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Book Review: How To Invent Everything



I've been reading this book my wife got me for Christmas called, "How To Invent Everything," by Ryan North, and I can't put it down! It's hilarious and uncanny and so entertaining!

It's hard to describe what it is. It's not a joke book, but more like a history book, or a scientific journal, with a sci-fi twist. You know, it occurs to me that it's like a perfectly distilled mixture of James Burke's Connections with Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, with a sprinkle of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, And Steel. Yet, it's so much more!

The premise is quite simple, but it gripped me from the moment I first read it: In our distant future, time travel will be invented and commercialized to the point of turning it into a tourism industry, allowing anybody to just visit whatever point in our past they fancy. But what happens if your time machine breaks down and you get stuck in a time before the modern conveniences to which you are accustomed were invented? Worst yet, what if you were stuck before humanity invented civilization itself?!

No worries, though, because your personal time machine comes equipped with a handy repair manual -- in the form of this very book. Only that the manual reveals some bad news and good news: The bad news is that the sophisticated machine is utterly irreparable, so there's nothing to be done, and you're stuck in the past for the rest of your life. The good news is that the rest of the handbook provides a step-by-step guide to rebuilding human civilization from scratch, or to bring it up to speed from whichever arbitrary time period you happen to find yourself in -- a true instruction manual on how to invent everything!

That's the very clever premise. After a brief introduction played cheekily by the author stating he "found" this handbook buried in a construction site, purporting to come from the future, having been written by someone who just happens to have the same name as himself; it goes on to give you the promised instructions.

It's rather comprehensive in scope -- surprisingly so. It covers everything needed to bootstrap your civilization: from inventing language, farming, and mathematics; to metalworks, steam and electric power, and computers -- all from first principles! It's outstanding, simple to follow, meticulously annotated, studiously referenced, and immensely entertaining.

At its heart, the book is a history lesson. Beyond the silly sci-fi premise in which it is framed, is a detailed history of how human civilization came to be; how it stumbled through millennia figuring out its way through modernity in an effort to make life easier for itself; and how apparently simple things like paper, or glass, or buttons, or steel -- originally invented either by accident, but mostly by trial and error over the course of hundreds or thousands of years -- unlocked the path to greater discoveries and inventions which we take for granted today.

"How To Invent Everything" is brilliantly conceived, masterfully organized in an exceedingly accessible format, and wittily written with a humorous and irreverent tone. Plus, you get to learn all sorts of things you probably didn't know about.

Of course, the kicker is that everything provided actually does work -- that is, if you were inclined to actually go out and build it. For instance, the book walks you through the invention of fire and the preparation of charcoal. It then shows you how to refine your campfire into a simple kiln with just clay and wood. You can then use your kiln to make bisque for the bricks of an even better kiln that can bake pottery (or pizza), or alter it slightly to make an ore smelter and eventually an iron forge. From there it's straight to steel, glass, and steam engines!

Thus your new civilization can go from the Stone Age, through the Bronze Age, and all the way to the Iron age and beyond, in just one afternoon -- bypassing several thousands years of dead-ends and trial and error, and going straight to the cool and useful stuff.

Another one of my favorites is the invention of soap which, when combined with your already extant knowledge of the germ theory and human diseases, leads straight to a severe reduction in mortality rate -- all because you get to tell your people to wash their hands before eating or performing surgery, something nobody thought to do before the 1800s CE!!!

(Yes, as the author reminds us with the heavy pain of shame, humanity invented surgery way before anybody even considered that washing their hands before sticking them into someone else would go a long way towards not killing them -- and when someone did suggested it, we locked him up in the loony bin because we just couldn't believe it could be that simple. Shame on us!)

The book is full of footnotes and tidbits of knowledge like that, describing not only the successful inventions of humanity but how we stumbled into them and how, to our great embarrassing shame, we have sometimes forgotten them for a couple of thousand years before rediscovering them anew by pure chance. In a very entertaining way, the author constantly urges you to do better in your new timeline, and to jump ahead to the really cool stuff; and to, you know, apply all the tools at your disposal into preserving this knowledge. As he warns, there is absolutely no reason for mankind to ever again forget something like cement and concrete (the literal pillars of our civilization), which were lost for a thousand years following the fall of the Roman Empire, until someone found a book with the recipe in an obscure library in Switzerland. (Pro Civilization Tip: store your important books in more popular libraries.)

I can't recommend this book enough. For anyone with a hint of curiosity on how we got to where we are, or how many of our inventions work, this book is a gem. You can read it straight through like a normal story, and you'll progress through the stages in the order the author intended; or you can just skip ahead and read whatever chapter captures your interest, by itself. It's well organized, and fully indexed, so it works as a reference guide as well.

So, go get your copy now. I promise it's worth it. Even without time machines, when the Zombie Apocalypse starts, you don't want to be stranded without your handbook. We'll need all the help we can get to rebuild our civilization, and we can finally do it The Right Way. Plus, it's a helluva lotta fun! :)


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On social media, I've posed the question: "If you were transported in time to 100 years ago, what do you understand well enough to reinvent?". My answer was "not much", unfortunately. The book does indeed sound fascinating!

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It is! You should really check it out. I think it's fascinating. I'm reading it like if it were just a book (from start to finish) because it is so funny and entertaining; but it's really packed dense with a lot of interesting information on how basic inventions work, how to build them (from first principles), what you need for them (cross-referenced with other inventions in the book), how they came to be, and -- typically -- admonishing humanity for dropping the ball and taking hundreds of years to make specific technological jumps that seem rather obvious now. :)


It's hilarious!



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For instance, did you know that buttons were invented very early on as a means of decorating clothes in a fashionable way; yet it took another 4,000 years for someone to come along and think of using it as a way to fasten garments so that they can be tailored to people's body shapes and sizes?


Yes, even after we had buttons, it took us four thousand years to invent the button hole!


You may think this is trivial, but that button hole enabled not only tailored clothes (which is a big thing in itself), but all sorts of storage containers that could now be closed and fastened to hold and seal stuff in.



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