This is the course guidebook that accompanies the 36 lecture “Great Course” of the same name. It is essentially an abbreviated transcript of each lecture, a few pictures, some related reading, and a few questions to think about. (I watched the lectures, which is what I am reviewing here, and am using the book simply as an aide-memoire.)
It is difficult to cover the details of even a single invention in a 30 minute lecture. Yet Carlson covers a great deal of material, from the potter’s wheel in antiquity, to the internet today. Although his presentation style is somewhat wooden, with that peculiar marching around the Great Courses must encourage, there is much here of interest, and the occasional anecdote about the peculiarities of an inventor leavens to delivery.
The thing I found most interesting was not the details of particular inventions – their workings are not described in much detail – but the context in which they happened. The “Understanding” in the title is not so much of the inventions themselves, but how they came to change the world. Carlson shows that it is simply not true that if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door. You also have to have the right infrastructure within which the invention sits, the marketing and distribution sorted, and even support for others using your invention in ways you never imagined. Some of this you might have to do yourself, some can be done by others provided you get out of their way.