The mother of invention

A new history of America looks back through the lens of technology

"Inventing America," a comprehensive new history of the United States, arrives as if to offer a respite from the culture wars. As both a textbook and a highly readable narrative, the volume takes a fresh look at America, not as a 19th-century primer might have seen it - a collection of great, invariably white men, nor from a revisionist post-Vietnam/Watergate/Civil Rights Movement vantage point. Instead, the Great Republic is seen through a lens that is both unifying and comprehensive.

Rather than simply adopting a modernist tone that might focus on the American experience as a series of incidents in which beleaguered Native Americans, abused slaves, and exploited immigrants struggle against oppressive conditions and a heartless majority culture, the authors have attempted an act of creative fusion. They use technique and technology as a new common ground: thus the title. (W.W. Norton has also published a two-volume version in paperback and a series of study guides for teachers and students.)

What does one learn from "Inventing America"? Superficially, the book resembles scores of other comprehensive histories that have preceded it. However, the additional focus on invention and inventiveness as an important element in the nation's history adds interest and vitality to a familiar story. Indeed, this is probably a new dimension that most readers have not considered much before.

We learn successively of the extensive triumphs of the continent's first Neolithic inhabitants in domesticating plants and mastering a wide range of climates and landscapes. European settlers learned from their predecessors and added their own accomplishments: not the least being the development of institutions of government, culminating in the development of the Constitution.

Then, too, the authors have included plenty of what used to be called "American ingenuity." For example, the Crystal Palace exhibition in London in 1851, usually categorized under Victoriana, emerges here as a subtle triumph for America. The nation's inventors and manufacturers earned some 159 awards for items ranging from McCormick reapers to Colt pistols to "Goodyear's patented rubber garments and life rafts." And, while contemporary Europeans saw American goods as less impressive than those of other nations, these inventions proved to be utilitarian triumphs and heralds of a new age of consumption and mass production

Other familiar stories also acquire new dimensions when seen through the authors' lens. We find, for example, that John Ericson's famous Civil War ship, the U.S.S. Monitor, was noteworthy not merely for its rotating turret but also for its two steam engines, screw propellers, and 50 other patentable inventions.

Francis Cabot Lowell, the Boston Associates (a group of investors), and inventor Paul Moody receive two full pages of attention for their pioneering efforts to establish what's now called a "vertically integrated" manufacturing facility in Waltham, Mass. Their factory was the first in the country capable of taking in raw cotton and producing finished cloth - an effort that was one of the major milestones in establishing the success of American manufacturing.

Given that one of the authors, Merritt Roe Smith, has already written extensively about the birth of the so-called "American system" of manufacturing, it is no surprise that "Inventing America" includes a masterful and concise discussion of this topic. (His earlier book, "Harpers Ferry Armory and the New Technology," received a number of awards and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in History in 1977.)

Even before the Civil War, in a manner somewhat akin to the 1960s space program, the US Army mandated that rifle parts be interchangeable to reduce costs and make them more easily repairable in the field. That innovative requirement led to a burst of new developments - chiefly around the techniques of precision measurement and metalworking.

Prosaic today, this was truly high-tech 160 years ago and led to developments in both private industry and government facilities that greatly influenced the direction and success of American manufacturing right up to the present day. In fact, the authors write, "The Army Ordnance Department opened the national armories at Springfield and Harpers Ferry to all callers and made technical information available free of charge.... By the mid-1840s, manufacturing methods pulled together at the national armories began to spread to all sorts of factories turning out metal products."

Of course, "Inventing America" also incorporates tried and true elements, including, most obviously, a sequential treatment with all the familiar white males and a great many of the less familiar whites, females, and people of color who contributed to the country's development.

This large tent is part and parcel of the authors' thesis that America is a great work in progress - an ongoing product of invention and adaptation extending back to the earliest "native" migrations from Asia during an interglacial period some 15,000 to 20,000 years ago. The result is a textbook brimming with life and interest and, notwithstanding its daunting 1,000-plus pages, reads with ease, making it a worthwhile endeavor for anyone interested in a fresh view of the nation's history.

Even the illustrations and asides, often frilly non sequitors in other textbooks, are here held in restraint. They are well chosen, reproduced with care, and always subsidiary to the text rather than a source of distraction.

"Inventing America" brings the story of our national improvisation right up to the present, closing off at the end of 2001, shortly after the terrorist attacks brought home a new sense of vulnerability. The flood of recent technologies - medical, electronic, and consumer - is handled deftly without a great deal of "gee whiz" gushing but still showing the importance this element maintains in the national life. These authors have launched a bold venture that speaks to the readers of a new century.

Alan Earls is a freelance writer in Franklin, Mass.

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