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Fascinating Stories Behind Everyday Things

You've probably heard the expression "Every picture tells a story." Well, it seems that even the most familiar objects have a story to tell. If you've ever wondered about the origins of your microwave, or why teacups have handles, or just where did those foam peanuts in your package came from, then this is the place for you!

Books

At home: a short history of private life by Bill Bryson — While walking through his own home, a former Church of England rectory built in the 19th century, the author reconstructs the fascinating history of the household, room by room. The bathroom provides the occasion for a history of hygiene; the bedroom, sex, death, and sleep; the kitchen, nutrition and the spice trade, and on and on. The result is a fascinating story on how each has figured in the evolution of private life.

The book on the bookshelf by Henry Petroski — From the papyrus scroll to electronic books, this is an elaborately detailed history of the design and storage of books. As we learn how the ancient scroll became the codex became the volume we are used to, we also learn the ways in which the housing of books has evolved — from pigeonholes to book presses to rotating lecterns.

The botany of desire: a plant's eye view of the world by Michael Pollan — Do plants use humans as much as we use them? Pollan tries to answer that question by looking at the natural world from the perspective of plants. He focuses on the relationships between humans and four specific plants: apples, tulips, marijuana and potatoes, and provides a fascinating account on how each of these plants have influenced history.

A brief history of the future: from radio days to Internet years in a lifetime by John Naughton — A richly detailed introduction to the Internet and to the countless, largely unsung innovators who made it possible.

Cod: a biography of the fish that changed the world by Mark Kurlansky — A wonderful book about a fish that helped inspire the discovery and exploration of North America.

The devil's cup: coffee, the driving force in history by Stewart Lee Allen — Journalist Allen takes readers around the world sampling the history, politics, the rituals of brewing, and other anecdotes and facts about coffee.

Diamond: a journey to the heart of an obsession by Matthew Hart — An intriguing look at the gemstone which has enthralled human beings for centuries.

The difference engine: Charles Babbage and the quest to build the first computer by Doron Swade — A portrait of early 19th century mathematician Charles Babbage and his efforts to construct the first computing machine more than a century before the invention of the modern computer.

Euclid's window: the story of geometry from parallel lines to hyperspace by Leonard Mlodinow — In this mathematical history, the author asks the question "How do you know where you are?" He answers with this exciting account of how mathematicians and physicists discovered space beyond Euclid's three dimensions.

The evolution of useful things by Henry Petroski — A look at the origin of everyday household items and the arduous processes that resulted in such innovations as paper clips, Post-it notes, Phillips head screwdrivers, Scotch tape, fast food "clamshell" containers and forks, among many others.

Extraordinary origins of everyday things by Charles Panati — The stories behind 500 everyday items from Kleenex to steak sauce, and Barbie dolls to honeymoons.

Fingerprints: the origins of crime detection and the murder case that launched forensic science by Colin Beavan — The fascinating story of a scientific breakthrough that solved one of the most brutal murders in England's history and forever changed the criminal justice system.

The food chronology: a food lover's compendium of events and anecdotes, from prehistory to the present by James Trager — A captivating account of our eating habits and the cultural events that have shaped them.

For all the tea in China : how England stole the world's favorite drink and changed history by Sarah Rose — In 1848, the British East India Company, after losing its monopoly on the tea trade, engaged Robert Fortune — a Scottish gardener, botanist, and plant hunter — to make a clandestine trip into the interior of China-territory forbidden to foreigners. The mission was to steal the closely guarded secrets of tea horticulture and manufacturing. This is the remarkable account of Fortune's journeys into China — a thrilling narrative that combines history, geography, botany, natural science, and old-fashioned adventure.

Glass: from the first mirror to fiber optics, the story of the substance that changed the world by William S. Ellis — A wonderful history of the ubiquitous substance that was "accidentally discovered" by sailors cooking on the beaches 2,250 years ago, and that has subsequently advanced civilization with everything from high-rise buildings to fiber optics.

House of invention: the secret life of everyday products by David Lindsay — A "tour" of the typical American home, stopping in each room to examine the most taken-for-granted objects, and revealing the incredible stories behind them. Just some of the inventions we learn about: the flushable toilet, the mailbox, toothpaste, the blender, Vaseline, and the microwave oven.

The invention of clouds: how an amateur meteorologist forged the language of the skies by Richard Hamblyn — A skillful blend of biography with scientific and cultural history that captures the remarkable achievement of amateur scientist Luke Howard, whose 1802 classification of cloud types is still used today. His work has influenced contemporary poets and artists as much as scientists.

