Form and Content

WithFathers of Industries, experienced journalist and industrial writer Leonard Fanning presents twenty-four brief biographies of prominent, mostly well-known inventors and scientists whose practical innovations have significantly altered and improved modern life. After an introductory chapter that surveys several of the pre-modern world’s principal innovators and their accomplishments through the middle of the eighteenth century, he arranges subsequent biographies in rough chronological order from James Watt (17361819) to Willis Haviland Carrier (18761950) and Lee De Forest (18731961). Within each biographical chapter, synoptic narratives cover the backgrounds of each personality, then touch upon the context in which the inventions occurred and their ensuing consequences. Most chapters are enlivened by fictionalized, but plausible, dialogue. Although they are of merely average quality, each chapter also contains one full-page or page-and-a-half illustration by Albert Orbaan. In a work of this nature, there was no need for notes, a bibliography, or an index. The book is easy to read and provides a considerable amount of intrinsically inter-esting material, simplified and often exaggerated for younger readers.

Most of the scientists and inventors covered will be familiar names, as will their inventions, to junior-high or middle-school students. Watt, Eli Whitney, Robert Fulton, the Wright brothers, Thomas A. Edison, and Alexander Graham Bell have long been in the public spotlight. Others, such as David Wilkinson, Nicholas-Louis Robert, John Stevens, Gail Borden, Charles Martin Hall, or Carrier, although significant figures, will be obscure ones. Every chapter contains details concerning the lives and contributions of these individuals that are doubtless unfamiliar and are worth knowing.

While Fanning’s chapter titles proclaim each of his subjects to be the “father” of an important industry, some modification of this extravagance is dovetailed into many of the biographies. For example, Edwin Drake, cited as the founder of the petroleum industry, while an important figure, in fact did not have the great idea for drilling for oil—George Bissell did—nor did Drake locate the site of the first successful well or invest his capital in it—banker James Townsend did. Drake seized the opportune time, invested the enterprise with his hard work, and finally was able to capitalize on the development of Pennsylvania’s first oil field. Captions aside, these and similar acknowledgments by the author make the substance of his work far more interesting than obvious suggestions of unilateral achievements.