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Unlocking the mysteries of innovation. From Pyramids to plastics, a look at the progress of technology

Works of Man: A History of Invention and Engineering From the Pyramids to the Space Shuttle, by Ronald W. Clark. New York: Viking Penguin. 352 pp. $24.95. ``Machines for navigation can be made without rowers, so that the largest ships will be moved by a single man in charge,'' English philosopher and experimenter Roger Bacon predicted in the mid-13th century.

``Cars can be made so that without animals they will move with unbelievable rapidity,'' he continued. ``Flying machines can be constructed so that a man sits in the midst of the machine revolving some engine by which artificial wings are made to beat the air like a flying bird.''

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Writing at a time when everyone thought the world was flat, Bacon illustrated some of the reasons visionaries can be vilified as well as admired: They often have the extraordinary capacity to imagine something better than the status quo. But there also can be an enormous gap between imagining something and making it a reality.

Bacon's prophecy, after all, didn't change his world. Some 600 years were to pass before the steamship, automobile, and airplane would shrink the globe beyond even his powers of imagination.

The mysteries behind the act of innovation and its erratic but inexorable march across the pages of history are the subjects of ``Works of Man,'' a new book by British author Ronald W. Clark, whose earlier works include biographies of Einstein, Freud, Edison, and Darwin.

Clark opens this readable history of technology with a new look at the wonders of the ancient world, including the 4,500-year-old Great Pyramid of Giza, the base of which is 779 feet square with corners that are only seven inches out of true; the 400-foot-high Pharos (lighthouse) of Alexandria, built by Ptolemy II in 270 BC; the Roman aqueducts and Colosseum; and China's Great Wall.

He closes with the marvels of the space age: the alchemy that produced plastics; the reactors that harness the ultimate power of the atom, yet have been compressed to the size of a shoe box; the Apollo craft that carried men to the moon; the unmanned probes that unlocked the secrets of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn; the silicon chips that make the first generation of computers, in contrast to today's, seem as slow, dimwitted, and ungainly as the dinosaurs.

The bulk of Clark's book, however, deals with the titans of the Industrial Revolution and their accomplishments. In England, for instance, Isambard Kingdom Brunel pioneered the railroad, the suspension bridge, the world's largest steamship, and (with his father, Marc Kingdom Brunel) a tunnel beneath the Thames.

In America, Robert Fulton revolutionized river commerce with the steam engine, built the first coal-fired warship, and created a prototype submersible called the Nautilis (a name that would later be immortalized by Jules Verne). In France, Gustave Eiffel became famous for his bridges, viaducts, and domes, as well as his tower and engineering work on the Statue of Liberty. In Italy, there was Marconi; in Germany the Siemens family; in Croatia, Tesla.

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It is in Clark's thorough, affectionate accounts of these 19th- and early 20th-century innovators that one sees most clearly the confluence of need, knowledge, nature, and genius that can combine to produce something entirely new under the sun. Flipping through these pages, a reader can almost hear the musical theme of the film ``2001'' resounding in the background.

Of course, coming to terms with new technology has never been easy, as Clark's account reminds us. Some disputes from the past echo in today's headlines. In the 1820s, for instance, clipper-ship owners were pressuring Parliament to protect jobs from the threat posed by steam. In the 1830s, an engineer was predicting that the laying of railroad tracks would cause ``veins of water [to] be cut,'' springs to dry up, and farmland to turn arid. Yet another doomsayer was using convincing figures to show that i t was no more practical to speak of a transatlantic steamship voyage than of a voyage to the moon, since the weight of the coal required would be prohibitive.

Each was proved wrong in excruciatingly short order.

Ronald Clark himself, though seldom matching the eloquence and breadth of vision of such master explainers as Kenneth Clark and Jacob Bronowski, demonstrates a grasp of technology that is little short of miraculous. Anyone seeking a lucid catalog of technological achievements or new insights into creativity will enjoy ``Works of Man.'' But those who question whether innovation always adds up to progress, or whether the cast of characters assembled between these covers fully explains the nature of genius , may decide that this is a story that not only spans but transcends the works of man.