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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

They Made America: From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine: Two Centuries of Innovators

In an Environment of Freedom, Innovators Succeed

What a stunning book!

They Made America is a big glorious coffee-table kind of book that deserves to be picked up and read, not just dusted occasionally. Harold Evans (actually, Sir Harold—this former editor of the
London Times was knighted in 2004) has given us a marvelous compendium of short biographies on American inventors and innovators. He begins late in the eighteenth century and continues on through to the present. Evans calls these people heroes, and while his portraits are done “warts and all,” one cannot help being swept up in his enthusiasm for individuals who have done so much to bring progress to mankind. Not a politician in the bunch.

Robert Fulton makes it into the book, but the first chapter goes to John Fitch, who actually beat Fulton in the development of a working steamboat by 20 years. Like nearly all early innovators, Fitch was a self-made man whose native intelligence more than compensated for his lack of formal education. A near escape from an Indian war canoe had set Fitch to thinking about the advantages of a steam-powered craft, and he succeeded in building one without ever having heard of James Watt.

All the famous American inventors and innovators are here—Eli Whitney, Charles Goodyear, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, George Eastman, the Wright brothers—as well as some people the reader probably won’t know. Sarah Breedlove Walker, for example, was a remarkably successful black businesswoman who rose from abject poverty because of her ability to create and market hair-care products. Evans writes that “she attributed her rise to the virtues of patience, thrift, and the acquisition of practical skills, then being preached by the former slave Booker T. Washington.” Eventually, Madam Walker, as she was known, would build for herself a magnificent Italianate villa in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York (FEE’s hometown, of course). Her story demonstrates that it was possible for blacks to succeed in business at a time when the political system did all it could to keep them poor and ignorant.

The individual chapters are fascinating, but there is a bigger message here. Evans writes of the people who chose to come to America. “[U]nnoticed among the millions of these ambitious self-selected risk-takers . . . were individuals who were exceptionally willing to dare. Their gifts for innovation accelerated America’s progress over two centuries . . . .When they disembarked, blinking in the bright light of the New World, they had no idea what their destinies would be. The magic was in the way they found fulfillment for themselves—and others—in the freedom and raw competitive excitements of the republic.”

Yes, the individuals about whom Evans writes made America, but they needed the environment of freedom to succeed. The reason is that innovation can only thrive in an atmosphere of liberty. Evans’s writing suggests this crucial connection, but I wish he had made it more explicit.

A corollary point: Evans correctly says of early America, “Everything turned on individual enterprise. The national government was weak and the laissez-faire ideas of Adam Smith had taken root.” In the America of the 21st century, however, the national government is virtually omnipotent and the sphere of laissez faire is greatly constricted. Evans includes several “digital age” innovators, such as the founders of eBay and Google. Communications is one of the few areas of the economy still relatively free of regulation, and the question thus presents itself: Are we stifling innovation and progress in the many sectors of the economy that are heavily regulated? The absence of modern innovators in certain other fields seems like the Sherlock Holmes story in which the dog didn’t bark.

Finally, here’s a quibble. Evans wants to distance himself from libertarians and Randians by saying that we need to think about all the ways in which government has stimulated innovation—like the interstate highway system. Compared to the enormous destruction of wealth that has been caused by our Leviathan through its taxation to support domestic and international meddling, however, any benefits from the state must be microscopic in comparison.

Having said that, I still think the book is a stunner.