THE NEXT GREAT THING
By Mark Shelton
Norton x 272pp x $25
When the title of a book is The Next Great Thing, it tends to raise expectations. And in choosing as his subject an attempt to commercialize the so-called Stirling engine, Ohio writer Mark L. Shelton has latched onto a technology that justifies at least some of that title's hyperbole. First patented in 1816 by a Scottish clergyman, the Stirling is a potentially miraculous invention, a sort of external (as opposed to internal) combustion engine. When exposed to heat--from the sun, burning coal, or even a campfire--it produces electricity. Theoretically, the Stirling could be used in everything from powering cars to generating electricity. But the technology still isn't totally understood, and it has never been perfected for practical applications.
Shelton's tale, subtitled The Sun, The Stirling Engine, and the Drive to Change the World, focuses on Sunpower Inc., a tiny concern in Athens, Ohio, whose raison d'tre is proving the Stirling viable. Started in 1970 by William T. Beale, a crusty former engineering professor at Ohio University, Sunpower is a ragtag little outfit that has limped along on Energy Dept. grants and piddling R&D projects funded by larger corporations. Shelton portrays it as a place full of driven engineers--originating everywhere from Appalachia to Zimbabwe--who thrive on long hours followed by beery get-togethers at the West End, a local tavern.
As a compelling tale, however, Shelton's book falls short of other works with similar themes, such as Tracy Kidder's marvelous The Soul of a New Machine. Shelton is best at conveying the precarious fortunes of a small company trying to push a cutting-edge technology. At one point, the sudden loss of funding from a big, unnamed corporation forces Beale to lay off almost half of his employees--and cut the pay of just about everyone else, himself included. In addition, it's fascinating to learn just how important good mechanics (as opposed to top-notch engineers) are to such technology companies. It often seems that Sunpower would cease functioning were it not for Dave Shade, a chain-smoking, hard-drinking machinist whose forte is coaxing recalcitrant machinery into working.
What the book lacks is drama. Shelton's style is way too long on exposition: He doesn't get around to explaining what a Stirling engine is until page 46, which makes the beginning of the book mystifying to anyone who doesn't already know. While Shade is a vivid character, Beale and most of the other key players don't come alive as individuals. And Shelton doesn't launch into his most compelling narrative--the chronicle of Sunpower's effort to develop a Stirling engine for Cummins Engine Co.--until relatively late in the book.
Nonetheless, the Sunpower story is interesting as an example of the rickety path by which inventions reach--or don't reach--the market. And the Stirling engine is well worth knowing about. At least one other small U.S. company, Stirling Thermal Motors Inc. in Ann Arbor, Mich., is developing Stirlings, as are companies in Germany, Japan, and Sweden. Those enterprises may be long gone before the technology is proved widely practical. But if the world ever does turn seriously to solar and other sustainable sources of energy, their work may live on.