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A public policy blog from AEI
Americans pride themselves on being exceptional. And one of the qualities that makes this nation exceptional is its proclivity to innovate. But from whence does America’s unique capacity for producing inventors arise? To discuss this question, I’m joined by Kevin Baker, author of America the Ingenious: How a Nation of Dreamers, Immigrants, and Tinkerers Changed the World.
Kevin Baker is a renowned historical fiction novelist, a frequent contributor to various newspapers and magazines, and a 2017 recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship.
PETHOKOUKIS: The book’s title is America the Ingenious. Would it be as easy or as fulfilling to write “Germany the Ingenious” or “France the Ingenious”? Is there something special about America, or do you just happen to live here and there’s a big market for books about America?
BAKER: I’m sure it would not be because in America, we have invented an extraordinary number of things. Although this is not a book simply about what we have invented. You go on the internet and you discover that everything of use has been invented by somebody from England, which is to say a Scotsman; we are about as bad. I grew up thinking Henry Ford invented the car by himself and Thomas Edison invented everything else, and that’s generally what we have been taught.
Most inventions have been built over a number of years by a number of cultures. The original suspension bridge goes back to a Buddhist saint who built it in something like the 12th century in the Himalayas, but that’s a far way from building the Brooklyn Bridge. And that’s one of the things we’ve done very well as a culture for many years is not only invent things but also take things that other cultures have first thought of and made them commercially viable, made them ubiquitous, made them lovable, and that’s what has been the American genius so far.
You make several important points there. One is this is not just a book of inventions, of the first person to put something together, to perform some task that we previously couldn’t do or had to do by hand. Nor is it a book about devices. It’s also a book about innovation and creating new things. I would have expected that the electric lightbulb would make it in the book, for instance, but there are also supermarkets in the book, something people might not think of as an invention or an innovation necessarily.
The Piggly Wiggly, the first real supermarket, has an amazing story about its invention and how people came up with this. How we used to shop before now seems incredible to us. You’d go into the store with a list and would have the clerk go and get everything for you while you talked to your neighbors or lapsed into a fugue state.
The book is rather eclectic in that it includes a lot of things we don’t normally think of as being invented, such as the cities of New York, Chicago, Illinois, and Los Angeles, such as Jazz and Blues, but these are really things that other people have often thought of as our greatest inventions. These things were invented too, it took people to do this.
I mean, the city of Chicago is an amazingly man-made invention. It’s a place that was really brought into being by the will of a few people, basically one person, its first mayor William Ogden. Invention and innovation can work in so many different ways.
Growing up I lived on Ogden Avenue and I did not know where that name came from until reading this book, which says something about what a fantastic book it is and maybe what a poor education I had.
I had never heard of him either and I fancy myself pretty knowledgeable about basic American history. I think it’s incredible how many kind of hidden stories there are. The irony is that there is a city named for him in Utah because he had a role in putting together the transcontinental railroad, but he is unknown in the city he built.
I’ll also say about supermarkets, before you would give them a list and they would get everything you wanted for you. Now we are going to be going back to that. We will submit a list online and the drones will go and get all those items for us.
So there are 76 inventions or innovations in the book. Obviously there was a narrowing down process, so what got into the book? What was the criteria, was it economic impact? Social impact? All the above?
Yes, social impact, economic impact, things that we felt had been neglected a lot of the times before. And of course you have to do some big things like a phonograph or a television but a lot of stuff we didn’t think people were thinking of.
There was other stuff that we did incredible work to invent but that we just felt were not happy stories we wanted to include. I mean the atomic bomb is an amazing invention that took the work of not only geniuses who came up with the theories behind it but all kinds of people building this and putting it in place and getting this deliverable, and all of them were doing it toward a fairly noble end which was to stop this hideous war and defeat fascism. But of course in retrospect it doesn’t look like such a glorious thing, so we left out some things like that. (Although we do have some military inventions in it which were absolutely fascinating, such as the Pennsylvania long-rifle and the repeating rifle, which Abraham Lincoln insisted be put into use in the Union Army).
Again, the classic inventions that you might have learned about in school are all in here, and you mentioned perhaps some things that aren’t. I just wanted to mention a couple of the classic ones which perhaps people learned and maybe forgot about but are certainly extraordinarily consequential even though we don’t talk about them as much. So right off the bat, the Erie Canal: Why did that make the list and what was its longer term impact?
