American Innovation, Feb 05 | They Made America: Creativity Incarnate


Harold Evans. © Conde Nast.

Forget pie. "As American as innovation” would be more accurate. In his outstanding companion book to the PBS series, They Made America: From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine, Harold Evans details the inspiring stories of America’s great innovators, including Insull, Tappan, Doriot, McLean, Farnsworth, and Rosenthal. Who?

Without them, just imagine America without laptops, credit cards, IPOs, shipping containers, digital cable, or Victoria’s Secrets. Edison gets all the credit, but without Samuel Insull’s vision for power plants supplying electricity to the masses, the electronic age would not have come nearly as quickly. Evangelical Christian and fervent abolitionist Lewis Tappan, instrumental in gaining support for the Amistad slaves, turned his national network of fellow believers into business informants. By 1841, he consolidated their reports into America’s first credit bureau, the Mercantile Agency, precursor to Dun & Bradstreet. Along with his brother, Tappan also founded Oberlin College, the first to accept blacks. Another financial genius was French-born, Harvard-educated Georges Doriot. He lamented that inventors had to seek funding from wealthy individuals who would often not invest enough to sustain the post-invention, perspiration period. To guarantee a more committed investment, in 1946 he created the first venture capital fund, American Research and Development, with money from insurance companies and individuals.

Truck-driver Malcolm McLean’s dream of shifting his merchandise from truck to ship without unpacking it became reality with his invention, the cargo container. In 1956, his company Sea-Land created the first container tanker, and in 1966, began trans-Atlantic shipping. He also developed the massive shipping and distribution area now known as the New Jersey Meadowlands.

The ubiquitous TV was at first called “image dissector” in 1920 by 14-year-old Philo Farnsworth, an Idaho farm boy. He was the first to envision the potential of a vacuum tube, specifically the cathode-ray, to project images. By 1928, he had a working model.

Men, thank busty Ida Rosenthal for ending the flat-chested flapper look with her design for a comfortable, uplifting breast-supporter. Her addition of standard sizes made the Maidenform Bra Company an outstanding success.

These almost-forgotten creators who helped make America great are but a few of over 50 mini-biographies in Evans’ wonderfully detailed and beautifully illustrated book. Now, how about Fessenden, Judah, Baekeland, and Handler?

“Good is the enemy of great” concludes Jim Collins in his four-year bestseller, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t. Collins wondered what makes a company great, so he and his research team spent 15,000 hours over five years comparing two companies in similar markets, for example, Kroger and A&P. Choosing eleven pairs where one company’s success was at least seven times the other, Collins isolated many reasons common to all the winners. In 10 of the 11, the CEO was promoted from within the company. Celebrity CEOs were negatively correlated with profits, while leaders who were “self-effacing, quiet, reserved, even shy,” who combined “personal humility with professional will” were the victors every time. Facing the facts rather than bravado was always effective, even if a losing core business had to be abandoned. Darwin Smith, CEO of Kimberly-Clark, shockingly sold off the paper mills and consequently beat Proctor & Gamble in 6 of 8 categories. While a company may suddenly burst on the public scene, from the inside view there was no “miracle moment,” only steady effort and attention. Just ask John Wooden about the 15 years he coached ULCA before they went to the NCAA Final Four, ditto 10 years for Duke’s Coach K. Collins goes on to detail how with passion, discipline, and technology, great companies every day are “thinking of that.”

So “that” gets thought of, but how do we know about it? Anyone who has chuckled at the AFLAC duck commercials has most likely mused, “How did they think of that?” In the very absorbing Bang! Getting Your Message Heard in a Noisy World, advertising agency owners Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval describe the creative atmosphere of no-fault brainstorming and communal offices that has been the crucible not only for the AFLAC duck, but also the Kodak moment, and Herbal Essences Totally Organic Experience. In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell says there is a point of critical mass that makes the world aware of “that.” How did Sesame Street become the most successful children’s TV show? Why did Hush Puppies return? How did Horchow break through as the first upscale catalog? The early few swelled to the many fans, and that was that.

What’s next? You let us know.