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They Made America    by Harold Evans order for
They Made America
by Harold Evans
Order:  USA  Can
Little, Brown & Co., 2004 (2004)
Hardcover, Audio, CD

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

This hefty coffee table book surveys what 70 diverse U.S. innovators introduced over two centuries 'From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine'. 100 more are given a mention in an 'Innovators Gallery' at the end. In his Introduction, Harold Evans speaks of the need for practical inventiveness in the early New World pioneering society, and the competitive push for brisk innovation today. He tells us that immigrants were inherently 'risk-takers', dreams in their baggage. And he distinguishes between invention and innovation, calling the latter 'inventiveness put to use', and telling us that 'an innovator seeks a universal application of the solution by whatever means.'

The book is in three parts. The first goes up to the Civil War; the second moves through the transition from mechanical to electromechanical systems, and the third covers the digital age, the 1960s onward. Photos are interspersed throughout the text. Innovations in the early days of the new American nation include a commercial steamboat service in which 'geography was a midwife'; the cotton gin; the Colt revolver; the telegraph; machine harvesting; the sewing machine (the bizarre life of reprobate Isaac Singer was as interesting as what he created); vulcanized rubber; the bicycle (popularized via artistic posters); blue jeans (called 'waist high overalls'); the elevator; and the credit rating (an anti-slavery crusader came up with that one!)

Part Two covers 'the second industrial revolution'. Evans categorizes innovators as 'Inventors', 'Democratizers', or 'Empire Builders'. He opens on the first transcontinental railway with its 'retinue of satellite innovations' such as the Weather Service. There's Thomas Edison who 'made a science of innovation' with inventions like the incandescent bulb and the 'kinetoscope' (an early motion picture projector) - with a wonderful photograph of a fifty-ish, thoughtful Edison. You've heard of the Wright brothers and Henry Ford, of course (and they get good coverage here), but did you know that cobbler Leo Baekeland later became a chemist and developed plastic? Or that a heroic black man named Garrett Morgan invented the gas mask? Amongst the 'Empire Builders' are those responsible for ventures that range from Weight Watchers, Walt Disney Enterprises, and Barbie dolls, to ubiquitous cheap electricity, modern television, and IBM.

Last comes our own 'Digital Age'. Evans tells us what a 'googol' is and introduces Charles Shannon as a 'joyful man' who turned universal messages into binary digits. We learn about the 'Electronic Elves of Silicon Valley' and the personal computer revolution. The latter was fathered by DRI's Gary Kildall who, according to Robert Cringely 'wrote code as Mozart wrote concertos.' There's the 'Odd Couple' of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, the latter credited by Evans with creating 'the software equivalent of fast food'. I already knew something about the software industry, but pored over the biotech section (mainly on Genentech), which was new to me. Moving on, we have Ted Turner's introduction of '24-hour electronic news', and Joan Cooney's Sesame Street. Other featured innovations include the MRI scanner, hip-hop, eBay, and Google (whose name comes from 'googol').

Evans ends with ten lessons learned from history's innovators, along with a Jonathan Swift quote on recognizing a true genius by the fact that 'the dunces are all in confederacy against him.' What do some of these tinkerers share? Persistence definitely, and a make it work mentality. Many ended up in debt or destitute, were not particularly moral characters, or were generally hard to get along with. But they delivered. What innovations will we see in our lifetimes? Evans reminds us that 'the greatest innovations are unpredicted' so we'll just have to wait and wonder. In the meantime, enjoy these tales of great men and women who said 'Why not?' Not only the innovations intrigue, but also the lives lived by all the inventive souls who star in They Made America.

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