Really Useful: The Origins Of Everyday Things

Really Useful: The Origins Of Everyday Things

by Joel Levy
     
 

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You undoubtedly know what a paperclip is and how to use it, but did you know that during the Second World War the people of Norway adopted paperclips as a symbol of protest against the occupying Nazis? Really Useful tells these and other stories of how the things we use every day came into being.

As much a sociological history as a compendium of

Overview

You undoubtedly know what a paperclip is and how to use it, but did you know that during the Second World War the people of Norway adopted paperclips as a symbol of protest against the occupying Nazis? Really Useful tells these and other stories of how the things we use every day came into being.

As much a sociological history as a compendium of entertaining stories, Really Useful takes you on a tour from the kitchen to the bathroom to the office and beyond. Along the way it tells us about the technology, design, social conditions and even intrigue that contributed to these remarkable innovations, which include:

  • sliced bread, microwave oven, coffee, tea bags, corkscrew and Teflon
  • razor blades, Band-Aids, the toothbrush, lipstick and tissues
  • air conditioning, buttons, vacuum cleaners, stockings and neon lights
  • Post-It notes, the floppy disk,
    smoke detectors, fireworks and the battery
  • barcodes, traffic lights, parking meters, padlocks

We sometimes curse these things as just so much clutter but in fact they form the fabric of our daily lives and we'd be lost without them. The stories of their origins are as interesting and illuminating as these objects are truly useful.

Editorial Reviews

Globe and Mail
A really useful book for spicing up your cocktail chatter.
Montreal Gazette - Kathryn Greenaway
Guaranteed to trigger conversation ... a lovely mix of archival photos, scientific visuals and beautifully lighted contemporary photography.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - John Marshall
Who knew a hair dryer could look so darn sexy?
Los Angeles Times News Service - Michael Pakenham
Lavishly illustrated ... provides a concise, well-written essay on each [object], offer facts on its origin, purpose, inner secrets, history and utility.
Volume 91 American Scientist
Those with even a passing interest in the historical roots of such familiar objects will find Levy's book delightfully informative.
Booklist - Barbara Jacobs
Considerable research expanded in good prose ... zany intelligentsia flotsam.
Publishers Weekly
The title might be a bit misleading: is it really useful to know that the ant is the only animal that can survive being cooked in a microwave? And if it's not exactly riveting to learn that Post-its were invented by a guy who was frustrated that his page markers kept falling out of his hymn book, that Leonardo da Vinci was the first person known to have designed a kind of calculator (if you discount the abacus) and that rubber erasers are no longer made of real rubber, it is rather addictive to glean such morsels. Delving into the circumstances that brought about objects from the "inside world" (kitchen, bathroom, etc.) and "outside world"(public spaces and "leisure"), Levy (A Natural History of the Unnatural World) champions the underdog-things as mundane as rulers, umbrellas and even Teflon, he tells us, have a story, too. The photography here is mostly in unabashed product-shot mold, and on the whole the book, with frosty color-faded backgrounds and extreme closeups throughout, looks a bit like a sales catalogue. Yet commerce has always driven invention, and it's heartening to know the human side of products that have taken on a mundane ubiquity. (Nov.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
KLIATT
Sliced bread, Post-It Notes, matches, buttons, cameras, key rings, raincoats, Swiss army knives, light bulbs, toilet paper.... This merry encyclopedia tells the stories of the things we'd really miss: who invented them, how they work, how they've changed. Joel Levy invites us to see our homes and public places as museums full of exhibits that are in constant use. On his tour of these everyday museums, he shows us how many things we are apt to regard as quite modern, like condoms, batteries, vending machines (yes, batteries, yes, vending machines!), have their origins quite far back in human history. Even e-commerce, the most recent invention on the tour, goes back a little earlier than I would have supposed. Levy is a British journalist with a breezy style and a knack for clear explanations. (The book's UK origins reveal themselves in the entries on the teabag and the electric teakettle.) His choices, illustrated with witty color photographs and beautifully designed, invite readers to look at the things around them with a fresh eye. I would highly recommend Really Useful to students and teachers except that, when you want to check the facts, learn more, or just find a tantalizing bit of information again, the book becomes really useless. "Further reading" is limited to five books and nine Web sites. I spotted one typo—William Caxton's book "catalogues" was first issued in 1479, not 1749. And the absence of Caxton, Napster, Universal Product Code, James Dewar, China (to mention just a few proper nouns in the text I tried to look up) from the index is scandalous. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Firefly Books, 240p. illus.bibliog. index.,
— Karen Reeds

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781552976227
Publisher:
Firefly Books, Limited
Publication date:
10/05/2002
Edition description:
Reprint edition
Pages:
224
Product dimensions:
7.75(w) x 9.50(h) x 0.75(d)

Meet the Author

Joel Levy is a journalist and writer with degrees in psychology and biology who specializes in science, ancient history, anthropology and film. He is the author of A Natural History of the Unnatural World and has contributed to and edited over 20 titles on subjects as diverse as sex, gardening and back pain.

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