Tag Archives: Witold Rybczynski

Technically First

This happens to me all the time: I hear about a book (or movie or album, but usually book) and find it at my library, then I read it and see mention of another book or figure, sending me off into that direction, where I find another book to read. And so on. I’ll call it the Wikipedia Effect, which is a little less hippie-dippie than calling it the Everything Is Connected Effect, though it’s of the same spirit.

This time, I listened to the 99% Invisible episode on the U.S. Post Office, based on Winifred Gallagher’s new book How the Post Office Created America: A History, which I went to look at in the stacks. I didn’t end up checking it out, but as my eyes wandered a little farther down the shelf I did see an intriguing title: A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable by John Steele Gordon.

Calling the story “heroic” is a bit much, but it’s a quick and well-done story of the small group of monied men in mid-eighteenth-century New York who staked their fortunes on basically willing the oceanic cable into being, even after some pretty serious setbacks. It’s a good companion with Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-Line Pioneers, a broader history of the invention of telegraphy.

I spotted it on a shelf at the library when I was looking for something completely different—is there a word for serendipity striking in the library? Librindipity?—but my interest in it made me realize I’m intrigued by the stories of how innovative technologies came into being.

In addition to these two books about the telegraph, I’ve already read a few books I think fit into this theme of the development of a revolutionary technology or notable technical achievement:

  • Screw and screwdriver (One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw by Witold Rybczynski)
  • Chairs (Now I Sit Me Down: From Klismos to Plastic Chair by Witold Rybczynski)
  • Photography (River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West by Rebecca Solnit)
  • Longitude (Longitude by Dava Sobel)

Some of these were heralded in their time, known right away to be revolutionary, but some were not. I’m interested in both: how things came into being whether we noticed them or not.

A quick brainstorm yielded a few more ideas for future reading along these lines. (I’ll need a hashtag for when I catch up with these. Let’s go with #TechnicallyFirst). There’s no guarantee I’ll read these; they’re just ideas gathered in one place for future reference:

  • Transcontinental Railroad (Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad by Stephen Ambrose)
  • Interstate Highways (The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways by Earl Swift)
  • Electricity (Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World by Jill Jonnes)
  • Pencils (The Pencil: A History Of Design And Circumstance by Henry Petroski)

Will have to keep adding to the list. But I thank A Thread Across the Ocean for sending me down this path, wherever it leads.

Now I Sit Me Down

“A chair is an everyday object with which the human body has an intimate relationship. You sit down in an armchair and it embraces you, you rub against it, you caress the fabric, touch the wood, grip the arms. It is this intimacy, not merely utility, that ultimately distinguishes a beautiful chair from a beautiful painting. If you sit on it, can it still be art? Perhaps it is more.”

Indeed it is. Witold Rybczynski’s new book Now I Sit Me Down: From Klismos to Plastic Chair: A Natural History is one of my favorite genres: a nichestory (as in niche + history). Like the first Rybczynski book I read (One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw), this one is a loving and learned micro-history of an everyday thing we usually don’t regard at all. The book weaves Rybczynski’s expertise and personal experience with stories about influential designers and craftsmen throughout history, along with some wider cultural criticism.

NPR’s review of the book has a nice collection of Rybczynski’s own illustrations from the book of the many different kinds of chairs he writes about. After reading this you’ll see them everywhere.