Longitude: the true story of a lone genius who solved the greatest scientific problem of his time by Dava Sobel — The biggest scientific problem of the 18th century was how to determine longitude — navigators could easily compute latitude, but finding longitude was virtually impossible. In 1714, England's Parliament offered a huge reward to anyone whose method of measuring longitude could be proven successful. Blending biography with history and social science, Sobel reveals how a self-taught clock maker dared to imagine a mechanical solution: a clock that would keep precise time at sea.

The map that changed the world: William Smith and the birth of modern geology by Simon Winchester; [illustrations by Soun Vannithone] — The remarkable story of canal digger William Smith, whose geologically correct map of England and Wales, dated 1815, became the bedrock for the modern science of geology. Despite a personal life that included debtor's prison and a mentally ill wife, his work had huge implications in many aspects of 19th century life — including religion, commerce, agriculture, politics and science.

Mauve: how one man invented a color that changed the world by Simon Garfield — In 1856, an experimental mishap by 18-year-old English chemist William Perkin produced an odd shade of purple — pointing the way to other synthetic colors, and revolutionizing the world of both dyemaking and fashion.

Mendeleyev's dream: the quest for the elements by Paul Strathern — The dramatic history of chemistry, as told through the quest for the elements, centers on the life of the 19th century Russian scientist Dmitri Mendeleyev, who fell asleep at his desk and awoke after conceiving the Periodic Table in a dream.

The Northern Lights: [the true story of the man who unlocked the secrets of the aurora borealis] by Lucy Jago — Throughout the ages, the lights of the Aurora Borealis were believed to be messengers of gods, signs or apocalypse, or souls of the dead. This book details the life of Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland, who set out at the turn of the 19th century on the first scientific study of the Northern Lights — taking dangerous expeditions to the far polar regions, and losing friends, colleagues and his marriage in the process.

One good turn: a natural history of the screwdriver and the screw by Witold Rybczynski — The seeds of Rybcynski's book were sown by the New York Times, whose editors asked him to write an essay identifying "the best tool of the millennium." The result was a story of mechanical discovery and genius that takes readers from Ancient Greece to Victorian Glasgow, from weapons design in the Italian Renaissance to car design during the age of American industry.

Orchid fever: a horticultural tale of love, lust, and lunacy by Eric Hansen — This beautiful flower is used for everything from medicine for elephants to an aphrodisiac ice cream. It is also at the center of an illicit international business. Hansen has written a compelling adventure into the remarkable world of the orchid, and the bizarre array of characters who dedicate their lives to it.

Panati's parade of fads, follies, and manias: the origins of our most cherished obsessions by Charles Panati — This in-depth look at one hundred years of American popular culture — from the first mass use of electric lights to the age of personal computers — brings the century to life, covering hula hoops, Lionel trains, streaking, dance marathons, and much more.

The pencil: a history of design and circumstance by Henry Petroski — The common pencil — made and sold today by the millions — has a long and complex history. Petroski traces its origins back to Ancient Greece and Rome, through the Industrial Revolution, and up to the present time. Along the way he introduces some of pencil making's greatest innovators, including Henry David Thoreau.

Perfume: the art and science of scent by Cathy Newman; photography by Robb Kendrick — A behind-the-scenes look at a secretive multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry, and an exploration of every aspect of the little-known art and science of scent — one which has seduced men and women all over the world for thousands of years.

Plastic: the making of a synthetic century by Stephen Fenichell — "Just one word: plastics." That famous line from The Graduate was indeed prophetic. Plastics really are the future. Polystyrene to Velcro, saran to cellophane, for better or worse, we're married to plastic. Fenichell relates the marvelous tale of synthetics — where and why they were produced, the people who dedicated themselves to perfecting them, the companies who sold them to an eager public, and the impact — both positive and negative — on every aspect of our lives.

The power of gold: the history of an obsession by Peter L. Bernstein — The story of history's most coveted and celebrated asset: Gold. Beginning with the fascinations of Moses, and ending with the modern convulsions caused by the Gold standard, Bernstein examines the role of Gold in shaping human history.

The professor and the madman: a tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English dictionary by Simon Winchester — An extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men — one a professor, the other an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane — that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. Also available on CD.

Salt: a world history by Mark Kurlansky — Salt — the only rock we eat — has shaped civilization from the very beginning. Demand for salt established the earliest trade routes. Because of its worth, it has provoked as well as financed wars. Salt taxes have both secured empires and inspired revolution. Kurlansky's kaleidoscopic history blends economic, scientific, political, religious and culinary records into a rich and memorable tale.

