They Made America

From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine: Two Centuries of Innovators


By David Lefer

By Gail Buckland

By Harold Evans

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An illustrated history of American innovators — some well known, some unknown, and all fascinating — by the author of the bestselling The American Century.


Resounding acclaim for Harold Evans's

They Made America

Selected by Fortune magazine as one of the best books of the past 75 years

" Innovators have been reinventing America for more than two hundred years. But no one has told their story with half of Harold Evans's authority, insight, or panache. They Made America is a terrific book."

— Sylvia Nasar,Knight Professor of Journalism at Columbia University and authorof A Beautiful Mind

" Formidable. . . . A rich, wide-ranging work. . . . Absorbing profiles of Americans whose inventiveness and industriousness changed the way human beings lived."

— Neil Genzlinger, New York Times

" With energy and brilliance, Harold Evans brings to life America's business geniuses. . . . They Made America is so good that Evans deserves a place in it for the energy and innovation he has brought to the business of celebrating history and ideas."

— Walter Isaacson,author of Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

" Promises to become a major lasting landmark in the chronicling of American invention and innovation."

— Frederick E. Allen, Editor, Invention & Technology

" Evans's elegantly written book offers the same breadth and scope as his previous bestseller, The American Century. . . . Just as Edison was inspired by popular biographies of innovators before him, so might the next generation of scientific and commercial explorers find guidance in Evans's exciting survey."

Publishers Weekly


— John McLaughlin

" Harold Evans's superb new book will solidify his standing as an innovative historian of the American experience. Like its large subject, it is wholly original and bracing."

— Sean Wilentz,Dayton-Stockton Professor of History at Princeton University

"Fresh insights."

The New Yorker

" A detailed and perceptive account of the efforts of people whose contributions were critical in giving shape to American life."

— Jeff Madrick, New York Review of Books

" Richly detailed, excitingly told. . . . Not only a fascinating reading experience, it may also well turn out to be a great public service."

— Jesse Kornbluth,

" With his keen analytic intelligence and gift for absorbing storytelling, Sir Harold Evans has given us a brilliant, accessible, and original book. . . . A historic and important work that sheds light on that most elusive of qualities: the mystery of genius."

— Jon Meacham, author of Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship

" Evans's evident fascination with America's can-do spirit bundles one along. He has a great story."

— John Gapper, Financial Times

" A fun and educational read. . . . An informative, well-researched, and well-written book that rewards repeated readings."

— Robert A. George, New York Post

"A wonderful book."

— Lou Dobbs, CNN

" In magisterial prose, Evans presents fascinating and energetic portraits of 70 quintessential American innovators."

Library Journal

" When Harold Evans thinks about American history he thinks big."

— Jeff Bercovici, Women's Wear Daily

"A way to learn from the best innovators in U.S. history."

— Kevin Maney, USA Today

"A superbly written survey of the most important innovators in this country."

— Pia Catton, New York Sun

"Quirky and satisfying from the first chapter to the last sidebar."

— Dennis Drabelle, Washington Post

To the Memory of My Brother the Reverend Frederick Albert Evans

The Author Gratefully Acknowledges the Generous Support of this Publication by the Sloan Foundation

Advisers to

Daniel Kevles, Stanley Woodward Professor of History at Yale University

Victor McElheny, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Merritt Roe Smith, The Leverett and William Cutten Professor of the History of Technology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology

America's Genius for Innovation

"You see things; and you say, 'Why?' But I dream things that never were; and I say, 'Why not?'"

— George Bernard Shaw, Back to Methuselah (1921)

NEW AMERICANS have been coming to the North American continent for four centuries in the hope of building new lives, free of the restrictions of the Old World. The newness and vastness of the surroundings, the shock of unfamiliar environments and the shortage of ready hands impelled an almost frantic drive by the early settlers for practical innovations that would make life less tenuous and more agreeable. Understanding just what innovation is and how it comes about is a vital subject for the 21st century, when intensifying competition from around the world requires Americans to innovate as briskly as did those first adventurers.

