Good books on technology are not easy to find. Many engineers cannot write very well, and many writers have a difficult time understanding technology. Here, in no particular order, are some recommendations. Some are very new and some are out of print. Unless otherwise indicated, all of the books listed are for adult readers.
A note on British books: You may run into problems with titles and terminology. For example, you may find the same British book under more than one title. This has to do with some strangeness on the part of publishing houses in the UK. British technical terms often differ from those in the US. Power lines are "mains," a wrench is a "spanner," and they drive on the wrong side of the road. Patience and perseverance are recommended.
1) _Experimental Science_, George M. Hopkins, Lindsay Publications, ISBN 0-917914-49-X. There are two volumes.
This book is a reprint of a collection of Scientific American "Amateur Scientist" columns from around the turn of the century. Filled with one science demonstration after another, beautifully illustrated, carefully explained. The emphasis tilts a bit more towards theoretical science than applied science. The assumed audience is very similar to ours: adult, responsible, intelligent, and curious. Some materials are dangerous or obsolete, and some of the terminology is a bit odd: many terms pertaining to radio and electricity hadn't been standardized at that time.
2) _Incredible Everything_, Biesty, DK Publishing, ISBN 0-89577-850-5. Most "how things work" books seem to be from the UK, as is this one. Just published in 1997, it is very carefully illustrated and on a quick examination (at a Learning Zone store at a Columbus shopping mall) seems to be accurate, pertinent, and perfectly suited to US readers.
The format is a thin book with big, illustrated pages. Most of the discussion is of modern industrial processes: papermaking (not the handicraft kind, but the real stuff), aircraft manufacture, newspaper publishing, building construction and water treatment. There are also several historical processes as well, e.g. medieval castle building and armor manufacture. Hasty spot checks revealed no errors within my realm of knowledge. My impression is that this short book packs a lot into a small, attractive package, mostly by extremely clever layout and well-conceived illustrations.
3) _The Ancient Engineers_, L Sprague DeCamp.
Much of the history of technology involves works of civil engineering, like pyramids, canals, aqueducts, bridges and roads. Most modern civil engineering does not differ from the ancient work very significantly: the Romans used concrete and the Babylonians used asphalt. Thus an understanding of the ancient techniques gives a fairly good sense of how such work is done today.
The author is principally known for his writings in science fiction and adventure (he didn't create Conan the Barbarian like I thought, but he wrote several books in that genre) and is very entertaining. His research is meticulous and the book is very well organized and easy to read. There are a few line-drawing illustrations where needed.
The period covered is up to about the 15th Century, after which engineering became less empirical and more applied science. Since works of civil engineering are typically works of governments, a good deal of the material relates the structure of ancient nations to the structure of their roads, castles, and churches.
4) _The Great Iron Ship_, by James Dugan. This is the story of the _Great Eastern_, the first real ocean liner. Her lifespan covered a period of great technical and political significance: built to transport emigrants from England to Australia, she laid the first Atlantic telegraph cable. The technical details are carefully explained, and the story of the ship is skillfully related to the historical events of the time.
The writing is splendid: the author collaborated on several of Jacques Cousteu's books.
5) _American Science and Invention_, by Mitchell Wilson.
A large-format, finely-illustrated book which you'll generally find falling to pieces on the quarto shelves of your library, this history of technology from Colonial times to the 1930's was one of the great influences of my youth. The book richly deserves to be reprinted: the original edition was apparently bound using defective materials.
Wilson was a physicist who took up writing out of his fascination for the human aspects of science. The text is largely a technically-oriented collection of biographies of scientists and inventors. The illustrations include contemporary paintings, newspaper engravings, and patent drawings.
6) _Big Red_, author not recalled. I've had no luck finding out who actually wrote this: there are at least two other books by this name, neither of which is the one I'm talking about. I think its name might have been changed when they published the paperback edition I read.
One of that rare breed, the technically-oriented novel. It is a lightly-fictionalized account of the building of the Hoover Dam. The title is a reference to the Colorado River. The technical details are carefully researched and great attention is paid to the management aspects of a great construction project as well as the historical context of the dam.
7)_American Heritage of Invention and Technology_, a quarterly periodical published by Forbes.
This is an offshoot of _The American Heritage_ and a fairly unusual magazine. There is only one advertiser: General Motors. The articles are gloriously illustrated as only _American Heritage_ can do them, the paper is thick and glossy, and the articles are generally fascinating. Editorially, the emphasis is on the history of American technology, often very recent technology at that: aerospace and computers are well represented. Occasionally there will be an unfortunate foray off into the wilderness of the philosophy of science and technology, but all in all the magazine is worth reading and keeping.
8) _Weapons_, by Edwin Tunis
A good book for younger readers. It covers the history of weaponry from stone axes to nuclear weapons, and with it a good deal of the history of Western civilization. Superb illustrations.