It is another incredible innovation by another person who like Ogden — and Ogden was rather inspired by this individual — is likely the greatest American you’ve never heard of. And that was DeWitt Clinton, who was a formidable political force in New York. He took up this idea that had been pushed by — one of the great things about doing this book is discovering the regular Americans who were able to put forward their ideas — a flower merchant from upstate New York who had ended up in debtors’ prison because he couldn’t get his goods to market in time.
The roads were terrible, it was taking him too long, they had private toll roads — which is an idea today, and that’s interesting too: every bad idea people come up with today has been tried. But this individual, I believe his name was Jesse Hawley, was trying to get his goods to market, couldn’t do it, was in debtors’ prison, and came up with this idea that we need to move goods by water.
And this idea was quickly seized upon by DeWitt Clinton, who over decades through incredible opposition pushed it forward. Nobody thought it could be done. Thomas Jefferson, a fairly innovative and forward-thinking individual himself, felt it would not be possible for another century. I’ve read this is the biggest work of engineering since either the Great Wall of China or the Pyramids, but the idea was to get these goods from the Midwest, which we were just opening up as the country moved westward, and get them to New York, which is one of the world’s greatest natural harbors, and the get the goods to Europe, which had the money to pay for them.
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And Clinton was able to do this over decades of struggle. It was done by thousands of regular laborers, many of them poor Irish immigrants who were fed swill and housed in terrible places and given 10 to 20 shots of whiskey a day to keep them going. Crazy thing being done in a country that barely had a trained engineer at the time. But we pushed it forward, we got it done, it proved a remarkable boon; it really shot New York City ahead of every other American city in terms of its growth and economic power. It created this entire highway to the Great Lakes region, that to this day something like 80% of people in New York state live along the Erie Canal, basically within like 10 miles of it.
So this was a huge innovation. It put America right at the cockpit of the Western world, between the immense natural resources of the interior North American continent and Europe, the richest region in the world at the time. And this really shot us forward as a society, and again it was a fairly simple idea: basically digging a ditch over those miles between the Great Lakes and New York City that were not already covered by rivers. Just digging a ditch in the intervening spaces and pushing goods forward. But it worked, it helped transform the country.
What’s interesting is that if not for the Erie Canal maybe Philadelphia would be the dominating city. So if you hate the New York Yankees and all those championships they’ve won, it’s really because of the Erie Canal, which made New York the economic focal point of the United States.
It’s an interesting thing that you mentioned the Yankees because they are a team that has for years been owned by some of the worst people in Baseball — horrible, horrible owners but who put money back in the team. And that’s why it stayed in New York. It was very dominant, as opposed to teams like the Dodgers or the Giants that didn’t do that and ended up moving. So it’s a very interesting thing about investment, and that’s something to remember too with the Erie Canal as we talk about infrastructure today, how this relatively simple investment, this relatively simple project, changed everything around it.
Going into this book, were there inventions and innovations that you stumbled across that made you think “this absolutely needs to be one of the 76 chapters in the book”? Which ones did you discover?
That was a constant occurrence, of discovering these things that I had no idea were out there and I had no idea of how it went down. Something very simple like the safety pin, which was created by this kind of prodigy or perhaps idiot savant named Walter Hunt. Again, a very simple thing that nobody had managed to come up with in thousands of years, and this is a guy who kept inventing all kinds of things from a sewing machine to a rifle that were great inventions that he simply gave away or failed to develop. He just seemed not to care, and all of a sudden he comes up with the safety pin to pay a $15 debt; something like that was amazing.
The elevator, you don’t really think of elevators as at one point never having existed. But the safety elevator was invented by Elisha Graves Otis, and that was a huge innovation and he went to demonstrate this at the Crystal Palace exhibition and he would go up there with a sword or with an axe and actually cut the elevator rope before this gasping crowd, and the safety device would catch and everybody would be amazed.
Dress patterns by Madame Demorest, a woman who came up with the idea of dress patterns at a time when sewing machines were coming in. (A lot of inventions were built on other inventions, which is interesting.) She came up with this and also used this to push various social movements such as Abolitionism and Women’s Rights that she believed in, really trying to democratize America at the same point she was letting women all over the country have a way of making the latest fashions on their own. So things I would never have thought of as being out there just transformed the country.
