How the Ray Gun Got its Zap

Book reviews

A surprisingly weighty account of the technology of light tops our pre-Christmas list of new titles.

Gibson Square 

A Female Genius: How Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s Daughter, Started the Computer Age 

By James Essinger, £14.99, ISBN 978-1-90809-666-1

Until relatively recently, social convention barred even the most able women from mathematic or scientific research unless in the role of ‘handmaiden’. Ada Lovelace, born in the early 19th century, was no exception. Anyone who thinks her famous contribution to computer science is overrated, should read James Essinger’s new biography.

As daughter of the celebrity poet Byron, Lovelace’s short life (she died at 36) was bound to be interesting. Lady Byron wanted her daughter to be well educated while suppressing what she deemed a potentially destructive imagination. Studying mathematics, she thought, would make Ada’s creative intellect rational and ordered.

Asking questions about the deeper foundations of science and maths was inappropriate for women. Lovelace’s tutor Augustus De Morgan wrote that the ‘great tension of mind’ which tricky mathematical questions require ‘is beyond the strength of a woman’s physical power of application.’

But Lovelace ignored these conventions, helped by a privileged background that as a teenager brought into the orbit of famous thinkers and scientists. One was Charles Babbage, a wealthy dilettante, who wanted to create a calculator out of cogs and wheels. His inspiration was the French scheme, managed by Baron Gaspard de Prony, to make a set of mathematical log tables. De Prony had applied the principle of Adam Smith’s systematic division of labour, splitting the task among three teams of human calculators. Babbage thought the same idea could be applied to a calculating machine, controlled by punched cards as in the Jacquard weaving-loom.

Lovelace was fascinated with Babbage’s scheme and not only helped him develop the concept but went on to write the first program for such a machine. Unlike Babbage, she had the insight to see the future scope of his invention. We know this from her correspondence and extensive series of notes.

This concise and readable account gives Lovelace’s work the respect it deserves.

Christine Evans-Pughe



Forbidden Places Vol 2/Unusual Hotels of the World 

By Sylvaine and David Margaine/Steve Dobson £29.99/£29.99, ISBN 978-2361950590/978-2361950675

It has become a tradition for this reviewer to introduce latest offerings from Jonglez to E&T readers on the eve of Christmas. The award-winning international publisher has released two superbly illustrated albums - and each would constitute an excellent gift for an inquisitive engineer:

The second volume of ‘Forbidden Places: Exploring Our Abandoned Heritage’, with pictures by Sylvaine Margaine and text by David Margaine, is a worthy successor to the first volume, which received numerous accolades for its masterful photos and poetic captions. This time, alongside black and white images of abandoned stadiums, offices, factories, machines and power stations, the album carries a number of full-colour images of locations such as Can Jaumar Castle in Cabrils, Spain.

My preferences are still for the black and white illustrations, which to me carry a deeper meaning and more emotion. E&T readers are bound to be taken by the painfully revealing and nostalgic photo reportage from the now defunct Battersea Power Station in London. An ideal coffee-table book.

‘Unusual Hotels of the World’ continues a Jonglez series that up to now covered the UK, Ireland and Europe. This volume expands the search for quirky accommodation to Canada (Quebec’s Ice Hotel), Senegal (Niassam Hills Lodge), New Zealand (Woodlyn Park, where you sleep inside a plane from the Vietnam War) and many other exotic locations. Out of the ordinary properties in Europe also feature, of which many have a technology angle - V8 in Germany, for instance, is a cluster of Zeppelin airfield buildings converted to a hotel.

In case you’re tempted to stay, their addresses, phone numbers and prices are listed at the back of the book - highly unusual in itself!

This festive season, Jonglez also offers readers stocking fillers in the shape of two new Secret Guides: ‘Secret Prague’ by Martin Stejskal and ‘Secret Dublin’ by Pol O Conghaile. Both of these ancient European cities are resplendent with ‘secrets’, including little-known science and technology sights such as the magnificent planet-and-zodiac-sign-painted Astronomical Corridor inside Wallenstein Palace in Prague; and the Metals and Dalkey Quarry along the route of an old funicular railway to the south of the city.

Like all other volumes in the series, these two are small, compact and easy to handle (as every guide-book should be). As such, they would fit nicely in a Christmas stocking.

Vitali Vitaliev


Oxford University Press

The Last Alchemist in Paris & Other Curious Tales from Chemistry 

By Lars Öhrström, £16.99, ISBN 978 0 19 966109 1

Lars Öhrström is a chemist and chemical engineer who is a professor of inorganic chemistry at a Swedish university. His sympathies are divided between chemical principles and creating technologies that can test principles, such as the NMR spectrometer that occupied his PhD student years. Perhaps this is why his collection of tales about inorganic and organic chemistry, ‘The Last Alchemist in Paris’, aims to synthesise theory, experiment, applications and history.

The 22 brief chapters, each revolving around one chemical, cover a huge range of period and place. We learn about the royal production in 18th-century Sweden of saltpetre from the manure and urine beneath farmers’ barns. We investigate the claim that the tin buttons of Napoleon Bonaparte’s soldiers disintegrated in the severe cold on the retreat from Moscow in 1812, with disastrous results. We track the US-Nazi political battle over hydrogen versus helium in airships that led to the explosion of German airship Hindenburg in 1937. And we follow the debate over lead in petrol, which was foreshadowed by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius’s distrust of lead water pipes.

The title chapter focuses on failed chemistry student but celebrated playwright August Strindberg, who settled in a Paris hotel in 1896 and claimed to have made gold - without success but with remarkable technical dexterity. Strindberg, it appears, was suffering from psychosis, an idea that launches Öhrström into a digression on lithium and its therapeutic effects on mania, even though these were discovered only in 1949.

In many places, this beguiling book would have benefited from an editor. Mostly, its quirky structure hangs together and generally holds attention, though not at the level of chemist Primo Levi’s classic, ‘The Periodic Table’.

Andrew Robinson

Recent articles

Info Message

Our sites use cookies to support some functionality, and to collect anonymous user data.

Learn more about IET cookies and how to control them