“They Made America”
A Legendary Journalist and Historian Discusses his Remarkable New Book About the Nation's Great Innovators
SIR HAROLD EVANS HAD AN UNUSUALLY RICH CAREER BEFORE he became a chronicler of our nation’s past. Born in 1928 in Manchester, England, he was among other things the editor of both the Sunday Times and the Times of London, editor in chief of the Atlantic Monthly Press, editorial director of U.S. News & World Report , founding editor of Condé Nast Traveler magazine, and president and publisher of Random House. In 1998 his book The American Century , a copiously illustrated 710-page history of the nation in its second 100 years after George Washington’s inauguration, from 1889 to 1989, became a bestseller. The historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., described it as “an astute, evocative, challenging, wonderfully readable and gloriously illustrated history,” and Gen. Colin Powell called it “a book every family should have.”
Now he has turned his sights to the subject of America’s innovative past. They Made America: From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine—Two Centuries of Innovators , just published by Little, Brown and Company, promises to become a major lasting landmark in the chronicling of American invention and innovation. It tells its sweeping story mainly through engrossing profiles of some 70 people, from John Fitch, Robert Fulton, and Oliver Evans at the dawn of the Republic to Russell Simmons (the marketing maestro of hip-hop), Pierre Omidyar (the father of eBay), and Larry Page and Sergey Brin (Google) today. In between, in its nearly 500 pages, enriched with hundreds of illustrations and photographs, it profiles figures as universally known as Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers and as unappreciated as Lewis Tappan, the inventor of the credit rating, and Martha Matilda Harper, the inventor of franchising.
It even contains a major historical scoop. Evans’s researches led him to uncover the full story of how a code writer virtually unknown today, Gary Kildall, did most of the creative work behind what became MS-DOS , the basis of modern PC operating systems. Kildall’s distinctly original contribution was, in Evans’s words, basically “snitched” from him, to become the basis of IBM’s early hegemony in PCs and Bill Gates’s fortune. The book unravels this much obscured drama.
The product of five years’ labor, in which Evans enlisted the research assistance of David Lefer and the photographic historian Gail Buckland, the book is accompanied by Evans’s four-part PBS series, also titled “They Made America,” which airs from November 8 to 22, 2004, and will be available on videotape and DVD. It focuses on dramatizations of the lives of 12 of his 70 innovators.
How will he follow this accomplishment? He plans next to write a popular illustrated history of the nation’s first 100 years, a “prequel,” as he puts it, to The American Century : “I want to do the Founding Fathers, not George Washington with wooden teeth, but capturing these men in the primest prime of their youth, Alexander Hamilton at 23 or 24, and so on. Then I will have done 200 years of America’s political evolution in two books and 200 years of America’s business and economic evolution in one book. So the three volumes will be a trilogy of American history, God willing.”
I spoke with him at his home in New York City.
To start at the beginning, how did you come to write this book?
I spent 12 years writing The American Century . As I did so, I more and more realized that the promises of the Declaration of Independence—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—depended not simply on the words in the Constitution but also on the deeds of business life. How did America come to be so economically strong? Not, I thought, because of resources and minerals and so on; other places—Russia, China, Austria—had similar things. I came to the view that it was because of the adaptive genius of innovators and inventors.
So I thought I’d look into that. I knew from my own experience how much had come out of America in the electronics area, but I didn’t realize until I started investigating it just how much else was due to American innovation. Initially I was going to do only 100 years of innovation, to parallel The American Century . But every time I wrote a note about the transcontinental railway, I had to ask, Where did the steam come from? Where did the iron come from? So I found myself backtracking. What dawned on me with increasing excitement was that nobody had actually done 200 years of America’s economic development through the eyes of the people who had created it. Thousands of brilliant books had been written on the Founding Fathers, but nobody had put together in a coherent way with contemporaneous illustration how the telegraph arrived, how the electronics industry arrived. And I thought the best way to do it would be through the personalities of the innovators, their lives, and then putting them in the context of how much they owed to their predecessors, how much they owed to other people, how much they owed to the political framework of the society.
The book’s title, They Made America , seems to stake a claim. It’s as if you’re saying the Founding Fathers didn’t really make America, armies didn’t really make America, these people made America.