I think if you ask most Americans who were the greatest American inventors, probably the first person they would mention would be Thomas Edison. What are your takeaways on Thomas Edison and where he should rank in the pantheon of inventors?
Edison was completely amazing, you can’t ignore him in any book about American inventors. He was also kind of irascible at the same time, constantly suing people. Basically if he invented any part of anything then he thought that everyone who then worked in that field should be paying him some big royalty. But at the same time oddly that stimulated so many industries such as the movie industry moving to Southern California, in part to have all those extra hours of sunlight and good weather, but also to escape Edison trying to sue them.
Another person who is a great story and a much more likeable person in a way is Alexander Graham Bell, who I believe some board of scientists in America voted America’s greatest inventor in 1950 or so. But he was also just a tremendously innovative person. He came up with the phone as part of his lifelong attempt to help his deaf wife hear, which he didn’t quite accomplish but absolutely devoted to her. Just a tremendous intellect; he used to read encyclopedias at night looking for ideas. And he came up with basically the predecessor to the cellphone back around the turn of the century, and predicted climate change before the First World War.
You arranged the innovations thematically, but I’m curious if you looked at them more chronologically, as the Northwestern University economist Robert Gordon has, if you’d agree with his thesis. He looks at America’s inventions and thinks all of the big things have already been done. America will not be as productive or grow as fast in the future because what we have invented in the past was game changing, and now it’s much narrower: a lot in IT, video games, basically things that while amazing are not as transformative as the telephone or electrification.
More from Robert Gordon:
More from Robert Gordon:
Do you think we have already thought of the great game-changing ideas, and now it’s a more incremental way forward?
With all due respect I have to disagree. This seems to be a kind of pall that has fallen over the country as a whole and even among very scientific orders. I talked about this book at the Microsoft campus in Washington and I got the same sort of questions: Have we invented all the amazing stuff? Is everything done?
I would say we are definitely far from done, and I would say that a lot of the things that we could invent coming up if we play our cards right — and there is no guarantee that we will — but a lot of the most amazing things human beings will invent are just right up ahead. Particularly things involving how we will change the body and the brain, how we will make them more resilient and better able to recuperate.
I think we will have all kinds of amazing transportation alternatives, technology in trains which we have sadly neglected here; things like that are just going to whisk people around. We are talking about things like the space ladder that people can go up and down on that will make getting payloads to space much easier.
I’m a big space elevator fan. Very happy to see the mention of the space elevator in the book.
Exactly, that will be amazing, this kind of thin carbon line to space. I think about that both for tourist things but also all the science you can get up there very cheaply. Energy innovations are going to transform our world, just to make it a healthier, brighter, better place.
We have the potential to pretty much eliminate work as something we have to do; just think about how that’s going to transform how we live. You go back to the 1950s and there is all this worrying about what will happen if we get rid of work. What purpose will human beings have? Frankly, I think it will be great when people will just work on what they want to when they want to.
But these are all amazing innovations. But yes, as human beings we are perfectly capable of completely blowing it, or blowing ourselves up or inventing things that will destroy —
Let me stop you on the optimistic note and hold off on the blowing each other up. I wanted to ask you, because you mentioned you had spoken at the Microsoft campus, why Bill Gates is not in this book. Steve Jobs is not in this book. Is that because if you had another 25 pages they would be, or do you just look at them and what they have done as different in some way? Maybe the Macintosh or the iPhone don’t qualify as inventions or innovations in the same way?
They were certainly huge innovations, but a huge amount has been written about them already. And also we lack the historical perspective to say just how these things came out. So there is stuff that goes up to the present, but for some stuff I would like to give it a little bit of distance. But yeah there is no ignoring Steve Jobs or Bill Gates.
So as you mentioned there is some concern that we invented all these amazing things. If you were talking to some policymaker and really wanted to explain what the secret sauce of ingenuity in this country has been and how to keep it going in the future, what type of things would you focus on?
Well in the book I came up with six basic keys that I identified, and I’m sure there are other things as well. But I think these are the constants in what we have done, and we seem to be doing so few of them today that it worries me a little more than what’s out there left to invent.
Basically just to give it to you quickly they were, first, the culture of freedom. There was kind of a misstep by President Obama years ago when he said “you didn’t build that,” because there is this tremendous culture of freedom here that’s led all these people to feel like they could go out and invent any number of things.
