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More Stories Behind Everyday Things

Discover the intriguing stories behind caviar, rubber, barbed wire, the electric chair and the color blue — among others!


Bananas: an American history by Virginia Scott Jenkins — Before 1880, most Americans had never seen a banana, but by 1910 bananas were so common that the streets were littered with their peels. In this wide-ranging history of the most popular and least expensive fruit in the United States, Virginia Scott Jenkins covers every aspect of the banana in American culture, from its beginnings as luxury food to its reputation as the "poor man's" fruit to its role today as a healthy, easy-to-carry snack.

Barbed wire: a political history by Olivier Razac — A political history of the everyday invention that accomplished what no other product did before it — the control of vast amounts of opens space. In a narrative that spans the history of the American Frontier, the trenches of World War I, the Holocaust, and beyond, this work looks unflinchingly at a fascinating thread of modern life.

Bees in America: how the honey bee shaped a nation by Tammy Horn — The honey bee isn't native to the U.S., but it's hard to imagine the country without it. Like cattle, another imported species, the honey bee helped to transform what European settlers saw as a vast wilderness into a land of milk and honey. The author — who learned beekeeping from her grandfather — provides a wealth of material about bees in America, from the use of the hive metaphor to justify colonization in the 1500s and 1600s, to bees' role in pollinating the prairies and orchards that we now take for granted.

The bomb: a life by Gerard J. DeGroot — DeGroot traces the life of the nuclear bomb from its birth in turn-of-the-century physics labs of Europe to a childhood in the New Mexico desert of the 1940s; from adolescence and early adulthood in Nagasaki and Bikini, Australia and Kazakhstan, to maturity in test sites and missile silos around the globe. His book portrays the Bomb's short but significant existence in all its scope, and provides us with a portrait of the times and the people — from Oppenheimer to Sakharov, from Stalin to Reagan — whose legacy still shapes our world.

Brotherhood of the bomb: the tangled lives and loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller by Gregg Herkan — A detailed, engrossing history of the nuclear bomb, and a riveting tale of the human conflict connecting the three scientists most responsible for the nuclear age — Oppenheimer, Lawrence and Teller.

Brunelleschi's dome: how a Renaissance genius reinvented architecture by Ross King — The story of how a 15th century goldsmith and clockmaker, Filippo Brunelleschi, came up with a unique design for the dome to crown Florence's magnificent new cathedral, Santa Maria del Firore.

Chocolate: a bittersweet saga of dark and light by Mort Rosenblum — Did the Aztecs discover chocolate? Do the Swiss make the world's best chocolate? Is Godiva chocolate worth its price? No, no and no, according to acclaimed "foodie" Rosenblum. In this fascinating narrative, the author delves into the complex world of chocolate. From the mole poblano (a sauce laced with chocolate) of ancient Mexico, to contemporary French chocolatiers, to the vast empires of Hershey, Godiva and Valrhona, Rosenblum follows the chocolate trail the world over.

Coal: a human history by Barbara Freese — An intriguing chronicle of the rise and fall of the simple black rock which altered the course of history. From its use by the ancient Romans and Chinese to its spurring of the Industrial Revolution; from its discovery in the American colonies to the development of Pittsburgh as the first U.S. coal town; this is a wonderfully revealing look at the history of coal.

Color: a natural history of the palette by Victoria Finlay — How did the most precious color blue travel from remote lapis mines in Afghanistan to Michelangelo's brush? What is the connection between brown paint and ancient Egyptian mummies? Why did Robin Hood wear Lincoln green? In this enthralling book the author answers those questions and explores the physical materials that color our world, as well as the social and political meanings that color has carried through time.

Electric universe: the shocking true story of electricity by David Bodanis — Despite the fact that our lives are powered by electricity to an astonishing degree, most of us have little or no understanding of how or why it works. In this entertaining look at how electricity works and affects our daily lives, the author examines electricity's theoretical development and how 19th-and-20th-century entrepreneurs harnessed it to transform everyday existence.

The emperor of scent: a story of perfume, obsession, and the last mystery of the senses by Chandler Burr — Professional perfume critic, obsessive collector or rare fragrances, academic-bad-boy biochemist, and world-class eccentric, Luca Turin also happened to possess an unusually sensitive nose. So what happens when he proposes a new theory that promises to unravel the mystery of what makes our noses work the way they do? The answer is a back-stabbing, cliff-hanging scramble for the Nobel Prize.

Executioner's current: Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and the invention of the electric chair by Richard Moran — The story of the origins and development of the electric chair, including the battle between Edsion and Westinghouse for the commercial control of electricity, the first electrocution, and the legal battle that ensued.

