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Most of us credit Thomas Edison for the lights in our homes and Alexander Graham Bell for the phone constantly in our hands. But there are plenty of other inventions whose origin stories are much less familiar. Who do we credit for our ubiquitous televisions, elevators, and doughnuts? The books in this bibliography not only highlight the often forgotten names associated with everyday products but also look at the processes behind them. These great inventions usually began with a problem or a curious “what if” idea, or even an accident with unexpected results. In every case, the results will inspire—and sometimes amuse—scientists and engineers in the making.
Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine. By Laurie Wallmark. Illus. by April Chu. 2015. Creston, $17.99 (9781939547200). Gr. 1–3.Young Ada Byron Lovelace (daughter of poet Lord Byron) filled journals with invention ideas, but when measles left her blind and paralyzed for years, her mother kept her mind sharp with number problems. After a healthier Ada began helping Charles Babbage with his Analytical Engine (a mechanical computer), she created an algorithm for the machine and invented computer programming. Diane Stanley’s Ada Lovelace, Poet of Science (2016) also tells the story.
Ben Franklin’s Big Splash: The Mostly True Story of His First Invention. By Barb Rosenstock. Illus. by S. D. Schindler. 2014. Boyds Mills/Calkins Creek, $16.95 (9781620914465). Gr. 3–5.Young Ben Franklin was considered strange for swimming during a time when most thought it made you ill. He was also curious and wondered how he could learn to swim like a fish. After observing the features of fish, he designed his first invention: swim fins. Though his subsequent swim sandals were less successful, this enthusiastic book emphasizes how Ben never stopped looking for ways to solve problems.
The Boy Who Invented TV: The Story of Philo Farnsworth. By Kathleen Krull. Illus. by Greg Couch. 2009. Knopf, $19.99 (9780375945618). Gr. 3–5.At the turn of the twentieth century, electricity was rare, but young Philo Farnsworth was intrigued by new inventions, like the phonograph. What captured his attention the most was then just a thought: television. Krull concisely explains the scientific concepts between this now-commonplace invention, as well as how Farnsworth, inspired one day by the parallel lines of plowing a field, went on to develop it.
Caleb Davis Bradham: Pepsi-Cola Inventor. By Sheila Griffin Llanas. 2014. ABDO/Checkerboard, $18.95 (9781624033155). Gr. 3–6.Part of the Food Dudes series, this biography focuses on Caleb Davis Bradham, a late-1800s pharmacist who jumped on the soda-fountain craze. He originally promoted Pepsi-Cola (known as “Brad’s Drink” by North Carolina locals) as an aid to healthy digestion, but before long, people were drinking it for enjoyment. Personal photos and Pepsi ads over time add further interest.
The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer’s Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors. By Chris Barton. Illus. by Tony Persiani. 2009. Charlesbridge, $18.95 (9781570916731). Gr. 2–5.As Joe Switzer hoped to improve his magician career, his brother, Bob, was recuperating from an accident that ended his dream of being a doctor. Together, they began experimenting with fluorescence, and through trial and error, they created fluorescent paints and dyes. Fitting retro-style artwork, complete with Day-Glo colors, illustrates their story, which also describes how their invention changed the world.
Earmuffs for Everyone! How Chester Greenwood Became Known as the Inventor of Earmuffs. By Meghan McCarthy. Illus. by the author. 2015. Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman, $17.99 (9781481406376). K–Gr. 3.This unusual biography begins by introducing the inventor of one of the first kinds of earmuffs, William Ware. So why is Chester Greenwood credited as the inventor? Using engaging text and cartoonish illustrations, McCarthy explains how Greenwood not only improved the design of earmuffs but patented them. The author continues with interesting examples of patents and improved inventions.
The Fantastic Ferris Wheel: The Story of Inventor George Ferris. By Betsy Harvey Kraft. Illus. by Steven Salerno. 2015. Holt/Christy Ottaviano, $17.99 (9781627790727). Gr. 1–3.Expectations were high for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and engineer Gustav Eiffel wanted to contribute something breathtaking. Inspired by the waterwheels of his boyhood, Ferris built a 26-story moving wheel with observation cars that was later named after him. A complement to this detailed book is Mr. Ferris and His Wheel, by Kathryn Gibbs Davis (2014).
