Inventions

Having given slavery a new lease on life, he then made Northern triumph inevitable

The telegraph was an even more dramatic innovation in its day than the Internet

On May 24, 1844, Professor Samuel F. B. Morse, seated in the chambers of the U.S. Read more >>

The single best-selling American car isn’t a car at all. It’s a pickup truck. Here’s how it rose from farm hand to fashion accessory.

WHEN CLINT EASTWOOD ROLLS INTO MERYL Streep’s Iowa driveway in The Bridges of Madison County (1995), he is driving a clapped-out 1963 GMC pickup truck. Read more >>

In a nation of inventors it has always been the single most invented thing. At this very moment hundreds of Americans are busy obeying Emerson’s famous dictum—even though the machine he exhorted them to build has existed in near-transcendental perfection for almost a century.

IT IS RALPH WALDO EMERSON whom we most commonly accuse of having coined the saying: “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.” But in his Journal , 1855, we find this entry on “ Read more >>

Though it appears to have sprung up overnight, the inspiration of free-spirited hackers, it in fact was born in Defense Department Cold War projects of the 1950s

The Internet seems so now, so happening, so information age, that its Gen-X devotees might find the uncool circumstances of its birth hard to grasp. Read more >>

You’ve probably never heard of them, but these ten people changed your life. Each of them is a big reason why your world today is so different from anyone’s world in 1954

For want of nails, kingdoms are won and lost. We all know that. The shoe slips, the horse stumbles, the army dissolves in retreat. But who designed the nails? Who hammered the nails? Who invented the nail-making machinery? Read more >>

America looked good to a high school senior then, and that year looks wonderfully safe to us now, but it was a time of tumult for all that, and there were plenty of shadows along with the sunshine

It was a very good year. Certainly it was if you were seventeen. I was a senior in high school in 1954, a member of the class of January 1955, at Lincoln High School in Jersey City, New Jersey. Read more >>

For two hundred years the United States patent system has defined what is an invention and protected, enriched, and befuddled inventors. As a tool of corporate growth in a global economy, it is now more important than ever.

In a decision of far-reaching significance, a federal circuit court in 1985 ruled that the Eastman Kodak Company had infringed the instant-camera patents held by Polaroid. Read more >>

In 1820 their daily existence was practically medieval; thirty years later many of them were living the modern life

It is a commonplace that the American Revolution determined the political destiny of the country. Far less noted is the fact that the Revolution’s consequences, profound as they were, had little, if any, impact on the daily existence of most Americans. Read more >>

The urge to move documents as fast as possible has always been a national pre-occupation, because it has always been a necessity. Fax and Federal Express are just the latest among many innovations for getting the message across.

Reaching out and touching someone hasn’t always been easy—especially if it was necessary to hand that person something in the process. Read more >>

A man who has spent his life helping transform old photos from agreeable curiosities into a vital historical tool explains their magical power to bring the past into the present

You Asked for It

When American Heritage suggested last year that I put together the article that became “101 Things Every College Graduate Should Know about American History,” I accepted the assignment eagerly. Read more >>

American medicine in a crucial era was at once surprisingly similar and shockingly different from what we know today. You could get aspirin at the drugstore, and anesthesia during surgery. But you could also buy opium over the counter, and the surgery would be more likely to be performed in your kitchen than in a hospital.

IN 1884 ALMOST three-quarters of America’s fifty million people lived on farms or in rural hamlets. Read more >>

For years it was seen as the worst of times: bloated, crass, witlessly extravagant. But now scholars are beginning to find some of the era’s unexpected virtues.

The story of how a blast of cool, dry air changed America

IN THE SUMMER of 1881, as James Garfield lay dying of an assassin’s bullet in the White House, a team of naval engineers was called in to solve a vexing problem: how to cool the President’s bedroom. Read more >>

On November 18, 1883, the nation finally settled on the method of synchronizing all clocks that we call standard time. Why did it take so long to figure that one out?

THROUGHOUT MOST of the last century, very few Americans could agree on the time of day. Every town kept its own time. Read more >>

How the novelty item of 1920 became the world-straddling colossus of 1940

IN 1921 Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who was charged with what meager regulation of the airwaves there was, called radio “an instrument of beauty and learning.” Waldemar Kaempffert, who, as editor of Read more >>

“A wound in the heart is mortal,” Hippocrates said two thousand years ago. Until very recently he was right.

IN MAY OF 1975, when I was fortyseven, I developed angina (heart pain due to an insufficient supply of blood to the heart muscle), and about two months later, after a stress test, a coronary angiogram, and various blood tests, I underwent an opera Read more >>

THE BIRTH OF THE RAND CORPORATION During World War II, America discovered that scientists were needed to win it—and to win any future war. That’s why RAND came into being, the first think tank and the model for all the rest.

ALONG THE jagged coastline of Southern California, past the hills and forests of Malibu, five miles down from the Santa Monica Mountains, just short of Muscle Beach and the town of Venice, there sits some of the most quaintly de Read more >>

The decline and fall of the lamppost

I DON’T THINK of myself as having a “thing” about lampposts, but when I walk Manhattan’s streets at night— streets naked to the greenish glare of 1,000-watt lights vaulting three stories high—I realize how much I miss those graceful, human Read more >>

Once you’ve discovered fire, you have to keep it from burning you. This is how it was managed before the safety match.

Charles Weller was at his post in the Western Union office in Milwaukee one day in 1867 when his friend Christopher Sholes came in. Read more >>

The Ordeal of Robert Hutchings Goddard

In 1901, just after Christmas, in Worcester, Massachusetts, a sickly nineteen-year-old high school student named Robert Hutchings Goddard sat down to compose an essay on an enterprise of surpassing technological challenge. He was no stranger to enterprise. Read more >>
The roller skate was born centuries ago in Europe when small boys tied wooden spools to their shoes. Read more >>

Lighting Up America

“Remember,” Thomas Edison liked to say, “nothing that’s good works by itself, just to please you; you’ve got to make the damn thing work.” One hundred years ago this October, after trying to make the damn thing work for thirtee Read more >>

The Messiah of Time and Motion

Toward the end of the last century an idea took form in the mind of a Philadelphia factory engineer that was destined to change, in profound and troubling ways, the nature of work in the modern world. Read more >>
The outdoor electric-light spectacular that transformed cities all over the world was born at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, where a single lighted column glowed with no fewer than four thousand incandescent lamps. Read more >>
In an age more sanguine about the benefits of progress than our own, Scientific American enthusiastically reported on man’s inventive genius every week. On March 9,1878, its readers learned all about the Hat Conformator (Fig. Read more >>
During November of 1896 the United States experienced its first publicized UFO flap, and it is perhaps not surprising that it should have occurred in California. Read more >>

The ups and downs of the invention that forever altered the American skyline

Of the mechanical wonders placed on view in the Crystal Palace, the great iron-and-glass exhibition hall erected in New York City in 1853 to house America’s first world’s fair, one of the most popular was a towering machine that was destined to transform the Read more >>