A weighty problem to solve

An expert on third-world housing devotes himself to inventing a new travel scale

In 1988, Solly Angel left Bangkok after 14 years of advising Asian governments on urban planning and building a reputation as one of the world's foremost experts on third-world housing. He left to pursue another matter that had been weighing heavily on his mind: giving the world a quarter-inch-thick personal travel scale.

Considering the title's enticing promise - "An Odyssey of Invention" - readers should know that the scale which Angel envisions is not so much a new object as a refinement of one that already exists. Also, despite eventually becoming technically adept, he's dependent upon experts for many of the insights that propel his project forward.

Nevertheless, this - and not the romantic vision of the lone inventor toiling at his workbench - is the reality of product development. There are towering savants and there are revolutions, but most progress usually happens by committee, inch by inch. Through his inventor's journal, Angel takes us into the machine shop and boardroom, and lets us in on moments of exhilaration and crushing disappointment.

His dedication leads him to three patents and an admirable degree of expertise in the design of load cells, sensors that convert physical strain to electronic signals. We learn about this as the author does; his ability to recall his own learning process in lucid detail allows him to communicate technical issues in readily understandable terms.

Angel's other talent as a writer lies in the way he frames his progress in a broader cultural context. Merely technical issues are elevated by his reflections on Eastern philosophy, 20th-century design theory, and the historical role of scales in world commerce.

Seldom objective but always honest, "The Tale of the Scale" is most fascinating as a first-person account of obsession. Angel's passion leads him to dream of his thin scale on display at the Museum of Modern Art. It also leads him to repeatedly misplace his trust, squander his money, and promise goods he can't deliver.

If the final chapter disappoints, it disappoints in a way that's probably common to most people on an "odyssey of invention."

"Either things go according to plan or there is a story," Angel writes. The world gets a story here, but we're left to wonder if merely imagining a thing and pursuing it doggedly is sufficient to call oneself an "inventor."

Darren Abrecht works on the Monitor's website.

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