June 1896: A 32-year-old, having left his parents’ Michigan farm to become an engineer and go to work for the greatest inventor of the age — Thomas Edison — has gotten restless again. He has decided he wants to get in on the invention of the automobile, a new kind of machine most Americans have never yet heard of. He has been putting one together in the shed behind his house. He read a magazine article about how to assemble an engine, and he constructed one that can get three horsepower. He made a transmission out of belts and chains. He set that machinery on a buggy with bicycle wheels and a bicycle seat. Now, at 3 a.m., he is ready to drive it. He opens the door to the shed, seats himself in the bicycle seat, and discovers that, in the heat of his passion, he neglected to make the car narrow enough to get out of the shed. He gets an ax and starts chopping down the wall around the door until he can get the buggy out. When he has removed enough shed, he starts up the car. It works. And the neighbors wonder what all that monstrous noise is at 4 a.m.
That man’s name was Henry Ford, and his first automobile ride launched a career that rivaled Edison’s own. The nation’s history is peppered with stories like that, of men and women swept up in inventing. Consider what America has produced ahead of other nations: high-pressure steam engines, continent-spanning railroads, the light bulb, the telephone, the motion picture, the airplane, FM radio, television, the atom bomb, the transistor, the personal computer, the Internet, a host of modern medicines and imaging machines, the credit card, the cell phone … and that list barely scratches the surface.
Why has this nation spawned such an unending, unparalleled outpouring of inventive creativity? There are two basic reasons: the people and the place.
The people because America has been a land of strivers, explorers, and dreamers since the first settlers landed on the East Coast — or even since the first intrepid Siberians walked over the long-gone land bridge to Alaska and began spreading south to Patagonia. This nation has been populated by people who were dissatisfied enough to turn their lives upside down in striking out for something new. That spirit became part of our national DNA.
You see it in an inventor such as Robert Fulton. Fulton, born into rural poverty in 18th century Pennsylvania, dreamed of getting rich as a portrait painter. He managed to get himself to London to study with some of the best artists living. After a few years, he knew he didn’t have the talent to become a great painter. He decided to become an inventor instead. He spent years trying to become an expert in canals, the high-tech fad of the moment. He got nowhere with that, either. Not one to give up, he then had the crazy idea of inventing the submarine and submarine warfare. He got both the British and French governments behind him at different times, convincing each he could enable it to defeat the other. Eventual failure again. Still he refused to accept a life without extraordinary accomplishment. He happened to meet the new American envoy to Paris, who had been granted a government monopoly to run steamboats on the Hudson River — if anyone could invent a steamboat that actually worked. Fulton said, “Of course, I’m your man.” And in 1807, he piloted the world’s first commercially successful steamboat and ushered in a new age.
Not just the people of the land, but the land itself, too, had much to do with the firing of the nation’s creative imagination. When the Revolutionary War ended, the victorious new nation was impoverished and deeply indebted. England had used its colony as a source of raw materials and had discouraged manufacturing or any other kind of self-sufficiency. The population was thinly scattered across millions of acres loaded with potential materials of wealth — timber, coal, the power of falling water, undeveloped farmlands. There were, in short, too few people to make the most of the riches of the land, and none of those people were inclined to think of themselves as mere laborers. The situation was utterly unlike that in Europe, which was jammed with people able to do the work of making the most of limited resources.
America desperately needed labor-saving technology. It needed novel ways to multiply the capabilities of its sparse population. So the American people bent their will to accomplish that. In the first decades of the republic, a would-be schoolteacher from New England named Eli Whitney developed a simple engine, or “gin,” that made it possible for cotton to be produced in massive amounts across the deep South. After that he went on to pioneer the use of interchangeable parts that would give rise to the concept of mass production. A self-taught millwright in the mid-Atlantic named Oliver Evans dreamed up and built the first automated factory that could turn grain into flour without human intervention. A 21-year-old worker at one of England’s first mechanized textile mills slipped out of that country with all the details of the technology in his head — because it was kept a secret that couldn’t legally be shared with other nations — and started the first of the great cotton mills of New England.
The nation’s creative fecundity has not let up since. In fact, it has multiplied over time. By 1911, 1 million U.S. patents had been granted. By 1991, 5 million had. In 2006, patent number 7 million was issued.
It is part of the genius of America that the Framers authorized a patent system in the U.S. Constitution, as a necessary booster of creativity. A patent is basically a very simple thing, a government grant of exclusive rights to an invention in return for making the workings of that invention public knowledge. The exclusivity lasts for 20 years in order to give the inventor time to profit from his innovation. The publicizing of the details expands knowledge and thus promotes invention by others. Abraham Lincoln — the only U.S. president to hold a patent, for a device for getting boats over sandbars — once said, with characteristic eloquence, “The patent system added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius.”
In the early days of the patent system, every application had to be accompanied by a model of the invention. That would be impossible nowadays, for there have come to be patents for nonmechanical things unimaginable in the first days of the republic — chemical processes, algorithms, software, even genes.
Can such an explosion of creativity continue, and continue to grow? No one can divine the future, but one thing is certain: The world is so complicated now, and the level on which most true technical innovation occurs is so advanced that the American imagination cannot maintain its productivity unless the nation has the best educational system possible. How important is the educational system? Even a century and a quarter ago, in the age of purely mechanical innovation, it could be crucial.
Consider the story of two young boys in Iowa in 1878.Their father was a minister, who, on a church trip, came across a toy that consisted of a stick with a kind of propeller at the top. You wrapped a rubber band around the stick, tightened it, and when you released it, the stick spun and flew up in the air. He brought the toy home to his two boys, who were 7 and 11. They were fascinated by it, and they started making copies of it.
One day Miss Ida Palmer, their teacher at the Jefferson School in Cedar Rapids, caught one of them at his desk fiddling with two pieces of wood. She asked him what he was doing. He said he was putting together the parts of a flying machine, and he added, to her disbelief, that someday he wanted to make a larger version that would make it possible for him and his brother to fly.
Miss Palmer reprimanded the boy, but she recognized something in his wild imagination — it contained the seed of something precious. She did not take away his toy. His enthusiasm was not dampened. And he later remembered, “We built a number of copies of this toy, which flew successfully. But when we undertook to build the toy on a much larger scale, it failed to work so well.”
The boys finally did make a bigger version that worked. The brother who was caught at school was Orville Wright. The other one was Wilbur Wright.
Frederick E. Allen is the former editor of American Heritage magazine and current leadership editor of Forbes.
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