Today on Project Gutenberg #11

Today on Project Gutenberg, we have…

Inventing for Boys by A. Frederick Collins

Ah, the glorious days of yesteryear, when childhood was all about exploring the world and getting your hands dirty! If you were a boy, at least. Not that today’s book has an explicit NO COOTIES ALLOWED sign stamped on it, but since this was published in 1912, we can safely assume where its priorities lie. “Every boy is a born inventor,” we are told in the introduction. “And since you are a boy it follows as the night the day that you have your share of inventive ability and you ought to make good use of it…To watch your invention grow…gives you a wonderful feeling of pride and satisfaction for you are the creator of it and this means that you are more than a mere boy, greater than an ordinary man — that you are in very truth a demi-god” (page vii).

These somewhat maudlin sentiments are brought to us by one Archie Frederick Collins, the self-proclaimed “inventor of the wireless telephone.” He even shows us his patent to prove it. Said patent was for a small improvement on existing technology, but Collins blew it out of proportion as he apparently did with many other claims about the progress and quality of his work. Fun fact: just a year after the publication of this book, Collins went to prison for stock promotion via mail fraud and false claims that his rudimentary technology was advanced enough for commercial distribution.

So, we’ve established that the author of this text probably wasn’t the most trustworthy sort. But what about the book itself? From its title and cover illustration, I was expecting a collection of simple experiments and/or stories about historical inventions, basically the sort of thing that stuff like The Dangerous Book for Boys was inspired by. It does do that to some extent, having a section towards the end about “great inventions” like the telegraph, typewriter, automobile and snap-shot camera. But most of the book is about the actual, nitty-gritty process of inventing something: coming up with an idea, putting it down on paper, doing research, building models and getting a patent. It’s an absurd level of detail for something that’s technically supposed to be for kids. For example, the chapter on drawing designs has sections on how to make isometric paper, draw electrical symbols and read electrical diagrams, among other things. And that’s not even touching on the chapter titled “Making Your Invention Pay,” which includes such sub-topics as “How a Stock Company is Organized” and “About Retaining a Lawyer.” This can’t possibly be the kind of stuff that would keep a young boy’s interest. Even boys in 1912 had better things to do than read this.

The most interesting part of the book for me, and the part where Collins shows his true colors, comes toward the end. That’s when he decides to tell the reader what not to invent. Not because they’re impossible, but because you can’t have the glory of solving it by yourself and making money off it.

But whether you have or have not the quick capital of your own to draw on there are some things you should not try to invent—that is if you are an inventor for the financial profits you expect to accrue from your work. If you are doing it purely as a scientist that is a horse of quite another color and some scientific society may present you with a medal in a plush lined case and its Transactions will laud you for your unselfish work.

Such schemes as extracting gold from the salt water of the sea, milking electricity directly from the ether, blowing up ships at a distance by means of invisible waves, making a phonotypograph which will, when spoken into, print what you have said on a sheet of paper, printing without type by means of the X-rays, sending wireless messages to Mars and the wireless transmission of power, see Fig. 119, are all good things to let alone.

Not because these innovations are impossible to invent—they will all come into general use some day—but because it is not given to any inventor to work a single one of them out alone and so I say don’t try to unless you are a real Simon pure scientist.

And as a last piece of advice don’t try to invent that monstrous impossibility—perpetual motion.

Pages 198-199

There’s a strong feeling of cynicism in this book. It treats the process of invention as more of a get-rich-quick scheme than something fueled by the desire to innovate, learn and explore. It’s not really about discovering something new or finding a better way to get something done, it’s just about making money. I feel like the book’s focus says a lot about Collins as a person, none of it very good, and I can only hope that kids in 1912 didn’t fall for this rubbish.

My final verdict on this book? Skip it. Some of you might find it to be an amusing oddity, but most of you will likely just find it dull. Plus, y’know, the whole thing was written by a fraudster.

And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg. See you next time!

— Dana

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