609: The Nearly Men by Mike Green

by Gerard

609.22: Green, Mike. The Nearly Men: A Chronicle of Scientific Failure. UK: Tempus, 2007. 310 pp. ISBN 978-0-7524-4232-7.

Dewey Construction:

  • 600: Applied Science (Technology)
  • 609: Historical, geographic, and persons treatment
  • +.22: Collections

Watching the Olympics, I’m reminded that human history is often times thought of as a collection of “first people”—the first person to win the 100m and 200m dash in successive Olympics, the first person to break 1:41 in the 800m, and so on. And so, in history classes all over America, students memorize names and accomplishments of these first people as if the dates and places were the whole story. Sometimes, it’s the unsung heroes that make the story interesting. Sometimes, the second place finisher holds the key to the story.

Mike Green’s The Nearly Men is a collection of biographies of eight men who missed out on being the most celebrated men of their age. This is either due to vicious competition or benign neglect by their times and peoples. While I don’t have the time or the energy to detail all of what happens, here’s the list of his Nearly Men to whet your appetite:

  • Antonio Meucci: Pioneer of early telecommunication, inventing a proto-telephone, but was beat to the punch by Elisha Gray and later Alexander Graham Bell
  • Robert Hooke: A brilliant polymath of 17th century England who had little time to devote to his own research because he was entrusted with running the Royal Society and got bullied around by Isaac Newton
  • Nikola Tesla: Inventor of alternating current, wireless induction, and many other technological marvels, but was constantly undermined by Edison and his minions at Menlo Park.
  • Joseph Swan: British inventor of the first real light bulb, but didn’t patent it fully, thus paving the way for Edison to legalize him out of the business
  • Alfred Russell Wallace: Co-founder of the theory of evolution who, because he was overseas when the ideas were published, never gained the notoriety or the fame of Charles Darwin for his research.
  • Alan Turing: Brilliant mathematician, pioneer in computer science, and breaker of Nazi codes who was marginalized after the fact for being openly gay in 1950s England.
  • Geoffrey Dummer: First conceptualized the integrated circuit (making every current electronic gadget possible), whose name gets hidden under the grandeur of Jack Kilby (winner of the Nobel Prize for its invention) and Robert Noyce, founder of the Intel Corporation.

Each of these men had a profound impact on the history of science and technology but they got sidelined by the men we remember today. Sometimes the eclipse was belligerent, sometimes genial. Alfred Wallace had no problem with playing second fiddle to Darwin, so long as the idea took hold and was generally accepted. Turing, up until his scandalous demise, was revered for his contributions to cryptanalysis and computer algorithms. But, for some reason or another, these men are often neglected when discussing the history of science.

As for the book itself, Green can get a little intrusive with his parenthetical remarks. They tend to pull the reader out of the story and introduce an element of judgment that just isn’t necessary. Also, you tend to get a picture of Thomas Edison as a complete pain-in-the-ass. All in all, an interesting read.