News Column

Book review: 'Gadget Planet' by the editors of Popular Mechanics

July 6, 2014

By Brandy Hilboldt Allport, The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville



July 06--The staff at Popular Mechanics gathered a panel of CEOs, architects, engineers, urban planners, museum curators and technical writers to assemble "Gadget Planet: "150 Gizmos & Inventions that Changed the World." Presentation is in count-down format. Spoiler alert: No. 1 is the mobile smart phone. Remote control key fobs kick-start the book at No. 150. ("Keyless entry used to mean a rock through a window.") Between the fob and the phone, readers will find succinct entries about inventors companies, dates, marketing strategies and consumer reaction.

Rules for inclusion in "Gadget Planet" appear in the introduction.

1. A gadget is defined as something you can hold in your hands.

2. It is a mass-produced, personal item that evolved from novelty to necessity.

3. Ultimately, its creation showed "paradigm shifting" powers.

The gamut of gizmos runs from the hair dryers, combination locks and garlic presses to Wi-Fi routers, derringers, smoke detectors, Tupperware and portable hard drives. Open to any page, and read short, information-packed paragraphs, and examine stock photography. The iPad ranks No. 104, just below compass (103), microscope (102) and duct tape (101). See? This book provides a fix for trivia junkies of all types.

Mixed in with basic facts are cleverly written asides such as "Were Ginsu knives (87) better than the competition? Nobody really seems to care. The hard-selling 1970s television ads for the blades spawned 'Saturday Night Live' spoofs, inspired Gallagher's stand-up comedy schtick and ushered in the era of infomercials." When Warren Buffet bought the company in 1985, sales figures hovered at the 3 million mark.

Some entries in "Gadget Planet" played their roles and petered into virtual obscurity (tape cassettes, floppy disks and Polaroid cameras). Other items definitely fall into fad territory (3D glasses, cocktail shakers, roller skates and boom boxes). Still others remain so commonplace, consumers take their existence for granted (zippers, umbrellas, crescent wrenches, matches and sunglasses.)

Not all readers will have used every one of these wonky wonders (laser pointer, label maker, electric guitar, sewing machine). Disagree with some of the Popular Mechanics' panelists' choices? Well, that's part of the fun of reading a list book. Create your own game of citing egregious omissions or silly inclusions. Another topic for debate: where the items rank in order of importance.

Though this review won't name the other nine contraptions that make up the top ten (along with the smartphone), the revelation of a few more bits of statistics and trivia from the home entertainment category certainly seems appropriate. In no particular order, consider, recall or learn:

-- NBC becomes the first network to convert all its new programs to color in 1962.

-- Monday night football makes its debut in 1970.

-- PBS delivers all its programming via satellite in 1978, another first for a network.

-- Current research indicates that in the United States, 98 percent of households include a television.

If "Gadget Planet" interests you, check out its two companion books, "101 Things That Fly" and "101 Things That Go Fast."

TWO MORE SUGGESTIONS

If you are looking for something a bit more technical and philosophical to read than what Popular Mechanics offers in "Gadget Planet" try "Stuff that Matters." Professor and scientist Mark Miodownik describes his book in the introduction as an attempt to "decipher the material world we have constructed and find out where these materials came from, how they work and what they say about us."

A photograph provides the framework for Miodownik's discourse. Writing about the snapshot, Miodownik challenges readers to see the mundane with new eyes.

"It pictures me drinking tea on the roof of my flat. It is unremarkable in most ways ... but take away the concrete, the glass, the textiles, the metal and other materials from the scene, and I am left shivering in midair. ... To some extent, then what allows us to behave as human are our clothes, our homes, our cities ... which we animate through our customs and language."

?If reading either "Gadget" or "Stuff" sparks a spate of DIY energy, flip through "Tape It And Make More: 101 Duct Tape Activities" for inspiration. Choose from blogger-turned author Richela Fabian Morgan's projects that include Stadium Seat Cushion, Water Balloon Target, Tree Swing and Delta Kite. For smaller-scale endeavors, consider Funky Earrings, Shower Caddy or Beach Bag. "101," now available in paperback from Barron's for $14.99, is Morgan's latest addition to her collection of titles that focus on creating things with paper, adhesives and found materials.

Certainly, fans of Joe Wilson's popular Ductigami series from Boston Mills Press and devotees of Jim Berg and Tim Nyberg's best-selling "Wacky and Tacky" duct tape books from Workman Publishing will appreciate Morgan's contributions to the create-with-tape genre, which these gentlemen pioneered long before Pinterest was a household word.

Brandy Allport: (904) 359-4378.

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(c)2014 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.)

Visit The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.) at www.jacksonville.com

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Source: Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, FL)


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