Twain, The Patent Poet

Mark Twain, surely the most American of great American writers, was, like the country itself, a creature of stupendous contradictions—gentle and tender at any given moment, and in the next possessed of rages so intense they could rattle the bones and shrivel the mind of anyone at whom they were directed; almost hysterically prudish when his wife and daughters were concerned, yet driven time and again to exercises (though not for publication) that were both prurient and scatalogical; contemptuous of money and headlong in pRead more »

The Jeaning Of America—and The World

This is the story of a sturdy American symbol which has now-spread throughout most of the world. The symbol is not the dollar. It is not even Coca-Cola. It is a simple pair of pants called blue jeans, and what the pants symbolize is what Alexis de Tocqueville called “a manly and legitimate passion for equality. …” Blue jeans are favored equally by bureaucrats and cowboys; bankers and deadbeats; fashion designers and beer drinkers. They draw no distinctions and recognize no classes; they arc merely American.Read more »

“i Am Become Death…”

The Agony of J. Robert Oppenheimer

In the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer-the American physicist and scientiststatesman who directed the building of the first atomic bombs at Los Alamos, New Mexico, during World War II, whose government, discerning “fundamental defects” in his character, denied him security clearance in 1954, who died of throat cancer in 1967—some have professed to see embodied the moral ambiguities of twentieth-century science, science charging breakneck over human institutions, scientists waking compromised from Faustian dreams.Read more »

Solving The Energy Crisis

Long before the energy crunch became a crisis, Rube Goldberg was lampooning the American fascination with gadgetry that helped bring it about. His first invention—an “automatic weight reducing machine ” that employed a doughnut, a bomb, a balloon, a hot stove, and a giant hell to strip pounds from a fat man—appeared in the New York Evening Mail in 1914. Thereafter, until his death in 1970, Goldberg was a national favorite, and his name became synonymous with any complicated device intended to perform a simple task. Read more »

When The New World Dazzled The Old

Fifty European nations came to America on her hundredth birthday—and, for the first time, took her seriously

Centennials don’t make sense. It should be evident that a hundredth anniversary is a mere numerical happenstance without historic significance. Yet our schools teach history by the numbers, and we talk about “Eighteenth-Century Civilization” or “The Gay Nineties.” These decimal labels derive from the simple fact that we have ten fingers; this kind of numerology is not helpful to an understanding of the past. History is a flowing stream that must not be dammed into stagnant puddles of decades or centuries. Read more »

Bless My Collar Button, If It Isn’t Tom Swift

the world’s greatest inventor

The last half of the nineteenth century was a time of creative progress. Invention, especially the kind that was designed to improve the quality of life, had taken firm hold of the public imagination and would not let go for nearly a century. The average citizen, who would one dayswitch channels out of boredom during an astronaut’ moon walk, regarded such simple devices as flush-toilets and running water with openmouthed amazement. In those days laboratory breakthroughs were front page news. Inventors were heroic figures.Read more »

Of A Merry Christmas Past


If ever there was a year when Americans could look on their works with pride, it was 1902. From the sparsely settled, fledgling nation of a century before, America had become one of the great industrial powers of the globe. Her cities bristled with skyscrapers. Her inventors had given the world the telephone and the electric light. People were chugging around in horseless carriages powered by fuel sucked out of the ground in Texas.Read more »

The Great Bicycle Delirium

The man on the preceding page is mounted on a bicycle made by Colonel Albert A. Pope. An ex-soldier and shoe manufacturer, Pope spent a good deal of time at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition pondering an English “ordinary” (large front wheel, small back wheel). After the show he commissioned a mechanic to build him a bicycle on the English model. The result—a seventy-pound behemoth costing $313—was probably the first real bicycle built in America. Pope saw vast possibilities in the unwieldy machine and forever abandoned the manufacture of shoes.Read more »

The Intrepid Mr. Curtiss

The fastest man in the air competed with the Wrights for ten years, became rich, and awakened America to the air age.

America has long been celebrated as a nation of inventive tinkerers. As President Grant’s patent commissioner remarked a century ago, “our merchants invent, our soldiers and sailors invent, our schoolmasters invent, our professional men invent, aye, our women and children invent.” On occasion one of these tinkerers among us is touched with enough genius to influence history. Glenn Hammond Curtiss is a case in point. Read more »

The Man Who Invented

With a wave of his plastic wand Carl Fisher transformed a tangle of mangrove swamps into a peculiarly American resort

Rogers once remarked that Florida would still be known mainly for turpentine rather than for its sunshine resorts if it hadn’t been for Carl Graham Fisher, a brisk little entrepreneur and promoter from Indianapolis. Fisher was the creator of Miami Beach, the focal point of Florida’s boom as a popular winter-vacation resort in the 1920’s, where he is hailed in an inscription on a monument to his memory as a pioneer who “carved a great city out of a jungle.” Read more »