Finding Betty Crocker: the secret life of America's first lady of food by Susan Marks — In 1945, Fortune magazine named Betty Crocker the second most popular American woman, right behind Eleanor Roosevelt, and dubbed Betty "America's First Lady of Food." Not bad for a gal who never actually existed. "Born" in 1921 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to proud corporate parents, Betty Crocker has grown, over eight decades, into one of the most successful branding campaigns the world has ever known. Finding Betty Crocker is an unprecedented look into the General Mills archives to reveal how a fictitious spokesperson was enthusiastically welcomed into kitchens and shopping carts across the nation.

The founding fish by John McPhee — Pulitzer Prize winner McPhee ruminates on the role of the shad, both in nature and in American history, illuminating its surprising importance in 17th and 18th century America, including helping George Washington win the Revolution by feeding his starving troops.

The frozen-water trade: a true story by Gavin Weightman — Traces the rise and fall of the natural ice industry in 19th century North America, as presented by the story of Frederick Tudor, who despite ridicule founded a hugely successful business shipping ice to tropical countries.

The great influenza: the epic story of the deadliest plague in history by John M. Barry — In 1918, a plague swept across the world virtually without warning, killing healthy young adults as well as vulnerable infants and the elderly. Hospitals and morgues were quickly overwhelmed; in Philadelphia, 4,597 people died in one week alone and bodies piled up on the streets to be carted off to mass graves. But this was not the dreaded Black Death — it was "only influenza. "In this engrossing history, the author explores how the deadly confluence of biology (a swiftly mutating flu virus that can pass between animals and humans) and politics (President Wilson's all-out war effort in WWI) created conditions in which the virus thrived, killing more than 50-million worldwide and perhaps as many as 100-million in just a year.

Gutenberg: how one man remade the world with words by John Man — The invention of writing, the alphabet, and the Internet: these are three milestones in the history of human culture. The fourth is Johann Gutenberg's introduction of movable type and the creation of the printed book. This illuminating work describes how his invention ignited an unprecedented explosion of new information in 1450 — within 50 years the number of books available in Europe grew from thousands to millions, with breathtaking consequences.

A history of the world in 6 glasses by Tom Standage — An exploration of the significant role that six beverages — wine, beer, spirits, coffee, tea and cola — have played in the world's history.

The last lone inventor: a tale of genius, deceit, and the birth of television by Evan I. Schwartz — An account of the competition between teenage inventor Philo Farnsworth and RCA head David Sarnoff to develop television and introduce it to the American consumer.

The meaning of everything: the story of the Oxford English dictionary by Simon Winchester — The author of The Professor and the Madman returns to that subject with this eventful, personality-filled history of the definitive English dictionary. The OED project began in 1857 as an attempt to correct the deficiencies of existing dictionaries, and while the originators of the OED thought the project would take perhaps a decade to finish, it actually took 71 years. The author lovingly describes the nuts-and-bolts of dictionary making, and explores why the project took so long to complete.

The measure of all things: the seven-year odyssey and hidden error that transformed the world by Ken Alder — The story of the creation of the metric system in 1792 traces the endeavors of Jean Baptiste Delambre and Pierre Mechain, the backlash of superstitious contemporaries, the impact of the French Revolution, and the mistake that drove Mechain to the brink of madness.

Measuring America: how an untamed wilderness shaped the United States and fulfilled the promise of democracy by Andro Linklater — A thought-provoking history of America's systerm of measurement explains how, following the American Revolution, a single system of weights and measures — the American Customary System — was developed in order to survey and map the vast lands west of the Ohio River.

Mercator: the man who mapped the planet by Nicholas Crane — A portrait of Gerhard Mercator, who created the first technically accurate map of the world, tracing his rise from a poor farm boy, through his coining of the word "atlas", to his persecution by the Inquisition.

Michelangelo & the Pope's ceiling by Ross King — Recounts Michelangelo's creation of his masterpiece — the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel — from his commission by Pope Julius II, through the artist's four years of work, to the final acclaim at the unveiling in 1512.

The mold in Dr. Florey's coat: the story of the penicillin miracle by Eric Lax — The discovery of penicillin in 1928 ushered in a new age in medicine, but it took a team of Oxford scientists headed by Howard Florey and Ernst Chain four more years to develop it as the first antibiotic, and the most important family of drugs in the 20th century. At once the world was transformed — major bacterial scourges such as blood poisoning and pneumonia, scarlet fever and diphtheria, gonorrhea and syphilis were defeated as penicillin helped to foster a medical revolution. In this engaging book, acclaimed author Eric Lax tells the real story behind the discovery and why it took so long to develop the drug. He also reveals the reasons why credit for penicillin was misplaced, and why this astonishing achievement garnered a Nobel Prize but no financial rewards for Alexander Fleming, Florey, and his team.

