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They Made America: From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine: Two Centuries of Innovators Paperback – May 9, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Developed in tandem with a four-part PBS series to air in November, Evans's profusely illustrated and elegantly written book offers the same breadth and scope as his previous bestseller, The American Century. Evans, former president and publisher of Random House, profiles 70 of America's leading inventors, entrepreneurs and innovators, some better known than others. Along with such obvious choices as Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers, Evans profiles Lewis Tappan (an abolitionist who dreamed up the idea of credit ratings), Gen. Georges Doriot (pioneer of venture capital) and Joan Ganz Cooney, of the Children's Television Workshop. From A.P. Giannini (father of consumer banking) to Ida Rosenthal (the Maidenform Bra tycoon), Evans shows innovation as both a product of and a contributor to the grand apparatus of American society. And his spotlight is on the true American elite: the aristocracy of strategic visionaries, creative risk takers and entrepreneurial adventurers thriving in their natural environment, the free-market democracy of the United States. Evans doesn't neglect the latest generation of innovators, among them Google's Larry Page and Sergey Brin. He concludes with a note of caution, pointing out the nation's recent loss of dominance in the hard sciences. But just as Edison was inspired by popular biographies of innovators before him, so might the next generation of scientific and commercial explorers find guidance in Evans's exciting survey. 500 color illus.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From The New Yorker
In his second large-format book about U.S. history, Evans extolls American moxie, that seemingly native mixture of initiative and luck that produced the Colt revolver, the FM radio, the Kodak camera, Mickey Mouse, and eBay. As a historian, Evans is less concerned with the inventive spark itself than with how it finds capital and markets. This approach allows fresh insights into familiar stories; we know that the Wright brothers flew, but not, perhaps, how they flirted with the French before selling their machine to the U.S. government. Evans favors "democratizers" who generated affordable mass culture; Henry Ford is his paragon. In the current era, he focusses on the ferment of Silicon Valley, as embodied by such innovators as Larry Page, the Google co-founder, who marvels that more people don't work in technology, because "that's the easiest way to change the world."
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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How many would judge the following innovation as typically American: An Amendment to the U.S. Constitution committing the nation to preserving the human livability of our lands up through the Year 16,000? The thinking behind this duration is that the Native Americans were able to sustain their livelihoods on this continent for 14,000 years. The European culture of innovation that overtook these lands, viewing itself as equally capable to Native American culture, ought to be its equal in sustainability.....right? Such would be a meta-innovation, a fundamental rearrangement of the rules of innovation upon which the nation was built.
The thing that scares people about this idea is that, deep down, Americans know that our system of capitalism (in its laissez-faire extreme) is one that poisons, degrades and uses up its host environment the same way a colony of bacteria eventually exhausts the capacity of a petri dish to supply nutrients and absorb wastes. The same practical problem-solvers who gave us steam power, and later nuclear energy were profoundly blind to their petri dish predicament. The new continent with all its wooded forests was a new source of heat energy, the forests of central Europe having been substantially denuded and burned as firewood by the 1700s. Fertile topsoils were bountiful in North America, compared to the depleted soils of populated Europe. Environmental escapism and irresponsibility is an undercurrent that runs throughout "They Made America".
Would it have been appropriate to include Gaylord Nelson and the beginnings of the environmental movement as a seminal modern innovator? Counter-thematic? A government person framing his innovation as a mind-change needing to be adopted broadly by the entire population as a matter of long-term survival? Does anybody remember how putrid our East Coast rivers were in 1970? The sting left in the eyes of LA joggers? The near extinction of our national bird by DDT poisoning? Or how about a section on Ralph Nader, whose innovation begins with the question "Why are so many people killed and maimed in Chevrolet Corvairs every year?" Why not include these optimistic Americans whose actions have done so much to improve life?
I think they are not included because their inventions primarily clean up messes left behind by earlier innovators, and the book choses not to soil the "improvements" showcased with their legacy costs and baggage. And this brings us to the evolving standard of innovation. Americans are no longer so easily seduced by claims such as those vaunted for nuclear fusion circa 1970 as "a source of cheap, limitless energy". We've learned to ask: What radioactive wastes will the containment system create? How long will they be biohazardous? What is going to keep these wastes from showing up in people's stomachs 2000 years from now? What about heat waste from these reactors? In saying that the energy is limitless, are you naive enough to think the Earth can absorb limitless waste heat? While our founding inventors were able to talk about resources as being limitless, and the echoes of this way of thinking still permeate our public discourse (President Reagan ran for President as a denier of Jimmy Carter's realpolitik of environmental limits), we've turned a major corner the past 20 years in accepting limits and adjudging sustainability. We're much better systems thinkers. The word "progress" is now reserved for innovations meeting a much broader set of criteria than at the time of George Eastman. There are generations of work to be done, and centuries of inventions to be reconsidered, in front of us to reinvent a sustainable way of life.
This change in thinking is in itself a mark of great progress. So again, if the American Indians thrived continuously for 14,000 years on these lands, are we practical-minded, clever, 21st century Americans up to the challenge of matching that feat?
In short, I enjoyed this book until I started noticing errors and a strange, sometimes nasty, bias. There are also several silly chapters on people who are simply not in the same league as the rest, a few that are extremely slanted and a few that are almost nothing but lies and misinformation.
It became apparent that the author tends to take sides. In more than one case he accepted the delussional rantings of the subject as fact, dismissing the volume of contradictory evidence. Worse, the author is, at times, very nasty in his dismissal of that contradictory evidence.
This is a sloppy, poorly written book. The number of egregious errors in several chapters make me doubt the validity of some of the assertions made in the rest of chapters. If you want to be educated, you are much better off finding books specific to the subject.
[Note from 2016: I apologize for the new review not having more details. I sold the book soon after I wrote the original review and don't have it for reference. However, the book is chock full of easily checked errors.]
I think I understand the reason why Tesla is omitted from this and other lists of the greats. In his elder years he got a little crazy. He was also considered somewhat of an egotist in general, which he probably was. He challenged Einstein's theory of relativity, and other modern theories, and claimed that you could not produce energy from matter. "Atomic power is an illusion" he frequently declared. He also claimed to have a "dynamic theory of gravity" which was never published.
This is a very poor reason to ignore his genius but I can't think of any other reason for it. At least the unit of magnetic flux density was named after him so some people thought he was great!
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