I have been interested in the adaptive genius of Americans since the misty morning 50 years ago when I walked the shoreline of the James River to retrace the steps of the first English settlers in Virginia. Around the original site of the Jamestown palisaded fort, I watched archaeologists sift through the soil where they had isolated 50,000 fragments of the first English colony of 350 years before: an earthenware oven; a swept hilt rapier; pieces of ivory chessmen; a small caltrop with four wicked spikes to throw in the path of Spanish cavalry; scissors, needles and thimbles; a branding iron; hundreds of candle snuffers and gin bottles; and an ice pit for storing food. Captain John Smith brought 104 settlers in three sailing ships, anchoring on May 14, 1607. The first colony of 117 men, women and children, settled in the Roanoke wilderness ten years earlier by Sir Walter Raleigh, had vanished, but the Jamestown settlers survived Indian hostility and the "starving time."

They did it by innovating. In Jamestown today, visitors can see how they made good use of the chain mail and breastplates they brought to fight a Spanish army that never came. It was too cumbersome for Indian warfare, so they cut up the armor and recycled the parts as cooking pans. When their exports of silk, glass, sassafras and soap ashes were not enough to pay for their essential supplies from the motherland, they concentrated on John Rolfe's innovation, the crossing of an indigenous plant with seed from the West Indies to produce the first and long-sustaining export: tobacco well suited to the soil of Virginia and appealing to tastes in London. After 1776, the political innovations of these newly independent Americans gradually brought reality to the promise of individual liberty. The story of that evolution has been amply told in a number of classic histories and biographies; I added to the extensive literature with my own account of the flowering of freedoms in the second hundred years from 1889 to 1989 (The American Century). On the other hand, much less attention has been paid to the story of the practical innovations by which the Americans over two centuries used their freedom to provide comfort and security, and so came to advance the well-being of all mankind. The purpose of this book is to depict some of the principal creators of those innovations.

There were not many of them in the early days when the destiny of the new republic was in balance, but there were new generations of innovators among the thousands, then millions, of newcomers. It is commonly said that these later immigrants brought their dreams. In fact, they brought ours. They brought to fruition the hidden promise of America. It is obvious enough that the energies of the new masses cleared the wilderness / planted the corn / laid the railways / reaped the wheat / spun the cotton / erected the cities /dug the canals / forged the steel / built the bridges / set the factories humming. But they brought more than muscle. They had fled class-ridden conformity or outright tyranny, so they tended to be of an awkward, questioning disposition. And unnoticed among the millions of these ambitious self-selected risk-takers from all parts of the world were individuals exceptionally willing to dare. Their gifts for innovation accelerated America's progress over two centuries. Merely to mention one, the German immigrant Ottmar Mergenthaler's invention of automatic typesetting in Baltimore in 1886 exploded the diffusion of information and knowledge through books and newspapers, and with it came a sharp leap in literacy. For the most part, the immigrants did not come with any special secret, any patented invention, any great wealth or connections. 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.

Innovation, the concept and activity that made Dr. Johnson shudder, has turned out to be a distinguishing characteristic of the United States. It is not simply invention; it is inventiveness put to use. Herbert Boyer was not content with splicing a gene in a university laboratory; he risked academic odium by going into business to mass-produce man-made hormones. Cyrus McCormick was not the only farmer to invent a reaper, but he was the one who imitated the financing mechanisms that made it possible for hundreds of thousands of farmers to afford the invention. The sorely neglected genius of radio, Edwin Armstrong, went into the marketplace himself rather than see his invention of FM radio shelved by RCA's desire to maintain its income stream from the manufacture of AM radios. Ida Rosenthal did not invent the brassiere, nor even the famous Maidenform "I dreamed" campaign, but she put all the pieces together in production and marketing so that her husband's invention reached millions of women. Theodore Maiman, having invented the first working laser on May 16, 1960, described it as "a solution looking for a problem" because so few appreciated its manifold possibilities; he ended up founding his own companies. He was first an inventor and then an innovator.

