- Masterworks of Technology: The Story of Creative Engineering, Architecture, and Design
Masterworks of Technology is one of those rare books that will appeal to both the layperson and expert technologist alike. This book is written in such an engaging style that I believe even the most technophobic among us will enjoy and benefit considerably from reading it.
Lewis loves engineering, and this passion is passed on to the reader with an infectious joy. Many books are written by authors who know their subject extremely well but are unimaginative, boring writers. Just because we can write a letter to our grandma, or a company report, we should not assume we are able to write well for a discerning audience. Lewis is a master storyteller. To illustrate my point I shall quote the opening sentence of Chapter One: "Relief came over us as our bodies welcomed the cooler temperature and our eyes adjusted to the dim light that stood in sharp contrast to the heat and intensity of the summer sun" (p. 13). I am sure that even the most critical fiction reader would agree this is an interesting piece of writing.
Engineering is quite often considered rather dry, unromantic, techno-stuff. It obviously depends on how it is presented. The sentence quoted above is the beginning of an analysis of how the great pyramids of Egypt were created. The next sentence is even better, but you will have to read it yourself to find out how the mystery unfolds.
Masterworks has a good bibliography, an excellent index and is arranged into 11 chapters that cover approximately 5,000 years of engineering, architectural and design innovation. Seductive chapter titles include "Rocket Science and More," "Fascinating Bedfellows," "Pushing the Envelope" and "The Mind's Eye."
Lewis discusses at length the relationship between craft, engineering technology and science, explaining the differences and how one discipline affects the other. It is only in the last few hundred years that science (which [End Page 164] attempts to discover how and why things work) joined engineering (which attempts to make things work) in a kind of symbiotic relationship. This is interesting not only from a historical perspective but also from the perspective of how technical things actually work. Lewis explains these "workings" using very little obscure or highly technical language.
It is difficult to imagine living in a world without the ubiquitous wheel. Not only wheels per se, but devices based on the principle of "rolling around an axle." No computers as we know them would exist—the hard disk in your computer spins on a bearing on an axle. Electric motors, generators, aircraft engines all rely on this simple principle. Use of the wheel has been documented for at least 5,500 years. Because of the incredible importance of the wheel in our cultures, Lewis pays considerable attention to this technological wonder, as well as the development of the wheelwright's craft. "A Sumerian pictograph from about 3500 BCE shows a sledge ... equipped with wheels" (p. 28). Potters' wheels originated at about the same time.
The book has many quite lovely black-and-white illustrations. It is rather instructive in itself to see an illustration of a reciprocating water pump (circa 1556) side by side with a robotically operated automobile assembly line and a printed circuit-board diagram of a microcontroller. The scope of this book is vast, and Lewis has done an excellent job in presenting the major feats of technology in just over 300 pages.
Masterworks of Technology will make a great addition to any personal library and is so well written that it is a good read for anyone from eight to 80 years of age.