Furs, Fins, and Feathers: Abraham Dee Bartlett and the Invention of the Modern Zoo. By Cassandre Maxwell. Illus. by the author. 2015. Eerdmans, $17 (9780802854322). K–Gr. 3.Intricate cut-paper and mixed-media illustrations lend period details to this biography of Abraham Dee Bartlett, supervisor of the London Zoo from 1859 to 1897. His lifelong interest in and empathy with animals inspired revolutionary innovations in how modern zoos operate. Better health care, enhanced diets, and larger, more natural habitats were just a few of these improvements.
Going Up! Elisha Otis’s Trip to the Top. By Monica Kulling. Illus. by David Parkins. 2012. Tundra, $17.95 (9781770492400). Gr. 1–3.As a boy in the early 1800s, Otis watched the pulleys and ropes hoist hay on his family’s farm. Later, he was inspired to create a hoisting platform for heavy machinery. This book in the Great Idea series explains how Otis expanded his operation to make elevators for people. He showcased his invention to skeptics at the 1854 World’s Fair and paved the way for skyscrapers. Other titles in the series include In the Bag! Margaret Knight Wraps It Up (2011) and Clean Sweep! Frank Zamboni’s Ice Machine (2016).
The Hole Story of the Doughnut. By Pat Miller. Illus. by Vincent X. Kirsch. 2016. HMH, $17.99 (9780544319615). K–Gr. 3.Before Captain Hanson Gregory commanded a clipper, he served on the Ivanhoe at age 16 as a cook’s assistant in 1847. After frying cakes that had crispy edges and raw centers (dubbed “sinkers” by the crew), Gregory cut holes out of the cake centers and created the first doughnuts. Because sailors like bold stories, the author also tells some of the legends associated with Gregory’s invention.
Hoop Genius: How a Desperate Teacher and a Rowdy Gym Class Invented Basketball. By John Coy. Illus. by Joe Morse. 2013. Carolrhoda, $16.95 (9780761366171). Gr. 2–4.In 1891, James Naismith, a young gym teacher, took over a rowdy gym class that forced two teachers to quit. After trying—and failing—with variations of indoor football, soccer, and lacrosse, he decided he needed a game that avoided tackling and running with the ball. With an emphasis on accuracy over force and two old peach baskets, Naismith invented the game of basketball.
How Jelly Roll Morton Invented Jazz. By Jonah Winter. Illus. by Keith Mallett. 2015. Roaring Brook/Neal Porter, $17.99 (9781596439634). K–Gr. 3.Winter asks readers to imagine growing up like Jelly Roll Morton. What would have happened if they were born in New Orleans, got arrested as an infant in a saloon, or grew up playing piano in bars? Morton infamously bragged that he invented jazz, and although Winter doesn’t completely agree, he suggests that Morton possessed the recipe for jazz, combining elements to create a musical gumbo.
I Is for Idea: An Inventions Alphabet. By Marcia Shonberg. Illus. by Kandy Radzinski. 2006. Sleeping Bear, $16.89 (9781585362578). Gr. 1–4.This alphabet book introduces 26 often overlooked, life-changing inventions. Short, rhyming text gives a brief overview, while longer prose in sidebars provides details about the invention. They range from the seemingly simple radio, umbrella, and zipper to the more unusual frozen foods, Kevlar bulletproof vests, and neon lights. A section on patents ends the informational book.
Inventing the Skateboard. By Christine Zuchora-Walske. 2016. Child’s World, $19.95 (9781634074599). Gr. 3–6.In this entry in the Spark of Invention series, kids will learn that the skateboards of today are the product of many people’s efforts over time. It begins with the crude boards of the 1920s and moves to the 1960s, when surfer Larry Stevenson built better boards with clay wheels and a rear tail for a smoother ride and more control. A final chapter highlights Frank Nansworthy’s contribution: plastic wheels.
The Marvelous Thing That Came from a Spring: The Accidental Invention of the Toy That Swept the Nation. By Gilbert Ford. Illus. by the author. 2016. Atheneum, $17.99 (9781481450652). PreS–Gr. 3.The Slinky was conceived during WWII, when engineer Richard Jones noticed a spring he’d been working with could “walk” from a shelf. It gained momentum as a pop-culture touchstone when his wife, Betty, found a way to market it, from department-store demos to catchy jingles. Ford includes more vintage treasures, from dominoes to pick-up sticks, in his three-dimensional set-piece illustrations.
