Books

Our experts review the latest engineering titles.

The Man Who Ran The Moon: James Webb, JFK And The Secret History Of Project Apollo

Piers Bizony
Icon Books Ltd £8.99
ISBN: 978-184046836-6

Mention the Apollo lunar programme and most people will recall the name of Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the Moon, and possibly even Wernher von Braun, the engineer who designed the Saturn V rocket that made it possible. But only professional historians and serious space buffs remember the name of James Webb, the unconventional and charismatic NASA Administrator who pushed the space agency to meet Kennedy’s political goal of landing a man on the Moon before the end of the 1960s.  This book aims to correct that failure of memory.

As Piers Bizony explains, far from being a “dull, colourless bureaucrat”, Webb was “a powerful personality, combative, manipulative and driven”.  In other words, his management style was far from the by-the-book, politically-correct stance the world expects today. His broad North Carolina, “good ol’ boy” accent and general verbosity prompted Bobby Kennedy to call him a “blabbermouth”, but Webb was no village idiot. Far from it: he was a visionary technocrat and keen political operator who knew how to get what he wanted... and by 1964 he had effective control, on NASA’s behalf, of more than 5 per cent of the US federal budget.

In this first popular account of “the man who ensured that America won the space race”, as the author puts it, Bizony gives a fascinating, ‘warts and all’ account of one of America’s great leaders. Avoiding the task of producing a full-blown biography, he gets straight to Webb’s early career and quickly to his role with NASA. Based on interviews with those who knew Webb and on recently released original sources, the book is both informative and entertaining. There are more academic histories on the subject, but Bizony’s is accessible, while retaining some of the characteristics (chapter notes, bibliography and index) of the former. It is illustrated, with a centre insert containing 33 black-and-white photos.

The book’s publicity delights in the tabloid-type hook of Webb’s alleged impropriety regarding profiteering and the award of industrial contracts to ‘friends’, but this is a small part of the volume and Webb’s reputation was eventually restored. In the final analysis, the debt the space community owes to the man is illustrated by the fact that NASA has called its successor to the Hubble Space Telescope the James Webb Space Telescope. As Piers Bizony remarks, “Webb’s determined style of management has much to tell us about how we should run space affairs today”.

Reviewed by Mark Williamson, MIET, Space Technology Consultant

Fire and Steam

A New History of the Railways in Britain

Christian Wolmar
Atlantic Books
ISBN: 978-1843546290 £19.99

Railways have always been part of the fabric of my life, and I still remember the replacement of steam trains by diesels.

Christian Wolmar’s book shows how they shaped the life of the whole nation.

The coming of the railway opened new possibilities for trade and travel far beyond the capacity of canals and horse-drawn vehicles. In 1830, the stagecoaches between Liverpool and Manchester could carry around 700 passengers a day. Between 1831 and 1833, the new railway averaged 1,100 passengers daily – fulfilling a latent demand for affordable travel that is mirrored by today’s low-cost airlines.

From those early days, when lines were built to meet local needs, the railways connected every significant centre of population and sometimes created its own. Crewe, Swindon and Middlesbrough were all hamlets before they became railway towns.

Later, the appearance of low-fare workmen’s trains made it possible for people to live further from their place of work, leading to the rapid development of suburbs around London and creating the concept of the daily commuter.

Lower transport costs meant that coal became cheaper, while farmers could take advantage of markets providing fresh food to city-dwellers. An efficient postal service, professional football and the spread of fish-and-chip shops to inland towns all owe much to the railway.

Modern business methods, too, can trace their roots to the Victorian railway companies: as the first organisations allowed to raise capital from more than six shareholders, they had to develop new ways of operating.

If the nineteenth century was the period of railway growth, the twentieth was the era of consolidation, with no main lines completed between 1899, when the Grand Central was opened, and 2003, when the first section of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (now renamed High Speed 1) was built.

Wolmar describes the role of the state in the running of railways as “rarely benign and often, frankly, obstructive”. It is a theme he returns to at the end, where he is fiercely critical both of the politicians (“motivated by ideology rather than a desire to improve the system”) and the civil service (“more interested in building roads”).

Yet, above all, ‘Fire & Steam’ is a human story. It brings back not just the great railway barons (like George Hudson, a visionary whose dubious financial practices led to his downfall, or Captain Mark Huish, general manager of the London & North Western, whose accountancy and management systems were to be widely imitated) but also the men who built the railways.

The book ends on a hopeful note. In spite of political interference and competition from roads and aeroplanes, the railway has not only survived but flourished. Demand is growing, and this nineteenth-century invention still has a key role to play.

Reviewed by Lorna Sharpe, news and transport editor of E&T

The wizard of Menlo Park: how Thomas Alva Edison invented the modern world

Randall Stross.
Crown Publishers
ISBN: 978-1-4000-4762-8

$24.95

Thomas Edison came first, ahead of Michael Jordan and Mark Twain, in a poll of Chinese people who were asked in 1998 to list the best-known Americans. However, this is perhaps not so surprising given that Edison was responsible for the first public demonstration of the phonograph in 1878, the development of incandescent light and an electricity generation and distribution system to power it, and the first motion picture cameras.

This new biography of Edison tells the story of “how he came upon his most famous inventions as a young man and spent the remainder of his long life trying to conjure similar success”. It is arranged mainly in chronological order, but also with chapters focusing on his foray into mining, where his interest was in using magnets to process iron ore, and his friendship with Henry Ford.

The invention and development of the phonograph occupied the period 1869-1877, during which Edison established his first laboratory at Menlo Park, New Jersey. Initially, he saw the phonograph as a toy rather than the basis for a new home entertainment industry. It was only later in life that he foresaw such modern applications as voice recording, audiobooks, movies with sound (the kinetoscope), and a talking foghorn.

One of the most interesting sections of the book relates the story of Edison’s dispute with George Westinghouse and others concerning the merits of direct current over alternating current. It was Edison’s belief that direct current would eventually triumph because it “did not kill utility workers”, while alternating current did. Ultimately, the marketplace voted in favour of alternating current because it was the less expensive option.

A chapter of the book discusses Edison’s friendship and commercial partnership with Henry Ford. Ford invested heavily in Edison’s research on automotive electrical systems for the Model T, but he was to eventually turn to other manufacturers because of deficiencies in the systems and components that Edison and his team developed, particularly the battery. Ford was later to comment that Edison earned the reputation of the “world’s greatest inventor and world’s worst businessman”.

Thomas Alva Edison filed 1,093 patents during his lifetime of 84 years. On the day of his death, 18 October 1931, the New York Times alone carried 22 stories about his life and death. This highly readable biography readily conveys the technical genius of Edison. It goes further than that, however, in relating his significant failures, which often resulted from a rush to publicly announce new developments before they had been tested fully. This rush, the author argues, was fed by Edison’s promotion of his own celebrity status.

Reviewed by John Coupland,
IET Librarian

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