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The Things We Make

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Book Review: ‘The Things We Make’: How Invention Really Works

“The Things We Make: The Unknown History of Invention from Cathedrals to Soda Cans” by Bill Hammack explores engineering and the engineering method. (Sourcebook)

We often hear about better living through science. Yet progress in improving our lives most often comes from engineers rather than scientists. Engineers make the things that improve the human condition. Scientists follow, explaining how and why the things engineers make work, and taking the credit. We speak of rocket science, when it is really rocket engineering.

“The Things We Make: The Unknown History of Invention from Cathedrals to Soda Cans,” by Bill Hammack explores engineering and the engineering method. It shows how invention really works.

Hammack starts by showing why you don’t need to know why something works in order to build it. He opens with a chapter on constructing medieval cathedrals, complex structures that collapse when built badly. He shows how the master mason used rules of thumb, which were developed empirically, to guide construction. This, Hammack reveals, is the engineering method: a process of methodical and actionable problem solving. As Hammack shows, the engineer often doesn’t know why these rules work, just that they do and they deliver the results desired.

The rest of the book is used to illustrate the engineering method in action. He uses virtually every form of technology to drive home his points. He takes readers on trips exploring the development of photography, automobiles, machinery, ceramics, rocketry, lighting, and more.

Each chapter follows the path that led us to today’s final products. In virtually every case, “why” something worked trailed after the solution was worked out. He also shows why antipathy so often exists between scientists and engineers. To scientists, engineers “cheat” by doing things they do not understand. One should understand things first. For engineers, the solution is the goal; understanding why it works is secondary.

Hammack also blows apart the myth of the lone inventor in this book. He shows how the lightbulb moments in history are always the product of evolutionary development. This includes the development of the lightbulb. In one chapter, he shows how Thomas Edison, Hiram Maxim, and others, contributed in significant ways to produce the modern lightbulb. He hammers this concept home in another chapter on microwave ovens. It underscores the points Hammack makes throughout, while undermining the creation myth of the microwave. (The actual story is more interesting.)

“The Things We Make” is a captivating read, as entertaining as informative. It will make readers look at engineering with new respect.

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Many thanks to NetGalley for the ARC of this new work. Bill Hammack has given us a highly-readable book. As a disclaimer, I am an engineer. This new book will absolutely appeal to anyone in engineering that has an interest in reading about engineering or science. You definitely do not have to be a technical person to enjoy this or learn from it. Highly recommended.

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THE THINGS WE MAKE by Bill Hammack is subtitled "The Unknown History of Invention from Cathedrals to Soda Cans"” and he does indeed describe many discoveries. Much of his description – whether it center on cathedral architecture, O-Rings and space, or microwave ovens – focuses on contrasting the scientific and engineering methods. As such, the appeal seems greatest for a more specialized audience. Throughout the text he stress the importance of several "rules of thumb" and contributions of engineering to solving real world situations. The Appendix provides an excellent summary outline. THE THINGS WE MAKE received starred reviews from Booklist ("A must-read for anyone interested in engineering or the history of technology and human achievement.") and Publishers Weekly ("clever and curious account").

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5 stars.

It’s stunningly captivating. I can’t say it’s a book, its a love letter to the engineering process. All written in a very approachable way. It’s the philosophy behind the methods with fitting examples. All throughout the book I could feel the author’s fascination with the subject. And I couldn’t help but share the enthusiasm. It’s as far from dry engineering books as I can imagine. The author shows us the human aspect of engineering. The book has a nice philosophical angle to it. It’s an amazing read. In fact it’s my favorite book of this year so far, and it’s going to be hard to beat that.

I recommend this book, and I hope a lot of people will read it. Even if you don’t have much interest in engineering or its history, read it for entertainment, it’s well worth it.

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My thanks to both NetGalley and the publisher Sourcebooks for an advanced copy of this book on engineering, science, history and the power and strength of ideas.

