Scientists and inventors, especially when their activities meld into the world of business, are not the usual subjects of works for young readers. Their popular appeal certainly ranks below that of military and folk heroes, music and media personalities, racial role models, astronauts, and distinguished presidents. The realms of science, engineering, and business are often staffed with largely anonymous individuals.
Nevertheless, Fanning has managed to make his subjects appealing for several reasons. First, he has selected men—there are no chapters on women—whose inventions and innovations are ubiquitous in the reader’s daily environment: steam power, petroleum and its derivatives, rubber tires, textile and paper products, radios, hardpaved roads, electrical energy, steel, air conditioners, radios, mechanized farm equipment, railroads, and telephones. Moreover, in the aggregate, these industrial products and their tens of thousands of by-products have become essentials of ordinary modern life, eliminating the need to belabor their significance. In addition, the innovations from which these industries sprang are relatively easy to explain to young readers and can be personalized by the activities of a few singular figures. Their researches, their efforts, and their risks are measurable in a manner that is not true of mid-to late twentieth century technical innovation.
Timeliness, acumen, and imagination play major roles in Fanning’s...
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From his own journalistic and industrial experiences, Fanning obviously held these individuals in high regard, not only as the founders of industries but also as seminal figures in bringing forth the modern world. He has therefore placed his own high premium on their principal character traits before young readers for their approbation. In that sense, the subjects of the book are used implicitly to drive home the lessons requisite for success in any ventures. Although in instances such as Goodyear’s discovery of how to vulcanize rubber—an unvulcanized sample had been accidentally placed on a hot stove—little room in these biographies is afforded to chance.
While Fanning cannot be faulted for simplifying his materials for young audiences, his oversimplifications of technological processes can be questioned. Few innovators, inventors, or scientists resort to notions of practical or conceptual breakthroughs, or radical turning points in science and the intimately related realms of technology. The scientific view has long been that, while advances may certainly be noted, they occur along a continuum; they are parts of a complex spectrum of ideas and innovations to which chance, hosts of people, and the rhythms of the times all contribute.