March 02, 2023


When Everything Went Wrong: 10 Real Stories of Inventors Who Didn’t Give Up! By Max Temporelli and Barbara Gozzi. Illustrations by Agnese Innocente. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

     Most new things don’t work. Most new ideas don’t pan out. Most plans fail. We rightly celebrate the grand innovations of thought and process and creativity that bring us so many items we appreciate and take for granted today, but we tend to behave as if all that stuff just happened – as if somebody came up with an idea, had a “eureka!” moment, and something new and significant was born into the world.

     The reality is very, very different, and the sooner young, up-and-coming idea merchants and creators realize that, the better. Thus, When Everything Went Wrong is a valuable learning guide and an unusually straightforward way to let young people know – in a thoroughly nonjudgmental way – that most of the wonderful things they conceptualize are not going to happen. Or at least not the way they think they will happen.

     When Everything Went Wrong urges what is essentially a failure-is-success way of thinking, and the textbook case of that is Thomas Edison – whose accomplishments are presented first in the book. Edison had a devilishly difficult time figuring out how to make an electric light bulb. But he never gave up trying and experimenting, and became famous (and eminently quotable) for proclaiming that he had not failed 10,000 times but in fact had succeeded in showing that 10,000 things would not work. What a fantastic attitude! Young readers of When Everything Went Wrong who are able to absorb that viewpoint will have a much, much easier time in their future creativity than ones who become despondent over failed efforts – of which there are many, in any area you care to name.

     After presenting Edison’s situation, Max Temporelli and Barbara Gozzi set forth nine others, in multiple fields. The reason for their sequence of presentation is unclear – it is neither alphabetical nor chronological – but each person profiled in the book is worth knowing about, and if none is as well-known as Edison, all were highly accomplished inventors who had to find their way to success by trudging through failure after failure.

     What all these creative thinkers had in common was the ability to bounce back when things did not work as they thought they would – and the ability to look at what went wrong and use whatever it might be as a gateway to a better approach. And as the book shows, failure need not be technological: it can also be society-driven. Thus, Jan Ernst Matzeliger’s creation of a machine to make shoe construction far more efficient – allowing a tenfold increase in producing shoes – was blocked for years by traditional shoemakers’ skepticism. And James Dyson’s invention of a bagless vacuum cleaner fell victim to the manufacturers of traditional-with-bag units – so that Dyson had to set up his own company to produce his revolutionary unit.

     Most people profiled in When Everything Went Wrong are not household names. Yes, many readers will know of Guglielmo Marconi and his creation of the wireless telegraph, and at least some may have heard that Wilson Greatbatch developed the cardiac pacemaker. But fewer likely have heard of Margarete Steiff, who tried to make pincushion elephants but found that people refused to use them that way, preferring to have children play with them – resulting, later, in Steiff’s invention of the teddy bear (whose connection to U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt is unaccountably omitted from the book). Stephanie Louise Kwolek’s role in creating the super-strong fabric Kevlar is much less known than Charles Goodyear’s success at developing artificial rubber (although the book wrongly calls him “the inventor of rubber” – there are multiple small errors of this sort that somewhat mar the work’s quality). And although microwave ovens and Coca-Cola are so much a part of everyday life that it is hard to think of when, how or by whom they were first created, it is fascinating to read the stories of Percy Spencer’s melted candy bar (which led him to figure out microwave cooking) and John Stith Pemberton’s accidental creation of Coca-Cola when he poured sparkling water into a medicine mix based on cocaine (an ingredient not mentioned in the book, although it is key to the story). Pleasant illustrations by Agnese Innocente nicely complement the brief but mostly accurate stories in When Everything Went Wrong, and young readers – and even adults – will not only enjoy the book but also benefit from the underlying message (repeated in one form or another in every case study) that failure is and must be seen as a learning experience for success to follow. “Enjoy failure and learn from it,” said James Dyson, and while that can be a very hard lesson to learn, it is a wonderful one to internalize, and one that is taught to very good purpose in When Everything Went Wrong.

No comments:

Post a Comment