As a long time reader of science fiction I am quite familiar with the stories of people traveling into the past and impressing the locals with their knowledge of the future and technology. After reading the first chapter of this remarkable book I realize that if I ever fell into a wormhole and found myself 700 years in the past I would be in trouble. What was the everyday to them from building a cathedral or removing poison from crops, are skills that are not in my repertoire, and probably will never be, but I can now more appreciate these feats for what they are. Bill Hammack, professor, author and podcaster in his book The Things We Make: The Unknown History of Invention from Cathedrals to Soda Cans introduces readers to various inventions, events that lead up to them, and their adaptions over time.

The book begins with a discussion on master masons and how these early engineers, mostly illiterate designed great cathedrals all over Europe, without any understanding of the math or principles they were using. I never knew the importance of just a simple piece of string in the building process. From here Hammack discourses on the idea of the rule of thumb, and how masons would just know based on trial and error what worked and what didn't. This they would pass on to apprentices who would pass them on also, until the day that science and engineering started to come together, and suddenly the rule of thumb was now a field. The book then travels the world and ideas, from brakes, to agriculture and soda cans.

I found this book incredibly interesting. As a long time player of role playing and Civilization games the first chapter was truly eye opening. The idea that these builders were content with, well it worked for the guy who trained me, and his stuff is still standing, so it should work for me is just amazing. From there the book offers an almost different view of how things work, as I never quite knew that there is such a difference in thought between science and engineering. The writing is very good, and I had no problem following or understanding what was being presented. I might have had to slow down and read some things twice, but that is on the reader and not the writer. There are plenty of "oh wow" moments or "oh that is cool" and I learned quite a bit.

Recommended for people with an interest in science and engineering. I would also say curious teens might enjoy this too. Also I would suggest this for writers in both science fiction and fantasy as one can really get a sense of how one small thing can change a society. There are plenty of ideas for alternative history stories, or designing a city for role playing or even computer game design. A book that is not only informative but could really give a lot of writers fresh ideas for their own work.

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This is a very fun and very approachable exploration of what makes engineering a discipline in its own right. Hammack argues that engineering is not "applied science" but an avenue to exploration that is trying to achieve something unique and critical to the world we live in. The examples given explore a breadth and depth of engineers, breaking away from white male examples, actively showcasing the need within engineering itself to bring in multiple voices to achieve its results.

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I had never really understood the difference between science and engineering, but this book did a great job of explaining exactly this. Bill Hammack tells great stories and gives clear explanations to make points, and he does this with well-paced, compelling writing and some great illustrations. At the beginning of the book, I felt that Hammack was being defensive about engineering but by the end of the book, I understood where he was coming from. The tone of the book is conversational and I felt as if Hammack was talking to me over coffee. With Hammack’s crisp writing style, I could have read a longer book. Thank you to Netgalley and Sourcebooks for the digital review copy.

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I'm an engineer, and I enjoy reading books about engineering - it's history, techniques, etc. This is usually the most enjoyable when the author is an engineer himself, as is the case here. This time, however, it didn't quite work out. I realize the subtitle was probably coined by an editor, but the blurb describes something that isn't what we get. What we get is an oddly-assembled collection of bits and pieces that almost read like leftover chapters from other books - what they call a "fix-up" in science fiction. The first half gives several short examples of engineering sucesses in early history, all to support the author's point - an excellent point, at that - that engineering isn't the applied science that everyone thinks it is. The engineering often comes first, with the science filled in later. He doesn't say so, buy maybe science is - ahem - applied engineering. Take that, Sheldon Cooper!

The second half changes course, with a small number of longer chapters meant to illustrate what has already been demonstrated. These chapters could've come from a longer collection of more in-depth histories of innovations, and do we really need ten pages of history of one man's work finding new techniques for ceramic dishes?

There are also cases where an editor seems to have popped in to add remarks that jar with the rest of the style and content, calling out the past's faults when it comes to the status of women and non-European races. They don't follow the author's point and only serve to interrupt the flow. They have their place, but it isn't here.

The author is a professor of engineering and focuses more on R&D than the rest of us in the field, as most engineers in my experience work on design or analysis, and later move into project or program management if they have the aptitude and inclination to advance. Instead of the longer chapters I mentioned above, some shorter examples in these areas might've been interesting.

All in all, it's an OK read but it doesn't quite satisfy. I enjoyed the main point, but it was a funny way to get there. I plan to check out some of his other titles next, to see what else he has to offer.

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