Noble obsession: Charles Goodyear, Thomas Hancock, and the race to unlock the greatest industrial secret of the nineteenth century by Charles Slack — Rubber was to the 1830s what the Internet was to the 1990s: a flawed but potentially world-altering discovery that made and destroyed fortunes. Here is the story of how Charles Goodyear risked his own life and his family's in a quest to unlock the secrets of rubber and how his rival Thomas Hancock ultimately robbed him of fame and fortune.

A perfect red: empire, espionage, and the quest for the color of desire by Amy Butler Greenfield — The colorful history of cochineal, a legendary red dye that was once one of the world's most precious commodities. Treasured by the ancient Mexicans, cochineal was sold in the great Aztec marketplaces, where it attracted the attention of the Spanish conquistadors in 1519. Shipped to Europe, the dye created a sensation, producing the brightest, strongest red the world had ever seen. Soon Spain's cochineal monopoly was worth a fortune. Desperate to find their own sources of the elusive dye, the English, French, Dutch and other Europeans tried to crack the enigma of cochineal. Did it come from a worm, a berry, a seed? Could it be stolen from Mexico and transplanted to their own colonies? Pirates, explorers, alchemists, scientists and spies all joined the chase for cochineal — a chase that lasted more than three centuries.

Pickled, potted, and canned: how the art and science of food preserving changed the world by Sue Shephard — A lively history of food preservation, detailing the chemists, cooks, old legends and new ideas — from Attila the Hun's unique method for curing meats, to the technological advancements of today.

Really useful: the origins of everyday things by Joel Levy — As much a sociological history as a compendium of entertaining stories, the author takes readers on a tour from the kitchen to the bathroom, to the office and beyond. Just some of the items covered: sliced bread, razor blades, the floppy disk, barcodes, and Band-Aids.

The secret house: the extraordinary science of an ordinary day by David Bodanis — The author takes the reader through an average day in and around an average house, showing us the fascinating science beneath the surface — from the static between radio stations, to the millions of pillow mites that snuggle up with us every night; from the warm electric fields wrapped around a light bulb filament, to what really makes the garden roses red.

Tank: the progress of a monstrous war machine by Patrick Wright — Beginning with H.G. Wells' 1903 premonitions of tank-like creatures, Wright traces the cultural history of a "kill vehicle" variously called "Behemoth," "landship" and even "Mother."

Tastes of paradise: a social history of spices, stimulants, and intoxicants by Wolfgang Schivelbusch ; translated from the German by David Jacobson — A social history of pleasure-producing substances from the Middle Ages to the modern era.

A thread across the ocean: the heroic story of the transatlantic cable by John Steele Gordon — A close-up look at one of the greatest engineering feats of all time — the successul laying of a cable across the Atlantic Ocean in 1866, and its impact on the course of 20th century history.

Tobacco: a cultural history of how an exotic plant seduced civilization by Iain Gately — A sweeping cultural history of the world's most prevalent addiction, tracing the path that the "Devil's weed" took after Native Americans offered Europeans their first nicotine hit.

Tuxedo Park: a Wall Street tycoon and the secret palace of science that changed the course of World War II by Jennet Conant — The story of financier Alfred Lee Loomis and his role in the American victory during World War II — specifically his establishment of a premier research facility in Tuxedo Park, N.Y. It soon became a safe haven that attracted such brilliant minds as Einstein, Bohr and Fermi, and became instrumental in the Allies' victory.


Dr.Toy — Tidbits of information about toys, toy inventors, toy company origins and more, from the Toy Manufacturers Association.

Forgotten Inventors — From PBS' American Experience comes the stories behind such everyday items as the can opener, blue jeans, the feather duster and the gas mask, to name a few.

The Great Idea Finder — Fascinating stories behind the world's greatest inventors and inventions from aspirin to zippers.

Greatest Engineering Achievements of the 20th Century — The National Academy of Engineering's list of the century's greatest achievements. Includes a history and timeline.

History of Chocolate — All about chocolate, including the growing, making and eating!

History of Inventions — Links to databases, histories, and specialized information on different types of famous inventions.

The History of Toys — The history of toy balloons, Slinky, the hula hoop, Frisbee, Lego, Etch-a-Sketch, Erector sets, the yo-yo and more!

Innovative Lives — From the Smithsonian Institution comes the story behind Buckyballs, Kevlar, solar shingles and other wonders of technology.

Invention of Everyday Things — The Internet Public Library's guide to information on the origins of everyday objects.

Timelines of Invention and Technology — The history of famous 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th century inventions.

What's That Stuff? — The stories behind such everyday items as lipstick, hair coloring, shampoo, shower cleaners, sun screens, silly putty and more.

Women Inventors — Discover the many women inventors who have made their mark in history.