This crucial difference between invention and innovation was borne in on me on my return to England in 1957. As a young science reporter, I visited the government-funded National Physical Laboratory at Teddington, and they showed me where their senior researcher Robert Watson Watt had in 1935 invented the radar system that was to help the Royal Air Force win the Battle of Britain. His former colleagues remarked with chagrin on how swiftly this British invention had been taken up and exploited in the United States after 1939, laying the foundation for the great electronics industry. It was the same story with antibiotics, following Alexander Fleming's 1928 discovery of penicillin; with Maurice Wilkes's pioneering efforts in developing the first commercial application of the computer at the offices of J. Lyons and Company in 1951; and with the jet engine. All these British inventions were superseded by the innovative energies of America. Frank Whittle designed and patented his gas turbine to produce jet propulsion in 1930, when he was only 24; the first test run was made at Rugby on April 12, 1937, and the Pioneer jet first flew on May 15, 1941. The inertia of the British Air Ministry and the skepticism of the National Academy of Sciences delayed production of the Whittle Meteor jet fighter plane until 1943. The secret blueprints were given to the United States as part of the Allied war efforts—and the United States came to dominate jet engine manufacture. Whittle, impressed by American openness and enthusiasm for innovation, ended up as yet another enriching immigrant to the United States, finally working as a research professor at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Practical innovation more than anything else is the reason America achieved preeminence while other well-endowed landmasses lagged or failed. America's emergence from a rural backwater to a position of dominance is not to be explained by the access to physical resources or population, since Russia, China, Australia, Canada, Brazil, Argentina and South Africa were also richly endowed but failed to develop anywhere near as rapidly. The Americans laid rails across their continent long before the Russians and Canadians. The speed of American adoption of new ideas is manifest in the vignette of Asa Whitney, who arrived in England in 1830 to buy items for his fancy-goods business. Fifty years after American independence, England, hearth place of the industrial revolution, was so far ahead with the railway as to inspire a lifelong awe in this proud Yankee. He took a ride on the new Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830, traveling at a velocity previously unthinkable; he guessed it was 46 miles an hour. But within Whitney's lifetime, America caught up and surpassed Britain and everyone else in its railway engineering. Ten years after Whitney returned home to extol the wonders of George Stephenson's Rocket, there were 3,312 miles of track in America, more than in all of Europe, and Whitney's passionate campaign to build a transcontinental railway to the Pacific was no longer seen as an unfortunate consequence of traveler's delirium.

One of the purposes of this book is to note transforming connections such as this, to see the innovator in the context of his times as both a legatee and an explorer. There are many eureka moments, but antecedents always matter. Jack Kilby at Texas Instruments and Robert Noyce at Intel no more plucked the idea of the integrated circuit out of thin air than Robert Fulton "invented" the steamboat on a sunny day in Paris. Thomas Edison introduced electric power into cities, but it was his immigrant clerk Samuel Insull who found a way to make power cheap enough for everyone. Insull, in turn, depended on the innovations of George Westinghouse in alternating current—but Westinghouse had no concept of the nexus of technology and marketing exploited by Insull.

All these men were innovators: They were entrepreneurs in action. It has been said that a scientist seeks understanding and an inventor a solution, to which we might add that an innovator seeks a universal application of the solution by whatever means. The case of Alexander Graham Bell is illustrative. He was not an innovator. He was the discoverer of how sound waves could be converted into undulating electric current. It was certainly a marvelous moment on the evening of March 10, 1876, when his young assistant Thomas Watson heard Bell's voice down the wire, "Mr. Watson, come here, I want you!" but as Watson later remarked, the Bell Company phone was calculated more to develop the American voice and lungs than to encourage conversation. Bell did not solve the problem. He did not make any further contribution to the technology of the telephone or to the manifold microinventions necessary to make it an effective instrument by means of automatic switchboards, loading coils, carrier currents, marketing and the like. The problem of indistinct and muffled sound was solved by Thomas Edison (with Charles Batchelor). They produced an effective carbon button transmitter for the rival Western Union so that when Western Union pooled the patents of Edison and Bell's rival Elisha Gray it had a real working telephone. Then Theodore Vail presided over the amalgamation of Western Union and the Bell Company to create the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. It was Vail who foresaw the potential of a national long-distance system and worked to overcome myriad technical, political and bureaucratic obstacles with such effect that on January 25, 1915, he was able to sit in his convalescent retreat on Jekyll Island, Georgia, and listen to Bell in New York repeat his original request of 1876 to Thomas Watson in San Francisco (to which Watson replied that it would take him a week to get there now). Vail was also the initiator of a research facility that in 1925 became the Bell Labs, the genesis of decades of inventiveness including the transistor in 1947 and the Telstar I communications satellite in 1962.