Well, one of the most important innovations is the Constitution, and I did a whole book, The American Century , on political developments. But let me reverse the question. Would America be America without electronics, without Henry Ford, without the transcontinental railroad, without all these other things? No, it wouldn’t. It could be the rural society that Thomas Jefferson wanted and Alexander Hamilton argued against. Some of the Founding Fathers wouldn’t have made the America we see today. The majority of them would have preferred, or at least had a vision of, a rural society.
What perspective do you bring to all this as someone born and raised in England?
Well, I was a young science reporter in the 1950s before I moved more to politics, and one of my visits was to the National Physical Laboratory. It was the leading center of governmentfinanced research in Britain. They showed me where Robert Watson-Watt had invented radar in 1935. And we got talking about how Frank Whittle had invented his jet engine in 1938. I came to realize that the British had kept inventing things and not carrying them through. The jet engine plans were given to the United States in the war. Radar was given to the United States and became one of the foundations of the American electronics industry. George Boole’s Boolean algebra is one of the bases of computers, and the first commercial office system using computers was at the J. Lyons Corner House café company in the early 1950s. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, but penicillin became produced on a mass-market scale in America.
All these British inventions withered on the vine for lack of manufacturing, marketing, and managerial muscle. Why? One reason is that the British education system didn’t offer equality of opportunity. When I was growing up, two percent of the population could possibly go to university. Two percent. I went, but I was very lucky. Nobody coming from the working class, as I did, had much of a chance, by contrast with the millions who went on the GI Bill. The aristocratic, class-based strain was still there in England, and it was infuriatingly holding things back.
At the same time, government and private enterprise were falling behind in the idea of what R&D could do. The National Physical Laboratory had spent a couple of days showing me around because they wanted publicity so that their grant would be increased. The grant was about $2.5 million, for the entire government-financed scientific endeavor. And it was going to be cut! I saw firsthand in Britain how a society can fall behind by failing in the educational system, by failing in opportunities for the masses, and by not emphasizing innovation and business enterprise. And I saw the opposite in the United States.
How did you select the 70 or so people you focus on in the book?
When I began, I was concerned with 100 years. I was going to go from the network of the railways to the network of the Internet. I started making a list of the familiar names that I knew about, Henry Ford and people like that. And then my emphasis changed, because my emphasis initially was on successful businessmen, and I came to understand that the distinguishing characteristic wasn’t making money but innovating and founding whole industries. So I took off my list anybody who had merely become a chief executive of a company and made it more efficient, or who’d invented something and sold the rights but had not innovated himself. With my researcher, David Lefer, a bright young Harvard man, I spent a whole year looking at biographies, looking at contributions. Then I applied to the Sloan Foundation for a grant, because the research was consuming so much time and effort. The Sloan Foundation gave me a grant and also suggested that I appoint three academic advisers, who are named at the front of the book: Daniel Kevles, Merritt Roe Smith, and Victor McElheny. They were fantastically invaluable.
I was forced to reduce the number of people I could profile because I wanted to cover 200 years. I wanted to cover the major convulsive things—railways, airplanes, international jet travel—but I also wanted to make sure that I didn’t write just about transportation. I also wanted to write about medicine. On top of that, I wanted to write about lives that were interesting—and actually they all were, to my surprise. I thought that was going to be an exclusive factor. It wasn’t much. Almost everybody had an amazing story, much of which had been lost to history.
I thought it was very, very important not to exclude unknowns, like Oliver Evans, inventor of the high-pressure steam engine. When I began, I read a line in Daniel Boorstin’s book The National Experience about “the unsung Oliver Evans.” Unsung? I’d never even heard of him! So I went in depth to find out about Oliver Evans, and what I found was so immensely exciting that Oliver Evans had to be in there. I had dinner one evening about five years ago with some excellent, well-informed editors of Fortune , and none of them had heard of Oliver Evans. Hardly anybody in the world has heard of John Fitch, the first person to run a steamboat service. So I realized that the received wisdom of who did what was very flawed. And that made the book much more exciting and interesting.
Most of the people you’re mentioning were figures in the history of technology. But you write about innovation as something very different from invention.
The difference between innovation and invention is: Let’s say we invent something this afternoon that shuts off a telephone when a voice-mail robot answers, or something brilliant like that. And we find some manufacturer to turn out this widget. Then we’ve got to sell it and market it to a mass public or it’s not going to make any difference in people’s lives. One of the reasons your magazine is important, and the National Inventors Hall of Fame is important, is because you emphasize that invention without innovation is just a pastime. Most patents and most inventions don’t go anywhere. Some deserve to go much farther than they do. It’s the innovator who makes them go farther. And that’s what interests me.