9) _The World Book Encyclopedia_
Don't laugh. The encyclopedia should be anybody's first stop when researching a technical topic, and the _World Book_, copied word-for-word by generations of students the night before the report was due, does a particularly good job of explaining technology.
10) _The Trustee From the Toolroom_, by Nevil Shute (aka Nevil Shute Norway.)
The author's most famous book was _On the Beach_, but his other novels are equally remarkable in combining a technical outlook with excellent storytelling. He was trained as an aeronautical engineer, and most of his books contain airplanes and engineers. This particular book tells a good story about a quiet man driven to impressive deeds by unusual circumstances. In the process, it explains a good deal of the subculture of people who build machines as a hobby, and covers a fair amount of technology as well.
The author is British, and wrote extensively about Britain and Australia. Thus some of his terminology is a bit unusual, but easily translatable. This and his other novels explore the relationship between technology and human beings. One particularly interesting effort, _Round the Bend_, addresses the role of religion in a technical society.
11) _How Math Works_, by C Vorderman, Reader's Digest Books, ISBN 0-89577-850-5
Another new book spotted at the Learning Zone, this is an examination of the application of mathematics to technological problems. Written for young readers, it contains good illustrations and quite a few experiments to try.
12) _Airport_, by Arthur Hailey.
Again, don't laugh. Much of Hailey's work has been made into generally rotten movies, but his books are carefully researched and generally very accurate from a technical point of view. His _The Moneychangers_ is regularly assigned to finance students to teach them in a painless manner how banks work. _Airport_ is about the aviation industry, and it covers the operations of an airport well enough to make the dreary places look completely different after you read the book. Other good Hailey books are _Wheels_, which covers the automobile industry, and _Overload_, which is an examination of the electric power industry. For adult readers. Dean Martin made an unlikely airline captain in the original screen version of _Airport_, but beyond that it's fairly true to the original novel.
Hailey is everywhere. Remember an old movie, much quoted in more recent films, in which both pilot and copilot get food poisoning? The stewardess goes back into the cabin and, trying not to disturb the passengers, asks if anybody knows how to fly an airplane. That was _Runway Zero-Eight_, an early Hailey novel.
13) War novels of every kind.
Your standard British submarine novel can be a good introduction to technology. For whatever reason, I've found very few technical errors in most war novels, and quite a bit of the action revolves around the machinery. _Ice Station Zebra_, famous for being Howard Hughes' favorite movie, covers a lot of the issues involved in more modern military technology.
CS Forester wrote superb military novels of both modern and past wars. His technical descriptions are very clear. Forester wrote the famous Horatio Hornblower series.
Brian Callison has written many World War II novels, plus one (_Sea Story_, highly recommended) about modern merchant shipping. I think Callison is also Alexander Kent, who wrote novels similar to CS Forester's Horatio Hornblower series.
Edward Beach wrote stories about modern nuclear submarines and those in World War II.
Rudyard Kipling wasn't an engineer, but he clearly understood technology and described some of its aspects splendidly in both verse and prose.
13) Alfred P Morgan, the father of us all, wrote a number of "boy's books" of electrical experiments that most of us old codgers recall with some affection. Some of the experiments aren't as suitable as perhaps they once were: one experiment describes the construction of an electric shock device and invites the young investigator to "see how much your friends can take." There are lots of illustrations and I want clothes like those some day. Kewl.
Here's most of a note I got from Alfred P Morgan's granddaughter:
Thank you for the nice comment about my grandfather Alfred P Morgan. I have many of his books . I feel honored to have such an amazing person as a member of my family and wish that I knew this when he was still alive. He died in 1973 when I was in high school. At that time he seemed pretty weird always cooking up some experiment and always doing research for another book that he was writing . Actually, he wrote over 60 books, mostly in the field of radio and electronics but also pet books and aquarium books. He did all of his own research having all of the animals from the pet books living in his basement and always having an aquarium in each window of his house. His books were very easy to read and understand which was his gift to children. A few of them have been re-printed including the Boy Electrician by a company named Lindsay Publications 815-935-5353. (1913 edition) (http://www.lindsay.com)
He had three sons, which is why the books were always made for boys. The 70's editions were for boys and girls.
Best of luck to you in your endeavors. It sounds as if you have great ideas about teaching the world the right stuff. My children have always been allowed to take things apart and dig holes in the yard to see where they went. To the amazement of my neighbors both of my chidren are down to earth, inquisitive, bright, well-adjusted students...
14) McCaulay, _The Way Things Work_, Houghton-Mifflin, ISBN0-395-42857-2, $30.00.