Vail was an innovator. So was Samuel Morse, though he was not the first to invent a practical electromagnetic telegraph. The scientist Joseph Henry preceded him, but the gentle Henry had no interest in developing it for commercial application. Morse did. He was the innovator of the telegraph. Chester Carlson cooked up chemicals on his kitchen stove in Queens in 1938 so as to transfer a dry mark from one piece of paper to another. No commercial organization was interested. The nonprofit Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio, took the invention a stage further from 1944. Joseph C. Wilson, new to the presidency of his father's Haloid Corporation, a maker of photography products, sent his friend Sol M. Linowitz, a public-spirited lawyer just out of the navy, to look at it. "We went to Columbus to see a piece of metal rubbed with a cat's tail," said Linowitz. From 1947 to 1960 Wilson took his company to the brink of extinction, investing $75 million in the strange device, which became the Xerox machine, one of the most successful products ever made. Wilson was the innovator.

Thomas Edison is thought of as America's foremost inventor, with 1,093 patents in his name, but his most important work was translating the insight of invention into the practical reality of innovation through the long process of development and commercial introduction. He exhorted his associates: "We've got to come up with something. We can't be like those German professors who spend their whole lives studying the fuzz on a bee." A score of experimenters before Edison had worked on heating a filament to incandescence, and any day one of them might well have succeeded, but Edison's transcendent innovation was to understand that the lightbulb he invented would be a mere novelty unless he could find a way to integrate it into an economical and safe electrical system. The simple act of flicking a light switch in offices and homes depended on a complex of dynamos, cables and numerous connections that all had to be devised, costed and manufactured. Edison had also to fulfill the entrepreneurial role of raising the money, arranging the legal rights-of-way and cultivating the market. Edison was a supreme innovator.

Invention without innovation is a pastime. Patents are important, very much so in some industries, like pharmaceuticals, and hardly at all in others, like machine making, but their role, like that of the inventor, has been overplayed. A patented invention is only a beginning. Less than 10 percent of patents turn out to have commercial importance, according to a study for the Lemelson-MIT Program, and less than 1 percent have the seminal importance of, say, John Vaught's ink jet for Hewlett-Packard in 1975, or for that matter Eli Whitney's humble cotton gin nearly two centuries before. Some of the innovators in this book were inventors who carried their inventions into patents and to fulfillment in society; some of them invented nothing. A handful made scientific discoveries, but few of them were versed in any branch of pure science. Their distinctive quality is not that they filed a patent or elaborated a formula. It is that somehow they got their hands on the most important ideas and turned them into commercial realities with enormous impact. Samuel Slater and Francis Cabot Lowell did not invent the machinery that made Massachusetts a center for cotton manufacturing at the turn of the 18th century. They stole it from the British. Originality is not the prime factor; effectiveness is. Henry Ford and Bill Gates are classic later examples.

The innovators featured in these pages are rich in their diversity. It gives a flavor of where lightning strikes in egalitarian America to mention that they include a trucker, a portrait painter, a cobbler, a Harvard professor, a deck boy, an immigrant seller of fruit and vegetables, a drug dealer, a frontiersman fleeing Indians, a hairdresser, a street peddler, a billboard salesman, a flour miller, an illiterate daughter of slaves, a '60s rebel on the streets of San Francisco, a beach taxi pilot, a seamstress, a piano salesman, a foreman in a power plant, a U.S. Navy seaman with nothing to do on a warship at the end of World War II, a playboy, a radio ham, a hardware store keeper, a clerk and of course a couple of bicycle mechanics.

