Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank by David Plotz Random House $195 The death of obscure inventor Ephraim Shay in 1916 spawned the strangest adventure in American reproductive history. Shay made a fortune designing a steam engine that could climb steep hills before he retired to the small town of Harbor Springs, Michigan. He was a kind-hearted man who built hundreds of sleds for local children during the snowy winters. One of those children, Robert Graham, was only 10 when Shay died, but he was profoundly affected by the thought that Shay had died without any offspring. He spent the rest of his life lamenting that the genetic material of such a man had been lost, leaving future generations with a bit less goodness to draw upon. Graham went on to build a multimillion-dollar empire by inventing plastic lenses for eyeglasses, but kept thinking about genetics. Like others of his time who became obsessed with eugenics, he felt that the elite of society were having fewer children than the dullards. With time, he believed, this would lead to devolution of the species. Finally, in 1980, at age 74, Graham acted to reverse the genetic decline he so feared by opening the Repository for Germinal Choice - an exclusive sperm bank to be stocked with the seed of Nobel Prize winners. Only women of genius-level IQs could make withdrawals. Graham sought to genetically engineer a generation of super kids using high-octane sperm. Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank is the offspring of a series of articles David Plotz wrote for the webzine Slate starting in 2001. He spent years researching the story, tracking down donors, recipients, former staff and the children who resulted from Graham's repository. Not surprisingly, Graham's plans began to come undone almost as soon as the first donor filled his specimen cup. A Los Angeles Times reporter discovered one of the three Nobel Prize winners who were the founding donors to the bank was the physicist William Shockley. Shockley helped invent the transistor and is credited with creating Silicon Valley in California - but also believed that black Americans were 'enslaved by their DNA' to a life of poverty and crime. While his endeavours were above reproach, Shockley was hardly what most would consider a role model, never mind a contributor of extraordinary sperm. The other donors Plotz unveils are equally unimpressive. Only three Nobel Prize winners were ever recruited and it appears none of their sperm produced a child. (They may have been too old, their sperm lacked the required vitality.) The only claim to fame of one of the donors was as the unemployed son of a Nobel Prize winner. Most of the others who donated sperm were businessmen, academics and even some, as Plotz puts it, men that you 'might not wish on your ex-girlfriend'. Despite their less-than-stellar genes, by the time Graham's repository closed following his death in 1999, his donors had fathered 215 children. The women who came to the repository were - in some cases - exactly the sort of people Graham had hoped to breed out of existence. The mother of the first child born using repository sperm served time in prison for using the names of dead people to apply for loans and credit cards. Her husband, who was also in on the credit scam, had children from another relationship taken away from him for being an unfit father. The children Plotz locates are not the uber-offspring Graham had hoped for, either. One teen fathered a child with his illegal immigrant Russian girlfriend and spent his days playing computer games. The Genius Factory is a clinical look at the dark side of America's fascination with eugenics and reproduction. It's also an intensely personal story about the lives Graham helped create. And, as one would expect from a book that has a subtext of masturbation and sperm, there are some humorous moments as well. Case in point is Plotz's decision to take his research in hand and become a sperm donor himself. In an ironic twist, Plotz reveals that Shay, the man who motivated Graham's fascination with eugenics in the first place, turned out not to be childless after all. According to Plotz, Shay had at least one child who Graham didn't know about, and his genes were carried on to future generations. There were even schools and streets named after Shay in Harbor Springs, further ensuring his legacy. History hasn't been so kind to Graham. His dreams of saving the human race were a failure. His legacy is to be remembered as an oddball character in a tale of weird science.