Everybody tells me about this book, and the CD, and the rest, so finally I found a copy. I wish I liked it better. Technically, everything's correct, but I'm puzzled by the context of the drawings. Here's a troop of medieval workmen building a giant electric typewriter. Huh? I suppose that the idea is to somehow cushion the hard edges of technology, which is accomplished in other venues by dressing up Bill Nye the Science Guy and his collegues in clown suits.
15) James Burke's _Connections_ series bears looking at, though I might be illicitly attracted to it by my interest in the history of technology rather than by any great relevance to the project at hand.
16) Forrest Mims III has written about the only generally-available texts with which an average sort of person can actually learn electronics. His stuff is, unfortunately, no longer sold through Radio Shack. But it is still available through http://www.forrestmims.com and is still modestly priced (_Getting Started In Electronics_, his comprehensive book on the subject, is about five bucks.) The lab projects therein use Radio Shack parts, or parts that you could get at either Radio Shack or a surplus outfit like http://www.allcorp.com. If you look at the prices for everything you could possibly buy to complete Mims' labs, it'll be obvious that nobody's making a lot of money off of this deal. Ages 12 to ninety can benefit. I use Mims' circuits in my demonstrations.
17) The Way Science Works, Macmillan, ISBN 0-02-860822-9, $30.
No author is listed, for some reason--it's just Macmillan. This is a big, colorful, thick, heavily-illustrated British book that pretty well encompasses most of the shortcomings of the genre. The section on aircraft is concerned with "fly-by-wire," not how you'd fly most aircraft, or why one might wish to apply automation to the process. There's also a thorough treatment of the magnetically-levitated train, whose perfection and general adoption has been eagerly awaited for the past thirty years.
There's a two-page treatment of the video recording camera, which is pretty short for the most complex piece of consumer equipment ever sold. More space is devoted to computers, but the same problem remains. Now it's patently impossible to give a proper treatment of complex electronic devices in such a general text, but the attitude reflected in this book seems to be pretty un-apologetic, not admitting that the student would have to delve considerably further into digital electronics or optics to have a good understanding of the product under discussion. Nope, they say: here it is!!! This is pretty much the attitude we see at the corporate science museums these days. There's a fear there of scaring the kids and admitting that we haven't told 'em the whole story.
18) Man the Builder, by Gosta Sandstrom This is an old coffee-table format book that was written by a Swedish tunnel engineer who's pretty sore about the fall of the Roman Empire. The technology is very clear, the history is fascinating, the writing is very good, and there are lots of illustrations. I read this maybe fifteen years ago and plan to renew the relationship if I can find a copy.
19) Machines, by Baker and Haslam, 1994, Thompson Learning, ISBN#156857-256-0
This childrens' book is part of a somewhat obscure series called "Make It Work!" It's confined to mechanisms which children are encouraged to build themselves. The designs are extremely clever--I particularly liked the gears made from corrugated cardboard--and the historical and technological context of each mechanism is concisely but thoroughly discussed. There is a high degree of technical integrity here: the authors are very careful to make only valid simplifications in the material.
20) Herbert S. Zim
I think I always wanted to be Herbert S. Zim. I lived on his childrens' science books when I was a pup in the 1950's and his work still stands up to the best of the genre. You'll find them scattered through the childrens' science section of your library. Zim also coordinated the Golden Nature Guides, which were small-format paperbacks about various sorts of plants and animals. I bought the one about spiders to see if it would help me overcome a phobia thereof. I still jumped, but I learned a lot about the beasties and calmed down somewhat.
21) The New Science of Strong Materials, J.E. Gordon
A glorious book. The author is a British aircraft designer who helped develop fiberglass-reinforced plastics. It's a highly technical book that happens to be extremely entertaining. And when you're done, you'll understand why an understanding of materials is essential to a mastery of technology, and you'll have a good start on it. This author apparently has two other books that I'll try to snag at some point.
22) Metals in the Service of Man, author also unrecalled.
Another splendid British book that runs through an introduction to metallurgy in an understandable and entertaining style. I'll get the author for this one, too. I learned a great deal from this one, but I'd suggest that you read entry (21) first--not as a prerequisite, but as an appetizer.
23)Automobile: The Inside Story, Frank Young, Gloucester 1982, 37pp, color, ISBN 531-03460-7
A British childrens' book that does a pretty comprehensive job of showing how automobiles work and how they're constructed. It happens to discuss the development of one of the Fiat cars which I think ultimately came to the US as the Yugo. But there's a good discussion of the automobile engine and transmisssion as well as modern manufacturing techniques. Some British terms (e.g.,bonnet and boot) are used, but not to excess. Adults would benefit from this sort of book, but it's hardly a dignified medium to teach them from. Therein lies the hook for my program.
