The Spirit In The Machine

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A few weeks ago I had lunch with Gene Smith, the writer whose memoir of Harry Truman accompanies David McCullough’s close-in look at the 1944 Democratic Convention that opens this issue. We talked shop for a while, and I asked him if he had ever seen our sister publication, American Heritage of Invention & Technology . He shook his head. “I’ll send you a copy,” I said. He recoiled in horror; I might have been offering to send him a water moccasin. “No, no! Keep it away from me. I hate technology.”

It’s surprising how many Americans share his instinctive dread of the subject, for surely no nation has been more defined than ours by its technology. Take a single item: railroads. England invented the creatures, but there they served to tie ancient cities together—in effect, fast canals. Over here they summoned towns out of thin air, transformed standing cities into specialty shops—Grand Rapids built our furniture, Chicago dressed our meat—and in the process entered our spirit to become as much metaphor as machine. They even looked different from their Old World counterparts: British engines had peculiar little buttons in place of cowcatchers, and all their running gear was tucked tidily away behind the driving wheels; American locomotives were lean and rangy, and their driving gear shone and flashed for all the world to see.

The Americanness of American technology interested the editors here enough to start us thinking it might make a good magazine. Eventually we took the idea to General Motors; they agreed to sponsor it, and I&T was born. That was seven years ago. I’m happy to say that, despite having had to make some very tough choices since then, GM finds I&T valuable enough to continue their support.

We also get support from our readers—astonishingly warm support. In fact, I sometimes feel a mean-spirited trickle of jealousy toward Fred Alien, who has served as I&T ’s editor from the start: when I get mail, it’s often as not to chide me for an error that has crept into American Heritage ; when Fred gets mail, it’s likely from a reader who just wants to say thanks for publishing a unique and fascinating magazine.

Well, I&T is unique, and it is fascinating. It’s not just about railroads, of course; a glance at recent issues shows subjects ranging from IBM’s bet-the-company gamble on its System/360 computer to the specialized world of drag racing, from the Wright brothers’ epochal calculations to the weird attempt to build an iron bottle big enough to contain an atomic-bomb misfire. What makes these stories compelling is not the mere fact of their diversity but rather that they never lose sight of the men and women who did the work, who used their energy, their vision—and occasionally their mania—to make and remake, for good and for ill, the world we live in.

In the end, I sent Gene Smith a copy despite his protests and got back a generous note saying, in tones of mild amazement, that he had enjoyed it after all. I think you will too; actually, I’m sure enough about it that I’d like to send you an issue. All you have to do is ask (in fact, our vice president Scott Masterson tells me you need only tear off the coupon on page 65, write “free” on it, and drop it in the mail). And then you can thank Fred.

Richard F. Snow