Hans Camenzind’s Much Ado About Almost Nothing tells the story of the electron. Or rather, its discovery and how our understanding of electricity changed over time. It’s a big tour of some truly fascinating history.The book is centered around people, and roughly chronological. It walks through a large number of people, many of whom you’ve probably heard of: Morse, Franklin, Ohm, etc. There are also many you haven’t, but who made important inventions that helped us get to where we are now.
The book adds a lot of interesting little details to the little biographical sketches, like those people’s personal struggles, business relationships, and the way ideas spread and lead or other ideas.
It’s also fascinating to see how much people were able to do before really knowing what electricity even was. It’s easy to understand many of these things in hindsight, but it took a lot of trial and error, and many fascinating experiments, to figure things out.
Camenzind describes the different inventions in some detail, and his explanations are very clear. They don’t go very deep of course, since he has to cover a lot of ground. But he’s very good at explaining things in a few paragraphs.
There are some parallels with the fantastic The Idea Factory, which describes Bell Labs in great detail. Some of the same characters (in particular the folks who invented the transistor) make an appearance in both. What Camenzind adds is some of the history after they left Bell Labs.
The part of the book that Camenzind is most excited about is integrated circuits, and it’s not surprising. His is not a household name, but he’s the inventor of the famous 555 timer IC. His appreciation of the building blocks of the integrated circuit, in particular the planar transistor, is palpable.
Much Ado About Almost Nothing is a pleasant and fascinating read for anybody interested in electronics. Even people familiar with the history of physics and electronics are going to find lots of little tidbits they didn’t know.