All three were the proverbial light bulbs going on
in someone's head, simple ideas that changed the lives of millions
in profound ways. The budding farmers of Mexico were doing nothing
less than inventing agriculture, which would change forever the way
people think about food and nutrition. Indeed, these early botanists' creation
was arguably the most important plant breeding achievement
of all time. Identifying yellow fever as a vector-borne disease
was a crucial step toward making public health a laboratory science
that would equip physicians to better understand and battle modern-day
diseases like AIDS and SARS. Making cars more efficiently also
made them affordable to the middle class, which in turn made the
possible and revolutionized both recreation and work life.
These are just three examples among hundreds in Inventing
America: A History of the United States, which is being marketed
as an American history textbook for both university and secondary
education. One could see it being adopted in advanced placement courses
in high school, but the primary market is likely to be colleges and
universities. Indeed, with ABET 2000 and engineering departments' recent
emphasis on broadening their curricula to include more humanities
and economics courses, Inventing America could well
become the book to fill a humanities requirement for aspiring engineers.
The book's basic premise is that innovation, the persistent
inventiveness of Americans, is a valuable lens through which
to examine our nation's history and the national character of
Americans today. The four authors of Inventing America are
all prominent university historians: Pauline Maier and Merritt Roe
Smith of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Alexander Keyssar
of Harvard, and Daniel Kevles of Yale. Although their stated purpose
is to remedy the neglect of science and technology in
American history, they don't push the thesis too far. Indeed,
much of Inventing America is traditional historical
narrative of politics and war and economic ups and downs.
They also recognize and explain the sometimes negative
historical impact of scientific and technological innovation.
For example, the same conveyor belts that brought Americans the affordable
Model T and transformed middle-class life also led to unrest
American workforce, which had lasting implications for labor-management
relations. The authors are not trying to make the case that scientific
and technological innovation are the only forces driving history,
but rather that these forces have been neglected in our understanding
of human events. In fact, they make it very clear that history
and innovation operate on a two-way street. Yes, the cotton gin had
huge impact on the economy and lifestyle of the American South,
as everyone knows. Less well known is that the Civil War and especially
its gruesome battlefield surgeries played a major part in creating
the system of hospitals we now take for granted. Or the fact
the War of 1812 and the federal government's collaboration
with arms manufacturers led to the general production of interchangeable
machinery parts, a revolution in manufacturing.
One theme the authors revisit time and again in Inventing
America is the interconnection between scientific inventiveness,
government, and war. For example, World War I was in part responsible
for the development of new aircraft and radio technologies (with
the support of the U.S. government), and these technologies in turn
contributed to the military's success. But it was World War
II that really established the U.S. government as the dominant
patron of scientific research, an investment that led to the
atomic bomb, microwave radar, electronic computers, jet aircraft,
and antibiotics. Similarly, national insecurities during
the Cold War spawned biotechnology, personal computers, and the
Inventing America also employs a broad
sense of invention. There is a lot of what we typically think of
as invention gadgets you can patent and so forth, but the authors
also argue that Americans have been inventors in the realm of ideas.
Indeed, the Founding Fathers are portrayed as true inventors, innovative
thinkers who came up with new notions of government and individual
rights much like one might come up with the idea of electricity.
Equally inventive was the New Deal's try anything response
to the Great Depression.
One of the most enjoyable parts of Inventing
America is a feature called American Journal. Sprinkled
throughout the chapters are excerpts from primary source material
detailing how Americans live (or have lived). Under the label What
If You Get Sick? for example, you get Tobias Lear's colorful
1799 journal entry on the death of George Washington. Or, almost
two centuries later, the oncologist Lewis Thomas's narrative
of his own physical examination using the much more powerful tools
of modern medicine. Similarly, the label What's for Dinner? excerpts
Lewis and Clark's diary entry on sharing dog and buffalo meat
with the Teton Sioux in 1804, and What Do You Do for Fun? features
famous baby doctor Benjamin Spock on the deleterious effects of video
games on young minds. The excerpts convey a vivid impression of how
Americans' tastes and sensibilities have evolved over the
It should come as no surprise that a history text focusing
on technological innovation would also make use of the latest technologies. Inventing
America includes two CD-ROMS, which enhance the written text
by bringing the reader into worlds past. For example, the digital
history of Lowell, Mass., recreates the life of the women who
worked in that city's textile mills in the mid-19th century. City
of Spindles tells the story of Susan, a Lowell
mill worker, complete with the noise of the mill working at full
throttle, images of the boarding houses, and the spoken words of
the letters she wrote home about her life. All of this entertainment
contains lessons on economic history, labor-owner relations, and
social life during the industrial revolution.
Other CD-ROM features focus on the Handford, Wash.,
nuclear weapons plant, the immigrant experience at Ellis Island,
and slave life at Mount Vernon. This is a visually stunning book.
It makes liberal use of period illustrations, political cartoons,
and photographs to supplement the 1,000+ page narrative. And no
history textbook would be complete without maps: Inventing America has
more than 60 of them, all enhancements of the storyline. They range
from the routes of African slave trade to the military campaigns
of General Sherman in the Civil War to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s
and the political arrangement of post-Cold War Europe.
It's clear the authors of Inventing America have
spent a lot of time in the classroom teaching. They have thought
a lot about pedagogy and have incorporated their ideas into the book.
Each chronological chapter is organized around a few focused questions.
The chapter on Benjamin Franklin's World (1702-1763),
for instance, begins with four focus questions having
to do with population growth, the characteristics of slavery, changes
in American society and culture, and the emergence of American
identity. Granted those are hefty issues, but such focus questions
are a useful
way of making history less unwieldy.
Inventing America has been adopted by 20
or so colleges so far and the publisher expects another 40 to follow
suit this year. That's not surprising. In the world of American
history it is, well, the most inventive and innovative contribution
to come along in a while.
Wray Herbert is a freelance writer
based in Washington, D.C.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.