read. Besides, there are always new things to learn about these technologies, and I thought going in that the presentation would include a detailed history of how the invention actually came about, which proved not to be the case. There were only brief blurbs about how each invention or innovation came to be, rather than the more detailed treatment I was expecting – another lesson in how much of an effect managing expectations can have on enjoyment of a book, or anything else.
This book reminded me of The Substance of Civilization, which I thoroughly enjoyed, but there was something missing. While at first glance this is a more technical piece, it simultaneously felt superficial. The problem is that where The Substance of Civilization uses material science as a lens through which to examine history, Eight Amazing Engineering Stories purports to be an engineering book, but its explanations don’t go any deeper than high school level physics, and it gives only a cursory examination of how a device came to be. For me, therefore, this is only a three star book.
For you, it could be a quite different experience. My biggest issue with the book was that it wasn’t what I was looking for: I already knew almost everything it spoke about, and I was looking for a much deeper, more technical treatment, possibly supplemented by more in-depth historical context. However, I am an engineer by training, I routinely read very technical material, and I work regularly either directly or indirectly with most of the technologies and principles that appear in this book. Without that background, I think this book could be an excellent primer on some technologies that are a major part of our modern world that is very approachable for a person of any knowledge-base, and an excellent starting point for further research into the topics it covers.
In other words, this is a rare book that, while I did not personally enjoy, I would still recommend it. If I had been given this book to read when I was younger, I would have devoured it (some of my favorite books growing up were How Things Work and its sequel, and my shelves still groan with the massive nonfiction tomes on everything from paleontology to astronomy that I accumulated during that time). So if you have any kind of interest in how things work, I encourage you to try this book. Even more, if you know someone who’s the kind of person who saves old radios and microwave ovens to take apart in the basement, you should buy this book for them.