Alexander Graham Bell, as I write in the book, wasn’t an innovator. He discovered a system of sound transmission, but he didn’t innovate the telephone. It didn’t work very well until Thomas Edison put a carbon transmitter in, until Theodore Vail put marketing and management muscle behind it and got the whole thing connected and founded what would become Bell Labs. Bell was an inventor, or a discoverer; Vail was an innovator.
I think one of the geniuses of America is its ability to take a good intrinsic idea from an inventor or from a scientist and turn it out for the masses—democratize it. Joseph Henry was way ahead of Samuel Morse in the discovery of electromagnetic transmission, but Henry just made the discovery and moved on. So we went to Morse as the innovator of the telegraph. Same thing time and time again.
Were the Wright brothers really great innovators?
The Wrights are the pre-eminent inventors of our age, because of how they went about it, working from very little and so on. But in terms of innovation, they’re open to criticism. I’ve discussed in the book whether they could have done more. I have a feeling they could have. But they were terrified of somebody stealing their invention, and as we know, the French did steal. The French entry into aviation is based on theft of the Wrights’ ideas. And Glenn Curtiss and company, with Alexander Graham Bell behind them, stole some of their ideas too.
I’m struck by the breadth of what you found to be innovation—honest gambling for the masses, Weight Watchers, the marketing of hip-hop. Were you surprised by this?
I wanted to know what had changed our lives. If something had changed our lives dramatically through innovation, it didn’t matter if it was through marketing, salesmanship, technology, science, whatever. I’m not a great hip-hop person myself, but I have to admit it has created a major business industry—and my 13-year-old daughter confirms that! Similarly, Weight Watchers has changed millions of lives. And these things fit with democratization as an underlying theme. I included eBay among all the things on the Web, because it seemed to fit that very insistent theme of democratization in America. eBay is a community as well as a business.
Some of these people were very idealistic, or were even driven by a kind of religious fervor, like Martha Matilda Harper, who invented franchising, or Lewis Tappan with the credit rating. Philo Farnsworth, who invented television, thought it was going to change the way people were educated. It doesn’t seem as if a lot of these people were exactly in it for the money.
It’s striking when you look at their actual lives, and what they wrote, how money wasn’t a prime motive for most of these people. Most of them. Robert Fulton was a champion sponger who did want to get rich. But Amadeo Giannini refused every possibility of being rich, even as he built the Bank of America, the biggest bank today by some measures. These people had a sense of wanting to be public benefactors. I think the force of vanity is much more important than the force of greed. I think they wanted to be remembered for doing something worthwhile.
Religion is exceedingly important, particularly for people like Morse and Harper, who felt they were doing God’s work. It’s very amusing about Lewis Tappan, who invented the credit rating and what became Dun & Bradstreet. When he starts off, as in so many cases in the book, it’s very difficult. People are derisive. They laugh at him. They don’t take up the business. And Tappan is sustained by a faith in God. There’s one moment when he thinks, “God has deserted me.” He’s a great evangelist, and he may be about to lose his faith in God. Then God actually smiles on him. He starts getting customers. Bingo!
There are characters who are really crazy in a way. Charles Goodyear was a very odd character, no?
Goodyear was a monomaniac. Very often these people were cruel to their families, selfish, not marvelous employers. Isaac Singer was a total scoundrel. When you’re around a monomaniac, you want to watch out. And quite a number of these people were crazy by the standards of their time. Proposing the idea that you could build a transcontinental railway, when we hadn’t even been able to get over the Alleghenies, was ridiculous. I mean it was ridiculous at first. It went from being crazy to being ridiculous, to being absurd, to being something to contemplate, to being something that might really be practical. Why? Because of the evangelical zeal of the main innovator, Theodore Judah, and also because of the developing economy, with more materials and more production.
Ted Turner said something very well in the interview I had with him. He said if you have an innovative idea, and 90 percent of the people are derisive about it, you usually don’t have a very good idea, because most of the time the received wisdom is right. The important thing is to identify those occasions when it’s not. Ted Turner had the inner conviction, the crazy, if you like, conviction, that he was right. He went ahead, defied the conventional wisdom, and was gloriously vindicated. But usually the received wisdom is right. And you have to have the deep inner conviction to surmount the derision that always faces people who change things.
