Quill and Quire

REVIEWS

« Back to
Book Reviews

How to Become an Accidental Genius

by Elizabeth MacLeod and Frieda Wishinsky; Jenn Playford (ill.)

From Kevlar and Corn Flakes to pacemakers and ice pops, How to Become an Accidental Genius presents a vibrant and brainy compendium of “accidental” innovations from the last 200 years.

Award-winning authors Elizabeth MacLeod and Frieda Wishinsky, who previously teamed up to write A History of Just About Everything, use their examples to emphasize the importance of persistence, flexibility, curiosity, and luck. “Genius is seeing failures and accidents as opportunities,” they stress – and disciples of the hugely popular growth mindset theory will appreciate this theme throughout the book.

Inventions range from the pedestrian (windshield wipers) to the life-saving (penicillin). But perhaps most fascinating of all are the stories of the people who brought us these things. They include Sarah E. Goode, the first African-American woman to receive a patent for an invention (the folding bed), as well as Hedy Lamarr, a Hollywood star who also developed radio signals to help defeat the Nazis in the Second World War.

There are inventions inspired by accidents in nature – burrs sticking to his socks gave George de Mestral the idea for Velcro. And inventions with contested beginnings (the Post-it Note). All are richly illustrated and supported with inspirational quotations and sidebar factoids.

Some examples are perhaps less likely to engage young readers: the genesis of the flat-bottom paper bag isn’t exactly the stuff of grand drama. And one or two entries may challenge an adult’s understanding, such as the one on COBOL, a computer programming language developed in the 1950s by Grace Hopper.

But the book concludes on an inspiring note, with a section on teen inventors who have not so accidentally devised the self-separating recycling bin, the EcoTube (which changes carbon dioxide in a car’s exhaust into oxygen and sugar, reducing carbon emissions by up to 50 per cent), and an oil-refining filter that breaks down toxic compounds from oil sands waste.

The book mentions that today only about 10 per cent of U.S. patents go to women – a reminder that there is still work to be done when it comes to getting more women and girls switched onto inventing. Here’s hoping books such as this one help to ignite the curiosity and problem-solving skills of future geniuses.