How does the ‘eureka moment’ happen? Who are the people that create a ‘eureka moment’ and what are their characteristics? What are the stories behind some of the inventions that have become an integral part of modern life? These are the fascinating questions that Gavin Weightman explores in his revelatory new book, Eureka: How Invention Happens, leading him to observe that the sense of ‘eureka’ as a moment of inspiration is very different from the concept of the ‘eureka moment’ and the actual point of scientific breakthrough.
In this four-part series for the YaleBooks blog, Gavin answers some intriguing questions about invention, and the innovation that now form a part of our everyday lives.
An Interview with Gavin Weightman – Part One
Y: You discuss five significant inventions in Eureka: How Invention Happens– the aeroplane, the television, the bar code, the personal computer and the mobile phone. Were there other significant inventions you left out, but might have liked to include?
GW: Although I tell the story of only five familiar twentieth century inventions the bulk of my book is about all the discoveries and innovations which, over several hundred years, made them possible. In order to give some richness to the history of each I had to be very selective. I also limited my history to the moment of breakthrough and its immediate aftermath. My chief interest was in the process of invention and the moment when the impossible was shown to be possible. Quite early on I discovered that I could not take the story on without the book becoming unwieldy. So no account of the jet engine, a fascinating story, or digital electronics (except fleetingly), of the internet, or of smartphones. I stuck to the everyday: nothing about medical technology, or agriculture, or outer space. I wanted my inventions to be very familiar, something we encounter every day. I cannot say that I regret having to leave anything out. In fact, I thought at one time I could do the whole lot with just the modern aeroplane which incorporates everything: flight, wireless, television, mobile phones, minicomputers and lots of bar codes. But I decided that it would be so weighed down with the history of innovation that it would never get off the ground.
Gavin Weightman is a journalist, historian, and former documentary filmmaker. He has published more than twenty books, including The Frozen Water Trade: A True Story and Children of the Light: How Electricity Changed Britain Forever. He lives in London.
Eureka: How Invention Happens by Gavin Weightman is available from Yale University Press