Do inventive creativity and innovative creativity really differ much from artistic creativity?
I think there’s a very close parallel. The most direct parallel is in people like Samuel Morse, who was a very, very distinguished painter, and Robert Fulton, who was a less distinguished painter. They brought to their innovations the perspective of the artist. They could imagine three-dimensional things in the way an artist can render them. Thomas Edison had that too. When he was inventing the quadruplex telegraph, he envisaged it with the flow of water so he could work it out in his mind. I think the creative artist is parallel to the business innovator both in having this capacity to visualize and also in inner conviction and drive. Many artists are described as crazy, just as businesspeople are described as crazy. Many artists, too, are driven not by a wish to make money but by a desire to leave something in music or painting or literature for the benefit of mankind. There’s a similarity. They’re all egomaniacs to some divine extent.
You seem to have a particular passion for Samuel Insull, who you think has gotten a bum rap in history.
I feel very strongly about lnsull. You’ve got three main people engaged in electrical innovation. First Edison, whom I admire immensely, and next George Westinghouse, with alternating current. But neither of those two could have done what lnsull did, which was to make electricity something for the masses. Democratization again. lnsull, by sheer genius, if you like, found the marketing way to make it happen.
Electricity is the most peculiar commodity there is, because the instant it’s produced, it’s wasted. You can’t store it, except in batteries. Yet when we turn on the lights, we just expect them to come on. lnsull elaborated on the concept of peak demand, where you charge higher at the peak and encourage demand at other times by basically giving it away. This justified a big investment in capacity. He wanted bigger and bigger generators that even General Electric couldn’t make. Just as Ford wasn’t content to make cars for the rich, lnsull wasn’t content to make electricity for the rich. He had this vision.
And the cheapening of electricity was a huge impetus tor American manufacturing and American life. Every aspect of our lives today turns on cheap electricity. Insull showed the way. I also feel a particular passion about him because history has done him a disservice. In the Great Depression he was right. If everybody had done what he did and continued to invest and expand, the Great Depression would have been over. But they didn’t, and he was left out on a limb and got pursued for it by a very vindictive press. The vindictiveness of the press, allied with corrupt politicians and jealous people on Wall Street, led to his becoming a fugitive. This man who had given so much was hounded, came back and got exonerated, but then died on a Paris subway, a brokenhearted, despondent man. It struck me as just as thrilling, romantic, depressing, and inspiring as the operas which he loved. He endowed the Chicago Opera House. He was very public-spirited. In the Great Depression he arranged financing to pay the firemen and the police and the schoolteachers of Chicago, because nobody else had the money.
Is there anybody in the book you really dislike?
That’s an interesting question, because, as you know, these are not lives without stains. I certainly have reservations about the moral values or moral characters of a number of these innovators. But I’ve lived with them too long to dislike them. I’ve learned to adjust to their foibles and take them as a whole. Fm hardly perfect myself, and very few of us are, this side of St. Peter’s gate. At the end of the day, Edison’s failings as a father and a husband are very discomfiting, and Edwin Armstrong’s treatment of his wife in the final stages, and Henry Ford’s atrocious anti-Semitism—all these things are reprehensible, but they’ve not led me to dislike them.
Do you have a favorite person? Or a favorite story?
Well, I think Gary Kildall is the most abused of all the innovators. In justice to him, to his memory, his is the most monstrous story in the book. We all of us today benefit from Gary Kildau’s innovations, and they were basically snitched from him. He was betrayed by IBM. He should be celebrated instead of forgotten, and he is the one I feel the strongest about.
He suffered from pure idealism. He believed that his operating system—which was the basis of Bill Gates’s fortune and the IBM PC—should not be exploited to achieve a monopoly of applications. By himself he laid the foundations for the software industry. He would not have gone into word processing and spreadsheets and the like because he believed that would have yielded an overweening monopoly. And he’s been proved absolutely right.
I’m interested in the way you divide the book into three chronological parts, essentially an era of mechanical invention up to the Civil War, then an electrical and mechanical era for the next century, and then the digital age of the last 40 years or so. Is that how you see American innovative history dividing up, in broad terms?
