Businessmen are the symbol of a free society—the symbol of America. If and when they perish, civilization will perish. But if you wish to fight for freedom, you must begin by fighting for its unrewarded, unrecognized, yet best representatives—the American businessmen. –Ayn Rand
This quote is truly appropriate for Harold Evans’ new book, a fantastic journey through the history of American innovation over the past two hundred years. (Evans is also the author of The American Century.) Ayn Rand is actually mentioned in Evans’ introduction, albeit briefly, so I thought I would start out this review with one of her insights.
In great dramatic style, Evans tells the stories of dozens of people that have truly turned America into what she is today. They are not all inventors, although some, like Edison, are renowned for their inventions, but they are all innovators: people that had a new idea and through courage, canniness, and sheer unadulterated drive, used their idea to rattle the nation.
The heavy, high-quality work is just about the right size for a history textbook. It’s divided into three sections: Pathfinders of a New Civilization, America Takes Off, and The Digital Age, dealing respectively with three types of innovators.
Evans first details the people who set the stage for America’s emergence into manufacturing and industrialization when the Founding Fathers foresaw a society of landowners and gentleman farmers. His coverage includes everything from the opening of America’s waterways for shipping to the quiet political revolution that turned semi-coherent ideas of economic freedom into a reality.
One of the things that stood out to me most in the first section is the absolute need for good legislation of intellectual property. Government rulings on the matter seemed to segue wildly between refusing to protect a particular inventor’s idea at all and handing a canny manipulator a government-enforced monopoly on anything even similar to his invention, choking off people that came up with their own approaches to the same problem. In the swamp of arbitrary and contradictory rulings, inventors could spend most of their time and most of their money just trying to get legal recognition for their work.
He then tackles the businessmen of the newly formed culture of economic freedom and industrial progress, subdividing into three secondary sections: Inventors, Democratizers, and Empire Builders.
Inventors is self-explanatory, including such greats as the aforementioned Edison and the Wright Brothers, but also less-famous individuals like Leo Hendrik Baekeland (plastic) and Garrett Augustus Morgan (the gas mask). Their technical achievements through trial and error make for terrific reading, Evans’ descriptive style making each story exciting and uplifting. He has a talent for pulling the really essential points from a wealth of complexity.
Democratizers are those who, while not necessarily being first on the mark with originating a product, came up with the idea of bringing that product to everyone, so that the man on the street could enjoy the benefits of his own car (Henry Ford), camera (George Eastman, Kodak), and bank account (Amadeo Peter Giannini, Bank of America). Some of their innovations have become so ubiquitous that it’s hard to imagine a day when it was almost impossible for the man on the street with some modest savings simply to get a bank account.
Empire Builders includes the likes of Walt Disney, Estee Lauder, and Malcolm McLean (container shipping); individuals that leveraged a simple concept into a sprawling industry. In some cases their contributions may seem small, but they are responsible for turning America into more than just a country—into a culture. Some aspects of that culture aren’t beloved by everyone, but welding a culture is still quite an accomplishment.
The Digital Age isn’t all computers: it covers the really cutting-edge advances and changes like biotech, and, weirdly, hip-hop culture. As I said, you may not like all of it, but you have to admit that it’s had an effect on you, and even the maestro of hip-hop turns out to be a serious, dedicated businessman.
The book does have some flaws; Evans is semi-liberal in his personal views. He spends a fair amount of time enumerating the charitable contributions of the various businessmen and talking about their altruistic goals, meaning that they weren’t just in it for money: they loved their work and what they could provide for their customers. He makes some conclusions that I would consider off the mark, such as his enchantment with the mixed-economy “marriage” between government and business. Still, he does justice to every single one of the businessmen (and women!) that he profiles. So I have to say that despite some small flaws this book gets my complete approval.
On a sad note, though, my copy of this book has fade-marks from sitting on a shelf in the sun for too long. I can't help but think it's an ominous warning.
Crossposted to the Objectivism Metablog