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Evans celebrates Yankee ingenuity in 'They Made America'

They Made America: Two Centuries of Innovators from the Steam Engine to the Search Engine, By Harold Evans, Little, Brown, 496 pp, illustrated, $40

There is a storm drain in downtown Boston, at Court and Washington streets, which could be cast in bronze and set in granite as a monument to the American genius for innovation and invention.

The site figures in the Boston History Collaborative's Innovation Tour. As the tour bus approaches, a guide speaking as the young Thomas Alva Edison says he remembers the corner well. In 1867, he had been experimenting with Alfred Nobel's nitroglycerine formulation ''when I suddenly realized the concoction could blow up in my face. So I poured the chemicals into a sarsaparilla bottle and gently lowered it into the sewer over there. Lucky I didn't blow up the Old State House."

Edison left Boston shortly after, and went on to invent the incandescent light and much, much more. But within a couple of years, Alexander Graham Bell would be in Edison's old Court Street laboratory, trying to develop a harmonic telegraph -- an advancement on the invention of Charlestown native Samuel F.B. Morse.

That combination of individual genius and an intellectual atmosphere that fostered innovation is what Harold Evans celebrates on a broader level in ''They Made America," a large and lavish coffee table book .

As Evans, the English science reporter turned American publishing executive, puts it, the harsh conditions and unfamiliar environment facing the early American settlers ''impelled an almost frantic drive . . . for practical innovations that would make life less tenuous and more agreeable," and were invariably combined with forward-looking marketing strategies.

Cyrus McCormack, Evans writes, ''was not the only farmer to invent a reaper, but he was the one who initiated the financing mechanisms that made it possible for hundreds of thousands of farmers to afford the invention."

And Ida Rosenthal did not invent the brassiere -- her husband did -- but ''she put all the pieces together in production and marketing so that [it] reached millions of women." And the brassiere itself allows Evans another New World jab at the Old Country. It replaced the figure-reshaping corset, ''so long associated with aristocratic pretensions," with ''a Jeffersonian appeal to the natural order of things."

Evans's approach to his subject also has an innovative twist.

All the expected giants are here -- in detailed explorations of what made their achievements great, coupled with layman-friendly explanations of the achievements themselves. (The book is also an accompaniment to a PBS series.)

So there are Morse, Edison, and Bell, along with Henry Ford, George Eastman of Kodak, and Edwin Land of Polaroid, as well as the creators of the digital age, Gary Kindall, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates.

But there are surprises -- like Walt Disney, who invented nothing but was a classic Evans-style innovator. Disney's first innovative idea, working with his early partner, a freelance artist, was to combine live action with animation. Later, it was Disney's notion to move beyond one- and two-minute gags to tell complete stories through animation. ''Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" in 1937 was followed in 1940 by ''Fantasia" and ''Pinocchio" which Evans calls ''classic examples of the prolific vitality of [Disney's] imagination and his readiness to adapt new technologies."

The disgusting experiences of taking his daughters to country fairs ''where the rides were tawdry, the employees hostile, and the grounds dirty" inspired the creation of the Disneyland theme parks. As Disney saw them, the parks would be ''something alive, something that could grow, something I could keep [pulsing] with ideas."

While the coffee table book format of ''They Made America" permits the fully-detailed illustrations of various inventions, it also provides the opportunity for the occasional attention-grabber.

It is a full-page photograph of Ted Turner, teeth clenched between pursed lips, eyes squinting against the glare of an ocean sun, shoulders straining over the wheel of Courageous, the 12-meter yacht with which he successfully defended the America's Cup in 1977.

And before Evans gets to CNN and the innovation of 24-hour electronic news, there is a brief -- but no less stirring -- account of Turner's victory in his yacht Tenacious in the gale-wracked 1979 Fastnet Race. Turner told Evans in an interview that while everyone else involved in the race appeared worried about living -- 19 crewmen died and some 150 yachts capsized and sank -- he was worried about winning. ''The ordeal," Evans writes, ''was a marker for his destiny."

And it sets Evans up for a final anecdote. On the day that CNN was launched in 1980 -- ''a dazzling triumph of technology and journalism," Evans writes -- Turner had secretly commissioned a military band to record a tape. The instructions for when it is to be played, Evans writes, are simple: ''We will stay on the earth until the end of the world. We will cover the story and then we will sign off playing 'Nearer My God to Thee."'

For all its pictorial and graphic advantages, the large format produces a somewhat cumbersome reference work. Libraries and schools should find ''They Made America" valuable, however, in accomplishing Evans's hope that ''the exploits of the innovators who made America . . . did something to spark the ambitions of the next generation to make a new America."

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