Books

The latest technology books reviewed.

The Grid: A journey through the heart of our electrified world

Philip F. Schewe, Joseph Henry Press

IT represents the single largest industrial investment in human history, and the US National Academy of Engineering has declared it the greatest engineering achievement of the previous century. Yet the only time most of us give the electricity grid a second thought is on those rare occasions when it fails.

Most telling of the grid's success is how the ongoing process of vast turbines shoving electrons long-distance across continents has come to be regarded as immutable and constant as the laws of nature. As physicist-playwright Schewe enquires at the start of this popular history: "Do people really need to be reminded that a massively engineered quilt of energy-filled wires is on duty outside their walls?" His answer is yes.

The author, who is chief science writer at the American Institute of Physics, makes the 2003 New York power blackout his starting point, aiming to illustrate our near-total dependence on the electricity supply system, before going on to recount how that system first arose.

Never less than lyrical in style, Schewe begins with Thomas Edison, better remembered for his work on electric lighting than developing a workable means of power for the mass-produced lamps he sold. Edison's direct current system was reinvented in a more robust alternating current form by Nikolai Tesla and George Westinghouse - although not without Edison initiating a rearguard 'war of the currents'. American urban electrification dealt with, the book moves on to contrast the electrification of the Soviet Union with that of the rural Tennessee Valley.

Next, the author discusses what happens when the grid goes away - dealing first with the famous 1965 New York power outage, then with the 21st Century failures: vast blackouts in India, Italy and the US eastern seaboard, plus Californian brown-outs when market liberalisation turned out to have unintended consequences.

The book ends with a meditation on the moon landing - how the fuel cell that powered the Apollo spacecraft was 'nurtured and fed by the mother grid on Earth', the same system that enabled a fifth of humanity to watch the landing on TV.

The Grid is an enjoyable but thoroughly US-centric read. Schewe gives just a single sentence to Edison's first public electricity distribution system - in Holborn Viaduct, London, in 1882 - before proceeding to detailed coverage on subsequent development in Pearl Street, New York. British engineer Charles Merz does not warrant a single mention, despite being the person who originated the very term 'grid' - a shortened form of 'grid-iron' - in 1925. Merz's creation of the British National Grid - the first country-wide electricity supply system does not make it in either. After all, it will come as no surprise that Schewe even makes a case for American Joseph Henry to have beaten Michael Faraday to the discovery of magnetic induction.

Such partiality makes what could have been a great book merely a good one.

Reviewed by Sean Blair, deputy editor of Flipside magazine.

iWoz: From Computer Geek to Cult Icon

By Steve Wozniak with Gina Smith, W.W. Norton & Co

This book is a personal recollection from the designer and sole creator of the Apple I and II personal computers, Steve Wozniak. If you fondly recall what a Varian or a Data General Nova was, if you ever owned a HP 35 and are excited by phone freaking, TV jammers, ham radio, or if you ever wondered where the logo on your iPod was from - this is the book for you.

"We thought low-cost computers would empower people to do things they never could before," recalls Wozniak.

Growing up in Santa Clara County (now 'Silicon Valley'), Wozniak was an engineer from childhood, building his first computer, the 'Cream Soda', in his teens. Life changed in 1975, when he was dragged to the Homebrew Computer Club, a weekly meeting of electronic enthusiasts in Gordon French's garage. Looking over designs passed around for an Altair, Wozniak had an idea.

Using the Cream Soda as a base, he connected a keyboard and a television to the processor, thereby setting the standard for every computer ever since. He coined the term 'monitor', wrote a floppy-disk controller, a BASIC interpreter and used ROM for boot up.

The computer that would change the world is built in front of the reader's eyes in accessible and inspiring detail, and the book is rich with techno-candy. Logic games, binary and prime number love stories, dial-a-jokes, ARPANET terminals and a myriad of computer chips pepper its pages. Wozniak is likeable, and full of optimism.

It concludes with reflections on living life the Woz way. "If you're an engineer who's an inventor and also an artist, I'm going to give you advice that might be hard to take - work alone!"

Reviewed by Dmitri Vitaliev, independent digital security consultant

Archivist's corner: Spirit photography

Anne Locker, IET Archivist

The IET Archive collections contain a large number of photographs, and for many of these, we know the subject and provenance. Other images are more mysterious.

The above photograph came to the Archive with papers of Jacob Brett. A caption on the reverse reads: "M Faraday Taken 4/2/1901 by Mr R Boursnell", with another name also present: "H Blackwell".

Robert Boursnell was a celebrated 'spirit photographer', and examples of his work can be found in collections in the UK and the US. He became famous through a photograph which seemingly showed a soldier killed in the Boer War, later identified as a close relative of General Botha. Spirit photography was highly contentious as photographers could use a range of techniques to produce the 'ghost' images. In 1908, Boursnell was investigated by a 'Spirit Photography Commission' set up by the Daily Mail. He allowed investigators to witness the whole development process and no fraud was detected.

Although we are aware of Boursnell's work and of the popularity of spirit photography around the turn of the century (enthusiasts included Sir William Crookes and Arthur Conan Doyle), we do not know much about this particular example. It is part of one of the Brett collections in the Archives, but the person in the photograph is not Jacob Brett or his brother John. A 'Mr Blackwell' is mentioned in literature as someone who owned examples of spirit photographs, but we do not know of any connection with the Brett family, or indeed if Mr Blackwell was the subject. Nor does the 'spirit' bear much resemblance to popular portraits of Faraday, despite the similar costume.

Some detective work is required to find out more. Can any readers shed light on this item? Do you recognise the man sitting at the table? Have you seen a picture of Faraday which corresponds to the ghost image? We would be delighted to hear from you.

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