Eureka: How Invention Happens


In my new book, Eureka: How Invention Happens, I chronicle the long history of discovery and ingenuity which gave rise in time to a “eureka moment” when a dream of invention became a reality for the first time.

Tracing the long pre-history of five twentieth century inventions which have transformed our lives, I discovered a fantastic cast of scientists and inspired amateurs whose ingenuity has given us the aeroplane, television, the bar code, the personal computer and the mobile phone. Not one of these inventions can be attributed to a lone genius who experiences a moment of inspiration. Nearly all innovations exist in the imagination before they are finally made to work by the hard graft of inventors who draw on the discoveries of others. My research revealed some startling connections: for example, a new printing technique discovered by an impoverished Bavarian playwright in the nineteenth century played its part in the creation of the microchip.

While the discoveries of scientists have provided vital knowledge which has made innovation possible, I was surprised to discover that, more often than not, it was the amateur who enjoysed the “eureka moment” when an invention worked for the first time. While tracing the history of the five twentieth century inventions which are so much a part of our lives today I concluded that only one could be said to have come about through necessity. This was the bar code, saviour of the American superstores. There was never any perceived need of an aeroplane, a telephone, a home computer or television. Their invention came about through the dogged persistence of a few people who were determined to defy the sceptics and to show that the impossible could be achieved.

Eureka: how invention happens will be published in July by Yale University Press.

‘Eureka gave me much pleasure and made me prouder than ever to be called an inventor. Gavin Weightman focuses on five inventions that define our lives, describing the tortuous path to success of each and dissecting in fascinating detail the worlds from which they emerged: not professional laboratories or big business or industry, but lone individuals with an idea who were uninhibited by a scientific community telling them it could not be done. I have always said “there is an invention in all of us”. This book not only amuses and informs, but will give heart to anyone who has an idea of their own.’
—Trevor Baylis OBE, CBE

‘What a joy it was to discover Eureka! I read this book with great pleasure, savouring equally the stories of surprisingly circuitous technological development and the uncommonly interesting human beings involved.’
—Henry Petroski, author of The Essential Engineer & The House with Sixteen Handmade Doors

‘Gavin Weightman’s book is a gem. He takes five icons of modern technology and shows that their histories and inventions are wonderfully complex and historically rich. He explains complicated science and technology with great facility. Who would have thought that the history of the bar code could be so fascinating?’
—William Bynum, author of A Little History of Science

‘This book is an inspiring story of enthusiastic amateur inventors and unsung pioneers. Often self-taught and short of funds, they had the imagination and determination to keep on with their experiments, undeterred by the risk of being labelled cranks or crackpots. Weightman puts these visionaries centre-stage, leading us through the maze of fascinating experiments, breakthroughs, and occasional disasters that led to the “eureka!” moments.’
—Julie Halls, author of Inventions That Didn’t Change the World