Eli Whitney: Nemesis Of The South

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

Any American who ruminates about the origins of the Civil War—and that should mean not only professional historians but everyone in the United States, north and south, who has ever been spellbound by the story of his country—will find himself confronted sooner or later by an ingenious contraption for removing seeds from the cotton boll, known as the cotton gin.Read more »

What Hath God Wrought

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. Supreme Court in Washington, tapped a message into a device of cogs and coiled wires, employing a code that he had recently devised to send a biblical text: “What hath God wrought.” Forty miles away in Baltimore, Morse’s associate Alfred Vail received the electric signals and returned the message. As those who witnessed it understood, this demonstration would change the world. Read more »

High, Wide, And Handsome

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. You can safely bet that not one person who saw that movie laughed to see Mr. Eastwood in a pickup instead of a Corvette or a Mustang or some other vehicle that might once have seemed more fitting for a freelance photographer. Contrast this with Cary Grant’s brief stint as a pickup driver in North by Northwest (1959).Read more »

A Better Mousetrap

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 “common fame”: “I trust a good deal to common fame, as we all must.Read more »

The Ancient History Of The Internet

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. More than anything the computer network connecting tens of millions of users stands as a modern—albeit unintended—monument to military plans for fighting three wars.Read more »

Agents Of Change

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? Who figured out how to market the nails in neat plastic blister packs hung from standardized wire racks in hardware stores? • The house of history, that clever balloon frame of statistics and biographies in which we shelter our sense of tradition, of progress, of values gained and lost, is nailed together with anonymity.Read more »

1954

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. They told us these were the best years of our lives, so we had better enjoy them. We all laughed at that, of course, but as I look back, they may have been right, particularly in September of 1954, when the first Thunderbird and the totally new 1955 Chevy V-8 lit up our limited horizons. Read more »

The Power Of Patents

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. The court ordered Kodak to cease making and selling its own instant camera, a product on which Kodak had sunk many millions of dollars in an effort to beat out Polaroid and bolster its position as a camera and film manufacturer.Read more »

When Our Ancestors Became Us

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. The social structures and economic realities that had determined the everyday lives of the British subjects living in the colonies continued to determine the existence of the American citizens of the new Republic.Read more »

Post Haste

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. Yet there have always been Americans who absolutely and positively had to have it the next day, week, month, at any cost, and this in turn has always drawn others with the dollars and determination to make it happen.Read more »