Yes. I don’t think it’s a particularly original perception of mine, though those seemed very fundamental dividing points to me. Now, what would be really clever would be if I’d said what the fourth revolution would be. But as I say at the end of the book, nobody so far has ever really predicted the next innovations, and that’s a wonderful thing about innovations. Nobody predicted we’d have giants like Genentech when Herbert Boyer was splicing the gene. So yes, I do see three broad functional divisions, with a bit of overlap, but I resist trying to predict the fourth.
It also seems that over the course of the book your focus moves from more pure invention and technology at the beginning to broader, more conceptual kinds of innovation-from steamboats and telegraphs to popular banking, Walt Disney, and 24-hour news and so on. Do you see over this history a kind of expansion in the realm of possibility for innovation?
That’s a good way of putting it. Some of those later things would not have been possible without the earlier innovations. Walt Disney and his movies would not have been possible without Edison and his crude movie camera. Raymond Damadian’s MRI wouldn’t have been possible without cheap electricity. So yes, that’s the way I see it.
Damadian is another case, like Kildall, where you feel that you’ve gotten to the bottom of a complicated story that people haven’t understood, right?
Yes. The magnetic resonance imaging story has been confused, as Damadian admits, by his own personality. He’s excitable and paranoid. But although the MRI machine with which he first took a picture of the inside of the human body was a very imperfect thing, he had the idea before anybody else had it, that radio transmissions from the body could turn into an image. Now, his method of doing the image was much less satisfactory than that of the men who got the Nobel Prize, and the prize infuriated Damadian, because he was snubbed. I think I’ve given a proper perspective on what Damadian did and didn’t achieve. He is still today at the forefront in MRI, and I feel that whatever his supposed character defects may be, they’re similar to those of many other people in the book: zeal unmitigated by doubt. I also have a great deal of sympathy with him.
The brilliant duo of Mansfield and Lauterbur, who won Nobel Prizes for MRI, illustrates a common phenomenon in the book, where one giant stands on the shoulders of another. Throughout the book we see people picking up other people’s ideas, and one of the things I emphasize is that originality may be the thing that gets a patent, but effectiveness is the most important quality. Many of the people in the book took other people’s ideas and made them work, or took a development and pushed it to an extreme and made it work.
Take Edwin Land and Charles Goodyear. The idea that you could achieve polarization with certain types of crystals had been around for a long time. Large crystals didn’t work, so people made them smaller, and they still couldn’t get a cheap, reliable polarizing material. So Land ground his crystals ridiculously small, something like the size of a wavelength of light, and used a magnet to align them. This was the origin of Polaroid.
Everybody knew that the problem with rubber, before it was vulcanized by Goodyear, was that as soon as the sun came out, it melted and stank. Everybody would say, “Heavens, stay away from heat with rubber.” Goodyear didn’t stay away from heat; he increased the heat dramatically and mixed in sulfur, basically, to get the breakthrough of vulcanized rubber. You can even translate this to the cultural phenomenon of 24-hour news. I might give you 6-hour news, but that’s still not 24-hour news. It’s the extreme that made Ted Turner’s CNN an innovation.
And makes it a lot more difficult to achieve. If you’re going to do news 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, you’ve got to start out completely ramped up. With containerization you’ve got to have every ship out there ready to take containers in every port, and Federal Express can’t just be between two or three cities.
That’s why these guys are crazy. And yet Ted Turner wasn’t out of his mind. Fred Smith wasn’t out of his mind with Federal Express. And Malcom McLean wasn’t out of his mind with containerization. But the scope of what Malcom McLean was venturing on was daunting. Unless it was universal, forget it. But it became universal, because it was a fantastic idea. I’m glad you mentioned McLean, because he’s another person in my book who’s been neglected.
Near the end of the book you give 10 lessons that can be learned from all these innovators. And that brings me to the broader question of whom in particular you feel you’ve written this book for and what you hope to achieve with it. What do you hope people will take away from it?
The highest achievement with this book would be to achieve what Ray Stannard Baker did when he did a book of popular inventors and it was seized as a schoolboy by Edwin Armstrong, who read a chapter on Marconi and got inspired. Obviously I want this book to be read by my peers and businesspeople and people interested in American life. But the greatest satisfaction for me would be if it inspired a new generation of young people to appreciate that the path of innovation is very often very difficult and bitter but leads to great public benefaction.
I think everybody in America should read They Made America , if they’re interested in where we came from and where we might be going to—wouldn’t that be nice! But seriously, I found the stories of our benefactors as engrossing as a good novel.