24)Cranes, Dump Trucks, Bulldozers, and other building machines, Terry Jennings, Kingfisher 1993, 40pp, color, ISBN 1-85697-865-6
Still another British childrens' book, quite nicely Americanized. A comprehensive coverage of just about everything you'd see at a construction site, along with experiments for kids (and adults) to do at home that illustrate the principles of each machine. I learned a few things from this book myself: I never quite knew how those tall cranes built themselves as the building goes up. Fairly precise illustrations, though the more complex mechanisms seem a tad fuzzy in places. This is a problem in lots of books: it's not so clear that the author or illustrator knew how the device (in this case, an air hammer) works.
25) Science Fair Projects with Electricity & Electronics, Bob Bonnet and Dan Keen, Sterling, ISBN 0-8069-1300-2
I'm probably prejudiced against this book because I don't like the science fair format for teaching technical material: when you're learning how stuff works, it's pretty awkward to pose a formal hypothesis every time you go to a new topic. That's what they do in this book, and it's a bit strange at times.
The book has some 40 projects that might satisfy a science teacher who's forcing some poor kid to do a science fair project, but it's a poor way to teach the material and I'm very uncomfortable about some of the implied conclusions. There is, for example, an investigation of the static electric charge from a TV set's picture tube. That's fine, but it's packaged as an investigation of the harmful effects of sitting too close to the screen.
The book is recent, 1996, and it takes advantage of the fact that most kids have access to electronic devices unavailable to earlier generations, like a pair of cheap walkie-talkies or an electronic music keyboard. One good project has the kid use an AM radio as a lightning detector, and there's a reasonable attempt at a directional antenna using walkie-talkies and aluminum foil. Moreover, and we can be thankful for small favors, the text doesn't have any eco-political content. Unfortunately, many of the projects demand the use of a voltmeter, which I generally don't favor because they aren't particularly intuitive.
The authors and illustrator clearly have problems with electronic parts designation. One project specifies the use of a "thermistor" with neither a part number nor suggested source of supply. Since there are an infinite variety of thermistors (or so it seems when one is needed for a particular purpose,) this project will work only if the kid is extraordinarily lucky in his parts selection. The illustrations are very stylized and cartoon-like (the illustrator is clearly a devotee of R. Crumb), which is fun on one level but not very helpful in a technical textbook. Some of the components were very difficult to identify from the illustrations, and no other schematics are included.
LED's are used a good deal, but the authors are unaware that they aren't bilateral devices and won't work if hooked backwards in a circuit. They also don't know how IC's are designated: one parts list specifies "integrated circuit (such as Sylvania ECG-876) available through local TV repair shop." Sylvania dropped the ECG line of semiconductors at least fifteen years ago (it's now Philips) and TV repair shops wouldn't stock a specialized IC like this: it's a dedicated LED flasher, not something more universal like a 555 timer. Something called a "printed circuit mounting board" is also specified in the parts list, but it's not pictured and I kind of wonder what they're talking about.
This book is produced in the USA, which is rare for technical books these days, and I suppose that's just as well. The authors apparently know nothing about electronics construction--the lack of attention to vital details condemns most of the electronics projects--and have only a vague understanding of electricity in general.
26) The Secret Life of Machines, Tim Hunkin and Rex Garrod. A British television series from around 1989.
I don't know why I hadn't included this before. The Secret Life of Machines is, if anything, the inspiration for my program. Hunkin and Garrod are artists and sculptors, and their stuff is far more attractive than mine is ever likely to be. Tapes of the series are, I think, available from PBS or somewhere like that.
27) Airframe, Michael Crichton, Knopf, 1996 ISBN 0-679-44648-6
I was prepared to dislike this book because it seems to have been marketed as something that would scare the heck out of anyone who flies on an airliner--at least that was the impression I got from its displays at airport bookstores. It had to be, I assumed, a condemnation of the way airplanes were designed or something like that. Turns out that _Airframe_ is just the opposite. Very much in the spirit and style of Arthur Hailey's novels, it's the detailed description of the investigation of an airplane accident. It wasn't a crash, but the plane went out of control sufficiently to Cuisinart a few passengers who weren't buckled in properly. The evil forces here are the determinedly non-technical television people who try to make the incident into just the sort of condemnation of aircraft design I was concerned about. I learned a lot about airplanes and how they are built.
The Thomas Edison Book of Easy and Incredible Experiments, T.A. Edison Foundation, Wiley 1988, ISBN 0-471-62090-4
I don't know who the Thomas A. Edison Foundation is, but this is an exceptionally good book. I came across it in a high-school library--nobody seems to know where it came from. The experiments are practical and look like they'd be quite straightforward to perform. There's even a geiger counter in there. It's a book that's somewhat in the hallowed tradition of Alfred P Morgan (cf).
(I'll work on this list and update it periodically. Suggestions are welcome: see the e-mail device at the end of this Web page.