Nuts and Bolts book review

By Ben Everard. Posted

The life of a tech reviewer is thinking deeply – perhaps too deeply – about progress. Is version N+1 of a widget really better than version N? Yes, it has more gigabytes or transistors or fancier graphics, but what does that mean? Is it actually more useful? Will it result in an appreciable difference to your life?

Yes, there is some value in novelty and enjoyment to come from having a new shiny thing, but is it really worth spending the monetary equivalent of tens or hundreds of hours of work to upgrade?

Nuts and Bolts (£22) is the antidote to this. It claims to look at seven inventions that changed the world, but we’re not sure this is quite accurate. It looks at seven lineages of inventions that have changed the world. For example, while the book gets its name from nuts and bolts, the actual invention talked about in the chapter is nails. Roma Agrawal follows this thread through rivets and screws until she reaches nuts and bolts in just the final three pages of the chapter.

Agrawal takes us through technology by thread, rather than by timeline, so the chapters cover similar time periods, though in many cases the technology is being developed in very different parts of the world. Chapter one takes us from nails, through rivets and screws, to nuts and bolts. Chapter two looks at perhaps the most famous invention of all time: the wheel. While this may seem like a single invention, as Agrawal points out, it has in fact been reinvented many times and, contrary to popular belief, reinventing the wheel is not always a bad thing. A spinning disc has powered everything from the chariot Boudica rode when fighting against the Roman legions, to the gyroscopes that help control the International Space Station.

Next, we look at the spring. This has had some obvious and not-so-obvious uses. As energy storage mechanisms, they have enabled devices from watches to archery bows, yet Agrawal also points out the significant role they play in enabling modern cities to exist through their vibration-isolating abilities. We simply wouldn’t be able to live and work in close proximity if we had to live with all the noise we created echoing through the air.

The magnets chapter probably travels the furthest in technological terms, as it goes from crude lodestone-based compasses in Song dynasty China to the World Wide Web. It’s certainly arguable that this stretches the concept of a single invention beyond breaking point. However, there is a single thread of narrative that brings these together via Roma’s relatives, so we’ll allow her this indulgence in family history.

Two chapters on lenses and string follow, perhaps the most straightforward line of progress. While most have improved in many ways since their inception, a Neanderthal would still recognise modern thread, and scientists from the Middle Ages would recognise a modern lens. They are still primarily used to join stuff and to see things, respectively. An innovation here is in manufacturing and materials that allow them to perform their roles better while retaining the same basic form.

The final chapter follows the development of pumps. This is perhaps the outlier because, while the same – or at least similar – problem is being solved, there isn’t a single thread of development between, for example, the irrigation system at the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and artificial hearts.

This book is well-written and excellently researched. It links together scientific traditions across the world in a coherent narrative. Given the scope of the material (which is most of technological progress over the past couple of thousand years), it is necessarily brief. This is perhaps best exemplified by the scant two and a half pages on nuts and bolts. It’s a whirlwind tour rather than a deep dive into particular technologies. This speed lets you see how the forces that fundamentally change technology work, and focuses on the pivotal moments when technology takes a leap forward. It allows us to think about what technological improvement looks like without the marketing spin. By looking back, we can see how particular developments actually changed lives in a way that’s hard to do when looking at new developments. Like much of history, it is an interesting story about the past that gives us useful lessons to incorporate into our daily lives – at least, it does if your daily life involves being a technology reviewer.

While it is quite self-indulgent to review the book from our own perspective, it does get to the heart of what this book is about: what actual technological progress looks like. As you’re reading this, you’re obviously the sort of person who reads tech reviews. Hopefully, it’ll help you detect when we reviewers get a bit too caught up in the hype.



An entertaining summary of what engineers have been up to for the past 2000 years.

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