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The Power of Innovation

Harold Evans, author of They Made America (a wonderful book), reacts in a letter to the editor ($) to the Atlantic Monthly’s list of the 100 most influential Americans. After talking about some of the pluses and minuses of the list, he continues:

But the most fundamental point your panel missed
is how much innovators have enabled America’s dedication to democracy
and equal rights. A. P. Giannini opened banking to the common man.
Madam C. J. Walker, the orphan daughter of slaves, built the largest
black business of its day, liberating millions of African American
women through the iconic status she achieved. Gary Kildall and Ken
Olson expanded access to the computer beyond a select priesthood. The
panel did mention Henry Ford, but failed to stress his singular
achievement: giving practical reality to the rhetoric of democracy by
fighting for the people’s car. Similarly, Cyrus McCormick’s truly
original contribution—as important as his reaper—was his invention of
easy credit for the masses of ordinary farmers who otherwise could not
have afforded his machine.

Beyond this, it was amazing to see no mention
of the new nation’s first notable innovator, Oliver Evans (the
high-pressure steam engine), or Charles Goodyear (vulcanized rubber),
Philo T. Farnsworth (television), Herbert Boyer (the father of
biotechnology), Theodore Judah (the architect of the transcontinental
railroad) … I could go on!

Rather than depreciating the achievements of
our innovators in business and technology, historians should
acknowledge how much we need them for making a better
America—independent of foreign fossil fuel, ready to cope with the
effects of global warming and with competition from low-cost economies.
Just as they made yesterday’s America, the innovators are crucial to
making tomorrow’s.

What an insightful breath of optimism.



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