Much Ado about Almost Nothing: Man’s Encounter with the Electron – review

Wow, what a winding road was travelled towards the discovery of the electron, and the development of the devices we all depend upon. From early observations of lodestone and lightening, through to the founding and development of Intel, stories familiar and new are told with dry humour and subtle observations on human character.

All of this helps keep rather a meandering tale on track, or at least keeps the reader turning the page to more tales of a motley cast of early experimenters and makers. The histories are imbued with a real passion for the subject, and the late author knew a thing or two about silicon chips (Camenzind’s venerable 555 timer IC is a true classic, and only a small part of his prodigious output).

Starting with a knowledge of where we are now, the reader is gripped by the early inching towards understanding of just what electricity and magnetism are, then the discovery of the electron, and development of radio technology. This could have been a complete book in itself, but we continue right through the parallel developments of the first computers on both sides of the Atlantic, then on to the first microprocessor.

There’s a startling array of names immortalised in electrical terms: Volta, Ampère, Coulomb, Galvani, Henry, Ohm, Faraday, Wheatstone – but many figures are overlooked, too. What’s striking is the role of less well-known figures who were often chemists – yes, chemistry and materials science drove much of the development of electro-magnetic discovery, and then modern electronics. Everything from better vacuums for thermionic valves, to pioneering single crystal germanium and silicon for semiconductors.

This is a very well written story. True, there are problems with the book – it’s full of the small errors that a traditional publisher’s editorial team would have quickly remedied (Booklocker is a print-on-demand company). But you’ll quickly forgive these as you turn the pages and are treated to more insights on curiosity, inventiveness, and commercial shenanigans. Who was motivated by money, and who was just impelled by creativity and the drive to discover – often with the same results. Essential reading!

Hans Camenzind £13.99 historyofelectronics.com

Verdict

Stories of geekery, greed, and single-minded endeavour – informative, educational, and a gripping read.

9/10

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