Much Ado About Almost Nothing by Hans Camenzind : Review

The “Nothing,” in the title of Hans Camenzind’s 0615139957, is the electron. The book is a fascinating tale about the history of that infinitesimally small, negatively charged particle around which so much of our everyday lives revolve. It’s the story of man’s effort to understand it, make sense of it, and ultimately make use of it.

Camenzind’s history begins in the unlikely place of Miletos, Greece in 600 BCE with the development of a trade in amber – “the most valuable gem then in existence.” When rubbed, it developed a static charge that made it a source of curiosity attributable to one or more of the many gods who controlled the world back then. The story then moves steadily forward, often going off on tangents, as the reader is transported on a journey to the present, to the computer and the integrated circuitry within it.

Hans Camenzind was born in Switzerland in 1934. He moved to the U.S. after college, and has worked in the semiconductor industry for about a half-century. Along the way he has been a university lecturer, founded two successful companies, published numerous technical articles, awarded 20 U.S. patents, and was inducted into the Electronic Design Magazine Hall of Fame (2002). In the 1970s he became something like the Silicon Valley equivalent of McDonalds when he designed the “555,” purportedly the most successful integrated circuit ever developed with more than a billion sold to date.

Almost Nothing is his fourth book, and the first to target a general audience. His previous three efforts – Circuit Design for Integrated Electronics (1968), Electronic Integrated Circuit Designs (1980), and Designing Analog Chips (2005) – are textbooks.

Almost Nothing brings to life the universal truth that there is virtually nothing new or original under the Sun, just updated versions of older advances… the basic tools… the inclined plane, the wheel, the lever, etc.

More specifically, revolutionary technological advances never occur in a vacuum. They are always compilations of Eureka! moments and insights discovered earlier by others. Edison’s light bulb wasn’t divinely inspired, any more than the vacuum tube – the forerunner of the silicon chip and a starting point for the whole of the electronics industry – which evolved from an observation Edison made while struggling with the light bulb.

The “Edison Effect” is so named because the Wizard of Menlo Park was the first to observe the phenomenon. Beyond that, he didn’t see any potential for the curious tendency of electricity to bridge the open space between two metal surfaces.

Camenzind tells his story through the biographical details of the key players: Benjamin Franklin, Andre Marie Ampere, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Nikola Tesla, and many others.

The story doesn’t follow a straight line. It frequently follows the various inventor-scientists’ travels down costly and time-consuming paths leading to dead ends. The diversions add credibility to the individual stories, and make many of these characters more human, and less a myth.

C’mon, admit it. When you first learned the story in school about Ben Franklin flying kites in the rain, you imagined a resemblance to the wild-eyed people who wear hats made of tin foil to protect themselves from the CIA’s mind-control rays.

Without further Ado, let it suffice that Much Ado About Almost Nothing is a good and informative read for not a lot out of pocket ($14.95 from Amazon).

For those who still need additional information, feel free to go to You Tube. Do a search for “Hans Camenzind.” The result will be a selection of short, mostly-biographical vignettes about the Trans-Atlantic cable, Henry Cavendish, Philo Farnsworth, Benjamin Franklin, Guglielmo Marconi, the invention of the microchip, Georg Ohm, and Nikolo Tesla.

Camenzind is clearly someone who enjoys the subject matter. His enthusiasm is contagious.

Mike Daisy
Invention History Writer