Milton Hershey. By Sarah L. Schuette. 2014. Capstone, $21.32 (9781476596402). K–Gr. 2.If kids don’t instantly recognize the name Milton Snavely Hershey, they’ll certainly know the basically unchanged, famous chocolate bar he invented in 1900. This beginner biography in the Business Leaders series tells how Hershey never finished school and, instead, was forced to work as a candy-store apprentice. The event paved the way for him to become both a great chocolatier and humanitarian.
Miracle Mud: Lena Blackburne and the Secret Mud That Changed Baseball. By David A. Kelly. Illus. by Oliver Dominguez. 2013. Lerner/Millbrook, $16.95 (9780761380924). Gr. 2–4.Lena Blackburne always wanted to be a famous baseball player. In 1910, he began playing major-league baseball, but he was never a star like Babe Ruth and eventually became a coach. The umpires complained about soggy balls that were hard to throw and hit. When Blackburne accidentally discovered a mud that could cover baseballs and make them last longer, his magic mud revolutionized the game.
Pop! The Invention of Bubble Gum. By Meghan McCarthy. Illus. by the author. 2010. Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman, $15.99 (9781416979708). Gr. 1–3.McCarthy’s colorful illustrations with big- and round-eyed characters are the perfect accompaniment to this biography of Walter Diemer. Originally a young accountant in a small, family-owned candy and gum factory, the unlikely, amateur scientist used access to the factory’s laboratory—and tenacity—to invent bubble gum. Facts about Diemer and gum conclude the fun book.
Six Dots: A Story of Young Louis Braille. By Jen Bryant. Illus. by Boris Kulikov. 2016. Knopf, $17.99 (9780449813379). Gr. 1–3.After an accident blinded young Louis Braille, he missed the knowledge gained through reading, and books with raised letters were unsatisfying alternatives. But when introduced to a French military code written in patterns of dots, Braille wondered if it could be expanded into an actual language. Artwork that captures the inventor’s cleverness and tactile nature illustrates this picture-book biography.
Snowmobile: Bombardier’s Dream Machine. By Jules Older. Illus. by Michael Lauritano. 2012. Charlesbridge, $14.95 (9781580893343). Gr. 4–6.Growing up in a small Quebec town in the early twentieth century meant being cut off from the outside world each winter, and so Joseph-Armand Bombardier invented the snowmobile out of necessity rather than as a recreational vehicle. He envisioned an emergency vehicle capable of skimming across unplowed roads. But when the government mandated plowed roads, the vehicle morphed into the fun recreational device known today.
Stinky Sanitation Inventions. By Katie Marsico. 2013. Lerner/Twenty-First Century, $26.60 (9781467710909). Gr. 3–5.Although the invention of modern-day flushable toilets, sewers, and landfills evolved over time, this title in the Awesome Inventions You Use Every Day series explains in brief overviews how specific individuals looked for ways to handle poop and other garbage problems. The results were such inventions as toilet paper, disposable diapers, garbage trucks, pooper-scoopers, and more.
Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions. By Chris Barton. Illus. by Don Tate. 2016. Charlesbridge, $16.95 (9781580892971). Gr. 1–4.After a childhood of inventing things from spare parts, including homemade rockets, Lonnie Johnson had a successful career at NASA, designing a power pack for the probe Galileo’s mission to Jupiter. But it was while trying to design a new cooling system for refrigerators that the African American engineer accidentally created a high-power spray that became the popular Super Soaker toy.
The Woman Who Invented the Thread That Stops Bullets: The Genius of Stephanie Kwolek. By Edwin Brit Wyckoff. 2013. Enslow, $23.93 (9780766041417). Gr. 2–4.Drawing on her background of making thread and fabric out of chemicals, chemist Stephanie Kwolek set out to create fibers stronger than steel and became the inventor of Kevlar. In addition to telling her story, this entry in the Genius Inventors and Their Great Ideas series also provides a simple explanation of polymers and the many uses of Kevlar beyond bulletproof vests. The series also comprises The Man Who Invented the Laser (2013).
The Woman Who Invented Windshield Wipers: Mary Anderson and Her Wonderful Invention. By Sara L. Latta. 2014. Enslow, $7.95 (9781464403491). Gr. 2–4.When the first windshields appeared on cars in 1904, drivers had to clean them by hand. This entry in the Inventors at Work series tells how, in a time dominated by male drivers and scientists, it was an atypical woman who invented the first windshield wipers. After riding on street cars in the snow, Mary Anderson was inspired to design and patent her “window cleaning device.”
Angela Leeper is the Director of the Curriculum Materials Center at the University of Richmond (Va.).
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