I spent the last month digesting the book: “They Made America: From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine: Two Centuries of Innovators,” by Harold Evans. This is a rich, wide-ranging work.
Evans profiles 70 of America’s leading inventors, entrepreneurs and innovators. Along with such obvious choices as Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers, Evans profiles Lewis Tappan (an abolitionist who dreamed up the idea of credit ratings), General Georges Doriot (a pioneer of venture capital). Yes, all the famous American inventors and innovators are here — Charles Goodyear, Henry Ford and the Wright brothers.
Besides these textbook celebrities, what really touches me in this book is the profiles of the unknown names, such as Sarah Breedlove Walker, a remarkably successful black businesswoman who rose from abject poverty because of her ability to create and market hair-salon products. Her story demonstrates that it was possible for African-Americans to succeed in business at a time when the political system did all it could to keep the poor and less-privileged from the establishments.
Anyway, after quitting and picking up several times, a much longer time than my expectation to finish the book (forgive me, some stories are really too complicated and detailed), I was trying to figure out what made those people special. There is no hard science in these stories, no Nobel Prize in physics. And why? Finally I realized that they are special because the world is made better because of them. The world is a better place because people can listen to the radio, take photographs, fly, wear Levi’s and get an MRI scan. Most of these people were not the first to come up with their gizmos, but the first to mass-produce them, market them, and get them into the homes and lives of everyday folks. Invention is very important, but effectiveness and marketing deliver.
Evens’ book singles out not mere inventors, but people who took a new thing or idea and put it to widespread practical use. Ruth Handler turned the German-made Bild Lilli doll into a Barbie doll. Not because she is brilliant or genius ( there is no evidence that she is “genius”). As a mother, she watched her daughter Barbara and friends playing with paper dolls. She felt guilty about working all day and being absent from children’s company. That’s what we do everyday. What is special is that she wanted to make life better. That’s the innovation Evans wanted to highlight: Coming up with new ideas and putting them into the market. No hard science.
(With previous work experience in the United States, the author now works in Shenzhen and has studied the innovation policies for some time.)