At the same time the president was right, so the second key is “you didn’t build this alone.” Very little gets built up by just one genius coming up with something. We have the story of Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegram, who was helped all along by the people he knew and people he went to church with and even corrupt politicians. He was helped by Ezra Cornell, who discovered the idea of putting up wires on poles because it would be better than them shorting out underground. Also there are a lot of inventions that were invented collectively by people over the years, such as the Pennsylvania long rifle or the prairie schooner, an amazing bit of folk invention that was invented by thousands of Americans over decades and became this incredible way of rolling across half the continent to get to California.
Then there is government, which plays a huge role even if we don’t like to admit it. Government sets the rules. Again and again, government ended ridiculous decades-long fights over things like who owns the patent to everything from the phonograph to the car to the television. By breaking up monopolies under antitrust laws they spurred a lot of innovation. The federal government tells AT&T they can’t have both the phone company and the microchip, and that leads AT&T to sell the rights to the microchip and leads to some of its best scientists going to California and starting Silicon Valley. The state of Texas did not allow monopolies at one point in the late 19th century, and that spurred all these wildcatters to go out over the territory that would otherwise have been dominated by Standard Oil, and gave us the modern oil rig. So government has played an amazing role.
And government does pick winners, as we have witnessed. They can say that they don’t or that they shouldn’t, but they do. Abe Lincoln picked the winning repeating rifle by testing it on the Washington Mall. Also government builds the framework of success. Everything from the public school system to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which was an amazing system of bringing cheap energy that just transformed the South and made the industrial rise of the South possible.
Another key is immigration, which is absolutely crucial. Of the 76 inventions here, I counted at least 65 that were due to immigrants and even more by the sons and daughters of immigrants. So we have everybody from Alexander Hamilton and Alexander Graham Bell, and also people like Richard Hall who gave us the rotary press.
There is a great story in this book about the MRI and how that was developed. The guy who first came up with the theory was Isidor Isaac Rabi, who was born in Galicia, a province of what was then the Austro-Hungarian empire. And he said if he had stayed in Galicia he would probably have been a tailor. But his family came to America, he worked incredibly hard to the point that his teeth fell out from malnutrition at one point, got a couple of degrees, and ends up winning the Nobel Prize. All of these people come to work for him at the Physics department at Columbia who were also refugees, and three or four of them win Nobel Prizes too.
And finally Dr. Raymond Damadian brings it all together and develops the MRI machine. This is a man whose family had fled from Armenia, who had fled the Armenian genocide to come to the US. So these are people who came out of nowhere all around the world from these countries which at the moment were wrecked by war and disease and everything else. And they came here and transformed this country and transformed the world.
So immigration is our lifeblood, and if we are going to cut it off we are going to be doing ourselves a huge disservice.
Another key thing: A mind is a terrible thing to waste, as the slogan goes. There are relatively few people in this book who were women or black inventors. Mostly because for centuries they were legally forbidden to patent inventions. What they came up with when allowed to do so was pretty amazing. We have the story of Dr. Charles Drew, who came up with a way of getting dried blood plasma to the battlefield even though the blood supply was segregated, idiotically enough, during World War One between blacks and whites. But he came up with this innovation that saved thousands of lives on the battlefield.
We have Stephanie Louise Kwolek, also the daughter of an immigrant, a Polish immigrant, who invented the Kevlar Vest. She got no money, but said that there is nothing like saving someone’s life to give you satisfaction and happiness. So expanding the number of people in this country who are able to join in is tremendously beneficial.
That’s also one reason to be optimistic about the future of invention and innovation more broadly. As more people access the internet and as more brains “come online,” I don’t see how both in this country and globally we are not going to be more innovative.
One final question. You chose when talking about baseball to focus on the polo ground rather than baseball as being a great innovation. Why did you frame it like that?
Baseball is a terrific innovation, but of course it’s hugely disputed where it was invented. People have been inventing some sort of bat and ball game since we got off the savanna. But the baseball park, the original baseball park that we try to imitate all the time, was a wonderful kind of serendipity, the perfect urban American invention: something that would fit into whatever space you had.
I think the weirdest and loveliest and most interesting of those is the polo grounds, which is a crazy place to play baseball. It was shaped like a horseshoe basically, which gave us some of the greatest moments in baseball history, right down to its last years and Willie Mays’ amazing catch out in center field where he just seemed to run forever. That was the epitome of baseball as the American game, to see someone running out through what seemed to be the infinite space of our country.
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