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A new history textbook that examines America's past through the lens of innovation and technology might turn a few light bulbs on for engineering students, too.

- By Wray Herbert

Inventing America: A History of the United States
By Pauline Maier, Merritt Roe Smith, Alexander Keyssar, and Daniel Kelves; W.W. Norton; 1,086 pp., $82.50

Consider these three random facts, disconnected in time:

  • About 9,000 years ago, in the harsh post-Ice Age world, the residents of what is now Mexico's Tehuacan Valley started experimenting with a wild grass called teosinte. They carefully selected mutant forms and replanted them, selected and replanted, over and over again. What they ended up with over time was maize, or corn, a cultivated food that would become a staple of the American diet.
  • In 1898, in the wake of the Spanish-American War, American military leaders were alarmed by the prevalence of disease in Cuba, especially yellow fever. The most advanced public-health ideas of the time—building a sewage system and installing “water closets” failed to eliminate the scourge. Major Walter Reed, a laboratory scientist, was dispatched to Havana to solve the problem. He speculated that yellow fever might be transmitted by a particular mosquito and tested the idea. Destroying the mosquitoes' breeding places eradicated yellow fever.
  • In 1910, in Highland Park, Mich., a car manufacturer took a gamble and invested heavily in highly specialized machinery: a network of conveyor belts and overhead chains. With this “assembly line,” workers specialized in a particular manufacturing task, and were forced to work at a set pace. By 1927, Henry Ford had used his innovative plant technology to make 15 million Model Ts, and the assembly line had revolutionized American manufacturing.
 

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 suburbs 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 in the 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 a 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 that 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 information economy.

“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.

Everyday Life

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 centuries.

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 wherbert@asee.org.

 

 

 

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