Ever since she was a little girl and read "Quest for Fire," she had been fascinated by inventions and inventors. Inventors were her heroes. While her school friends cut out pictures of the Beatles, she was reading all she could about Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell . . . and Barthe'lemy Thimonnier.
"It was so sad," said Vale'rie-Anne Giscard d'Estaing. "A lot of inventors' stories are sad. Thimonnier was a tailor from a small country town in France who invented the sewing machine. It was in 1830, but when he took it to Paris the workers were so afraid for their jobs that they destroyed it. Then later he invented a better one and was taking it to London for the Exhibition of 1851. But his ship was held up by a storm in the Channel, and he got there two days too late. He died soon after."
As the eldest child of the former president of France, Giscard d'Estaing could have written her own ticket in politics. She went to the Institute of Political Science, concentrating on economics and history. Graduating shortly after her father took office in 1974, she became assistant to the minister of culture and the arts. Two years later she joined a publishing firm as assistant editor.
First it was cookbooks.
"I wrote three of them," she said during a stopover in Washington. "And then in 1979 we turned it into a TV show and then a magazine. A year later I formed my own company for packaging these things."
It all came together with her book of inventions. First published four years ago in France, it became an instant hit on the order of the Guinness Book of World Records. Annual editions were put out. The staff grew to 60. And now, as the World Almanac Book of Inventions, it has come to America.
"We deleted a few of the modern French things, like electrostatically heated underwear," she said, "but we also added some American sports like baseball and football. It changes with every edition, new pictures and everything."
Thus, though Rudolf Laban, the inventor of labanotation for recording ballet steps, does not appear in the U.S. version, he has been in earlier editions, and his name appears on a master index for the seriously curious. The point of the book, however, is not to substitute for an encyclopedia -- "which is read by people who already know what they're looking for" -- but to stimulate interest in people, especially young people, who had perhaps only vaguely wondered who invented the zipper (Whitecomb Judson) or matches (Robert Boyle) or the microwave oven (Percy Spencer, who discovered the waves when they melted candy in his pocket as he stood in his lab at Raytheon).
"It's very tempting to get into the larger meaning of these inventions," said the author, "into the conceptual insights that caused the real changes. But there is no space for that here." As it is, the book covers in considerable detail such complex sequences as the gradual development of the steam engine and the airplane. It glories in the stories behind individual inventions and the poignant failures that seem to precede so many famous successes.
"Rudolf Diesel committed suicide, you know. He sold his patents, the ones that weren't stolen. He gambled his money away, died in despair. But then you have the lucky ones. John Pemberton invented a sweet syrup, but it wasn't until someone spilled soda water into it that Coca-Cola came into being. And then there was the Earl of Sandwich, who couldn't bear to leave the gaming table so had his lunch brought to him between slices of bread."
A surprising number of the inventors turn out to be French -- surprising, that is, to Americans brought up on the notion that the Industrial Revolution happened exclusively in England. In fact, France and Germany were at least as active as the British during the 17th and 18th centuries in producing new processes and devices that would change the way everyone lived.
And they are still at it. It was a Swiss engineer, Georges de Mestral, who invented Velcro in 1948 when he took a closer look at the thistles caught in his hunting clothes. And it was the Frenchmen Charles Crosset and Ernest Bevan who first created rayon in 1895. The list goes on. The new book has 362 pages, three columns per page, with plenty of illustrations.
Next year the Book of Inventions will go into 10 languages. It has spawned a TV quiz show in France, and Giscard d'Estaing's firm sponsors an annual award for inventors and a foundation to aid young idea people. With 160,000 copies sold in France, the company is looking for an even bigger score in this country.
The 32-year-old entrepreneur has two younger brothers and a sister. Only one brother is in politics. Her father doesn't mind.
"He is proud of me," she said. "And I am proud of him."