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Published: April 1, 2000

 
 

Assaying Edison... And His Equals

Who belongs in the Innovation Hall of Fame: Shockley, who invented the transistor; Moore and Noyce, who left his lab to found Intel; or Grove, who managed the company to greatness?

At the beginning of the last century, when the United States inched out Britain for top place in the world's share of manufacturing, Andrew Carnegie exulted, "The old nations of the earth creep on at a snail's pace, the Republic thunders past with the rush of the express." His generation of Social Darwinists, the likes of John D. Rockefeller and George M. Pullman, put it all down to the spirit of enterprise, the freedom of the fittest to survive and succeed without meddling from law or government. That romantic notion of the individual entrepreneur taking on the world, celebrated in the novels of Ayn Rand, still has a grip on the American business imagination.

But the heroic icon does not do justice to the complexity of innovation. It is overlooked, for instance, that the transforming event that made America a single marketplace — the transcontinental railroad — would never have been completed in 1869 without the federal government. The railroad men were titans, but they looked to the Republican administrations in Washington for money and land. They got 23 million acres and $64 million in easy loans. James J. Hill, creator of the Great Northern Railroad, was the only transcontinental builder who dispensed with government funding.

To the Europeans, America owed its business success to a vast closed market created both by the railways and by the imposition of high tariffs. American business was a protected business. Rapid expansion across the landmass also owed as much to government as it did to Daniel Boone. The gift of 160 acres of land to every homesteader, and the protection of the U.S. Army, was critical to the settlement of the West, and with it, the production of food for the burgeoning population. Government also made it relatively easy for individuals and companies to exploit a continent rich in minerals, oil, gas, water, and timber.

America, of course, was hardly unique in its physical resources; Russia, China, Australia, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, and South Africa, among others, were similarly well endowed. Why did those nations fail to develop as rapidly as the United States? Was there something special about the way American administrations provided incentives and protection for enterprise, or was there also a special get-up-and-go quality in America's people?

I think there was. Certainly America was distinctive in the way it embraced millions of immigrants from Europe. They provided cheap labor, but more than that, they were self-selected for their determination and enterprise. They were ready to jettison old values and practices. They were natural innovators. The same was true of immigrants to Canada, and, to a lesser extent, to Australia, but nothing approaches the American importation of bright eager beavers. Alexander Graham Bell came from Scotland to Boston to teach the deaf. Hunchbacked Charles P. Steinmetz only narrowly escaped being sent back to Germany and was spurned by Thomas A. Edison ("too many electricians are coming here"), but his inventiveness sped electricity over great distances to factories.

In writing my history The American Century (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), which focused on the second hundred years of the Republic, from 1889 to 1989, I became increasingly intrigued by innovators like Steinmetz, individuals who made a difference. One fact alone is suggestive: The number of patents granted to inventors doubled every year from the end of the Civil War to the end of the century. As Scientific American celebrated in 1896, it was "an epoch of invention and progress unique in the history of the world." The historian Thomas P. Hughes neatly dubbed it the "American Genesis," the creation of the modern technological nation. But who, precisely, were the creators? I decided to look into the lives and work of the innovators over more than a century of progress, and accepted the invitation of the publisher Little, Brown to treat the subject at length, in a book I am entitling The Innovators. I propose to touch on the complexity of innovation, but the emphasis will be on individuals.

 
 
 
 
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