Review

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

by Harold Evans



What made America great?

Talk all you want about the Founding Fathers and the Constitution.
In the end, you come back to the practical applications of Our
Freedom --- to the story of the greatest economic growth of any
nation in the history of the world.

That story --- the 200-year tale of practical innovation --- has
been told in countless books. Now, at last, Harold Evans has told
it in one: an oversized picture-and-text doorstop that's so richly
detailed, so excitingly told, that you have to consume it in small
gulps.

You read this book in sections not because a day hunched over a
table with it would make you overdose on historical factoids and
biographical detail. It's because THEY MADE AMERICA tells you so
much you didn't know that it shatters your assumptions. And then it
does something more --- it makes you so ambitious to innovate and
build that you'll feel as if you'd downed a gallon of Red
Bull.

Innovation, Evans reminds us, is hardly the same as invention.
"Less than 10 percent of patents turn out to have commercial
importance," he notes. Which underscores the very practical, very
American aspect of innovation --- it is how fortunes were made. As
the profiles of the mostly male innovators document, those fortunes
were deserved; these men worked insane hours and paid a high
personal price for their achievements.

The subtitle ("from the steam engine to the search engine") charts
a curve so elegant and simple that you can dip into the book
anywhere and know where you are. I'm not a heavy-lifting guy, so I
cared a bit less than I might have about the steam engine, the
cotton gin and the hand gun. I cared a great deal more about the
sacrifices innovators made along the way --- there's a
heartbreaking scene of an impoverished Charles Goodyear, unable to
afford a funeral for his two-year-old son, carrying the dead boy's
body in a sheet to the cemetery. I was extremely interested in the
innovators' view of money and loved Samuel Colt's line, "Money is
trash I have always looked down on." And I adored science reduced
to imagery --- did you know that the friction of steel wheels on
steel rails makes a train 10 times more energy-efficient than a
truck?

Where the book sings, for this reader, is in the big profiles of
innovators whose stories you think you know. Like Thomas Edison,
making 11th hour deals to get the money to keep his workshop going.
Like the mother of the Wright Brothers, herself a gifted
mathematician and inventor. Henry Ford --- who died a bigot --- was
once a social reformer who raised his workers' salaries to an
unheard-of $5 a day because he had been deeply influenced by the
writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. And I took particular delight in
the stories of lesser-known men, like Juan Trippe, the compulsive
exaggerator who created Pan American Airlines.

The modern era offers just as many surprises. Think you're savvy
about the Digital Age? How much do you know about Gary Kildall?
Bio-tech? Are you up on the contributions of Herbert Boyer and
Robert Swanson?

Evans ends the book with a short chapter: "Ten Lessons that can be
learned from history's innovators." They seem obvious --- but the
obvious is, as this book amply illustrates, the hardest thing to
see. Many didn't perceive the possibilities in any of these
inventions. A handful did. And it's their unceasing focus on
practical applications that makes this such a useful book for
anyone contemplating entrepreneurship. It's not, we learn here,
about being first. It's about staying in the garage, night after
night, until the breakthrough comes.

American innovation is now being challenged by others, and, as
never before, they are beating us. THEY MADE AMERICA is not only a
fascinating reading experience, it may well turn out to be a great
public service. So get reading --- and then get to work!

Reviewed by Jesse Kornbluth on January 23, 2011

They Made America: From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine: Two Centuries of Innovation
by Harold Evans

  • Publication Date: October 12, 2004
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • ISBN-10: 0316277665
  • ISBN-13: 9780316277662