TAG | Paul Collins

Jun/13

5

Wow books!!

BANVARD’S FOLLY, THIRTEEN TALES OF RENOUNED OBSCURITY, FAMOUS ANONYMITY AND ROTTEN LUCK,   by  Paul Collins.   609.22 COL

Checking over the dewey numbers of sections of the library is a regular and not all that stimulating a task  except that from time to time it throws up a remarkable book. One day last summer, I was working through the early 609s – the history of technology area.  Most of the books seemed fine, except one which I found totally baffling – “Banvard’s Folly”, by Paul Collins.  

Was it about the history of technology? Yes…a bit of it. Dipping into the preface  I found references to technological breakthroughs that were pretty obscure …The Edison kinetophone. Gaumont’s Chronphone. The synchronoscope. The movietone.   But then pushing onto into the first chapter one encounters the amazing American artist and entertainer John Banvard, who did magic shows on an 1850s paddle steamer and then went on to create an early form of moving pictures. Alas by then it was too late. I was hooked!

Each chapter focusses on a new character, famous in their own time but obscure now. The author’s take on his own book is that it is about interesting failures. But many of the amazing men described in these pages were enormously successful and made fortunes out of what they did. For example a George Psalmanazar appeared in London in 1704 and declared that he was a Formosan, a native of the island we call today Taiwan, and the first of his kind to reach the shores of Great Britain. To carry off his ruse, he invented a language and a written text that he claimed was Formosan. He was… an instant celebrity!

Many of the characters in this book were men of substance. Take Alfred E Beach, the owner and publisher of Scientific American . He astounded the good folk of New York in 1870 by revealing that he had build a pneumatic underground railway from Broadway to Murray Street. Until the opening party, no one in City Hall was even aware of the project.

The book is extremely hard to categorize.  Each chapter is part biography, part science, part social history and wholly engrossing. It is written by Paul Collins who has other fantastic books in our collection. This is definitely number 1 in my list of WOW books!

Cheers,

Jim Hill

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