The secret life of dust: from the cosmos to the kitchen counter, the big consequences of little things by Hannah Holmes — A mesmerizing expedition around our dusty world. The story begins among exploding stars, then treks through the dinosaur beds of the Gobi Desert, drills into Antarctic glaciers, filters living dusts from the wind, and probes the underbelly of the living room couch.

Seeds of change: six plants that transformed mankind by Henry Hobhouse — Why were John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., Americans? How was Germany able to wage World War II? Why did the English come to prefer white bread to whole grain? Why do teacups have handles? The author argues that the answers to all of these questions can be found in the stories of the five plants — quinine, sugar cane, tea, cotton and the potato — which have in effect been responsible for changing the course of humanity.

The story of corn by Betty Fussell — The story of the extraordinary grain that built the New World; of the indigenous peoples who first cultivated it; and the European conquerors who propagated it around the globe.

Sugar: a bittersweet history by Elizabeth Abbott — A compelling and surprising look at the sweet commodity, from how it Africanized the cane fields of the Caribbean to how it fuelled the Industrial Revolution and jumpstarted the fast-food revolution.

Tastes of paradise: a social history of spices, stimulants, and intoxicants by Wolfgang Schivelbusch — A look at how the appetite for pleasure transformed the social structure of the Old World — from the extravagant use of pepper in the Middle Ages, to the Protestant bourgeoisie's love of coffee, to the reason why fashionable Europeans stopped sniffing tobacco and started smoking it.

A time for tea: travels through China and India in search of tea by Jason Goodwin — An offbeat exploration of the tea trade from Hong Kong to mainland China, from Calcutta to Darjeeling, and to the Boston Tea Party of 1773.

Tulipomania: the story of the world's most coveted flower and the extraordinary passions it aroused by Mike Dash

Universal foam: from Cappuccino to the cosmos by Sidney Perkowitz — From ocean foam that influences weather around the world, to the origin of polystyrene peanuts in packaging, from the crème on top of your espresso, to the aerogel foam used by NASA, this is a captivating tale of the many kinds of natural and artificial foams that play an important role in our lives.

DVDs

Modern Marvels is a series of documentaries produced by the History Channel that tell the fascinating stories behind everyday items, technological breakthroughs and man-made wonders. Another great series of documentaries is How Stuff Works.

Longitude — The film adaptation of Dava Sobel's book interweaves two stories: John Harrison's 40-year obsession with building the perfect timekeeper; and naval officer Robert Gould who, 200 years later, devotes himself to restoring Harrison's long-neglected mechanical masterpieces. Starring Jeremy Irons.

Seeds of change: six plants that transformed mankind by Henry Hobhouse — The genesis of the motion picture medium is recreated in this collection of cinema's formative works.

Visions of light: [the art of cinematography] — The story of cinematography as seen through the lenses of the world's greatest filmmakers, and captured in classic scenes from more than 125 immortal movies.

Magazines

American Heritage of Invention & Technology — Available both in print and online, the magazine's clear writing and beautiful graphics help to explain how the extraordinary ideas, machines, and inventions of America's great inventors have changed the entire world over the past two centuries. Read all about Edison, the Wright Brothers, Robert Fulton, and many other notable inventors.

Technology Review — Available both in print and online and published by MIT, this magazine's mission statement is to promote the understanding of emerging technologies and their impact on business and society."

Websites

Bad Fads Museum — A tour of the fun and fascinating fashion, collectible, activity and event fads of the last 100 years.

The Food Timeline — Did you ever wonder what the Vikings ate when they set off to explore the new world? Or what the pioneers cooked along the Oregon Trail? Or who invented the potato chip — and why? If so, this is the site for you!

The Great Idea Finder — Even the inventions that weren't "successful" weren't all "failures." This site sheds some light on the good intentions of the inventor, and provides the facts behind such items as the ballpoint pen, kitty litter, the remote control, and Tupperware.

How Stuff Works — An award-winning site that will delight anyone who wants to know how anything works.

The Impact of the Potato — The story of the potato's early beginnings and its migration around the world.

The New Scientist — Online version of the science and technology magazine, providing daily science and technology news from around the world, covering topics such as cloning, global warming, mobile phones and genetically manufactured food.

Pencil History — Everything you always wanted to know about the history of pencils.

The Straight Dope — The official Internet site of Cecil Adams and his well known syndicated column The Straight Dope. Answers to everything from "How do lava lamps work?" to "Who invented the 'smiley face'?"