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History’s Innovators: They Made America

Praveen Gupta, Editor-at-Large, had an opportunity to speak with Sir Harold Evans, a renowned
author about the role of great history’s innovators in making America a thriving economy in
knowledge age. We would like to thank Sir Evans for sharing his wisdom with our readers.


When I was writing a book called “American Century” which was a history of America from 1889 to
1989, 100 years from the first year America became a growing concern in 1789, 1889 was the first
centenary. I wanted to do 1989, from the first centenary to the second centenary and I was conscious
throughout that I could not refer to things that I discuss not quite understand how they happened. How
did they come about? Americans were coming home and talked about electric railways in the cities,
where did the electric railways come from? What has happened to America? How they came about
these inventions like electric railway, not steam railway, how the steamboats came to Mississippi river.
We assume these things kind of came like flowers out of the earth. The story of the steamboat is quite
an amazing story because the British would not let the Americans have the low-pressure engine that
they developed in Britain. Therefore the first American who tried to build the steam boat, a man called
John Fitch, had to invent the steam engine and so on and so forth. For instance in developing the
assembly line or machine tools or telephones for that matter, what is amazing that we keep writing
about these things and describe them, for example historians describe the Civil War as a war against the
native American with Colt revolver. Where did it come from? It starts with the recognition like other
historians of America; I had assumed/ taken for granted these inventions had just arrived out of
nowhere. I was then intrigued why did they come out of American soil. Who were the Americans who
introduced them? What kind of people were they? For instance take an example of automobile,
Americans did not invent automobile, the automobile engine was first invented in Germany. But Henry
Ford had a very different idea of what the automobile should be. It should be for the masses of people,
just as later in the century when Juan Trippe had the idea that air travel should be for the masses, which
led to the development of the 747 airliner, a development that made air travel cheaper and possible for
the masses. So how do these things come about? That was why I wrote that book.


SH: First of all I spent 12 months with a research assistant called David Letter and David came to me
with list and summaries of about 160–170 people who would be associated either with the founding of
companies or inventions and others who had made innovations. I could have done 9 or 10 profiles of
people engaged in the development of a kind but I wanted to have a variety, for instance in the railways,
when we reached the computer age, I wanted to write about the man who wrote code which enabled
any piece of software to be used on any piece of the hardware. Gary Kildall was the genius, the man
behind the software industry and therefore I chose him. Where did the MRI machine come from?
Where did the biotechnology come from? So I wanted this variety not simply be concerned with great
engines of industry, some of the more amazing innovations in medicine. Today everybody is obsessed
by IT, and the communications technology. But I thought medical inventions, like MRI machines, by
Raymond Damadian and the biotech revolution created by Herbert Boyer were just as important. So
there are two answers to your question – the variety of American innovations and the range of
innovation. I selected these 70 or so, we, of course, did include at the end of the book, few lines about
a lot of other people. I spent several months writing about the Wright brothers for the invention of
flight. That to me was the most astounding story in the entire book because everybody from Di Vinci
tried to get the man to fly with heavier than air machinery equipment from one kind or the other but
failed. How did these two brothers, two bicycle mechanics, in Dayton, Ohio, how did they managed to
achieve that all the great geniuses and big institutions failed to do? Bicycle was very important to the
development of these airplanes. Wright brothers were the first test pilots in the world and risked their
lives. I love the connection between the developments of the first airplane and then the development of
747. When they built a wooden tunnel to decide best shape of the wing, they mounted a little propeller
in the front of the bicycle and rode on the street to learn when the bicycle turned most rapidly. Then
they developed the wooden tunnel, went home and started stitching wings with corn fiber and plywood,
very innovative story, an absolutely astounding story.

Volume 2 · Number 4 · 2010










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