A surprising number of these innovators can be described as democratizers making it possible for the whole population to enjoy goods and services previously available only to the elite. Amadeo Giannini opened banking to the common man. Before George Eastman, photographers practically needed a Ph.D. in chemistry to develop and print their pictures. The digerati long scorned those with AOL e-mail accounts, but Steve Case brought millions to e-mail and the Internet. Georges Doriot and then Michael Milken liberated entrepreneurs with a good business plan from needing personal connections with the wealthy. Gary Kildall, Ken Olsen and Bill Gates extended access to the computer beyond a select priesthood of engineers. Pierre Omidyar created a democracy of supply and demand with eBay. Raymond Smith transformed casinos from dark smoky rooms peopled by men to public places of entertainment. Juan Trippe and Donald Burr ran airlines that opened up the world to everyman.

Some may say that this is a romantic illusion, that these creative democratizers were merely catering to the masses for the sake of higher profits. None of them, to be sure, sought penury in the service of the public, but my immersion in the lives of innovators over several years leaves the impression that money making was not a sustaining motivation. It appealed to some—no doubt to Robert Fulton, who had spent so much of his time sponging off others. But Henry Ford would have made more money in his early days if he had done what his partners wanted and made cars for the rich. Giannini went to great lengths to avoid a personal fortune, buoyed by a deep populism born of his family's early struggles. A desire to be God's agent in the service of mankind was uppermost in the actions of Morse, Vail, Lewis Tappan (credit rating), Theodore Judah (the transcontinental railway), Olsen and Martha Matilda Harper (beauty parlors). And John Wanamaker was mindful of his Christian ethics when he replaced the customary haggling of the pre-Civil War period with price tags to render equality of opportunity to all shoppers in his famous Philadelphia store.

In all the innovators I call democratizers, altruism was no doubt diluted by vanity, the desire to be acclaimed as a benefactor, to be acknowledged by one's professional peers—and there is nothing wrong with that. With Edison and Edwin Armstrong, the satisfaction of intellectual curiosity was paramount, with John Fitch (the steamboat) it was social recognition, with Madam C. J. Walker (beauty treatments) an affirmation of racial pride. Whatever conclusion one reaches about motivation, the democratizing instinct is evident in many innovators' successes.


On Sale
Mar 3, 2009
Page Count
496 pages
Back Bay Books

David Lefer

About the Author

Harold Evans is a British-born journalist and writer who was editor of the Sunday Times from 1967 to 1981. A graduate of Durham University, he has written a number of bestselling histories. He followed the late Alistair Cooke in commentaries on America for the BBC. An American citizen since 1993, he has held positions as editor-in-chief of the Atlantic Monthly Press, founding editor of the prize-winning Condé Nast Traveler; editorial director of the Atlantic and US News and the New York Daily News; and president and publisher of Random House.

He holds the British Press Awards’ Gold Award for Lifetime Achievement of Journalists. In 2001 British journalists voted him the all-time greatest British newspaper editor, and in 2004 he was knighted. Since 2011, he has been editor-at-large for Reuters.

Learn more about this author

Gail Buckland

About the Author

Harold Evans is a British-born journalist and writer who was editor of the Sunday Times from 1967 to 1981. A graduate of Durham University, he has written a number of bestselling histories. He followed the late Alistair Cooke in commentaries on America for the BBC. An American citizen since 1993, he has held positions as editor-in-chief of the Atlantic Monthly Press, founding editor of the prize-winning Condé Nast Traveler; editorial director of the Atlantic and US News and the New York Daily News; and president and publisher of Random House.

He holds the British Press Awards’ Gold Award for Lifetime Achievement of Journalists. In 2001 British journalists voted him the all-time greatest British newspaper editor, and in 2004 he was knighted. Since 2011, he has been editor-at-large for Reuters.

Learn more about this author