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Author: pauleckler Big funky green star, 20000 posts Top Favorite Fools Old School Fool Add to my Favorite Fools Ignore this person (you won't see their posts anymore) Number: of 731  
Subject: Inventing America Date: 11/23/2003 1:14 AM
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Pauline Maier, Merritt Roe Smith, Alexander Keyssar, and Daniel J. Kevles, Inventing America, 2 vols, Norton, 2003, NY, includes 1 CD per volume.

Inventing America is exactly as expected. It expands coverage of the impact of technology in a general American history textbook. We are treated to as many as three pages of technology summaries in some cases. The treatment of manufacturing technology and transportation is especially well done.

How did a collection of primitive, largely agricultural British colonies acquire technical skills for the machine age? We learn that in an effort to simplify battlefield requirements for parts and ammunition, the government caused gun manufacturers to adopt similar designs. These efforts were led by Springfield Armory and Harpers Ferry Armory and eventually resulted in interchangeable parts. The US Military Academy at West Point founded in 1802, began engineering training under Superintendent Sylvanus Thayer's tenure in 1817; Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, founded in 1824, was “the only serious rival” until after the Civil War. Army Engineers on loan to numerous private companies surveyed many of the railroad routes. We get an overview of the manufacture of steam engines for steamboats in Newark, NJ and Philadelphia, and a survey treatment of the Lowell, MA textile complex. In agricultural technology, the usual John Deere and McCormick Reaper stories are expanded to include the story of hog butchering in Cincinnati, a forerunner of the modern assembly line. The development of the steam powered rotary press in 1835, made possible high speed printing which gave us daily newspapers, dime novels, and widespread distribution of political tracts.

Numerous areas can be named where additional technology coverage would be of interest. Public health is a particularly interesting area because life expectancy in the US nearly doubled in the last century. The text gives us the usual coverage of smallpox and yellow fever, but there is little mention of Asian cholera, which caused numerous, frightening epidemics in the 19th Century. Similarly, the fact that more soldiers died of disease than wounds in the Civil War gets only brief mention. The development of public sewer systems and water supplies is noted briefly, but no mention is made of the technology impact of developing pump technology. There is no mention of firefighting technology. These technologies made urbanization possible. Without them, life in cities was hazardous.

The development of the electric power receives some coverage. The well known AC/DC conflict between Edison and Tesla gets reduced to “...after direct current (which had a limited ability to travel distances) was replaced by alternating current...” Samuel Insull's development of electric utilities gets half a paragraph. There is no mention of the Niagra Falls hydro power project. Ball Corporation's leadership in the use of electric motors as power sources in manufacturing is described.

Coal, steel, and railroads are usually considered necessary elements of the Industrial Revolution. We learn nothing of the coal industry's history or of the manufactured gas and gas lighting industry. Coverage of sawmills, gristmills and water wheels is very good.

Each volume includes a CD of additional materials. Some are audio segments. Some are maps. This is a nice implementation of computer assistance, but not as useful as a list of internet links with additional detail might have been. As it stands, its more a demo of what might be than a true asset to the student.

Generally this is a nicely done text. The writing style is clear and direct. Illustrations and maps are appropriate and adequate. In many respects the technology approach leaves us hungering for more. No doubt page limitations in a general history textbook handcuffed the authors. About 100 more pages could have made for a more complete whole. The text provides brief suggested reading lists in each chapter, but there are no references for in-depth follow-up. References and more extensive reading lists would have been helpful. Author Pauline Maier has noted the technology helps make history interesting to some who otherwise find it boring. This will likely be the text of choice at engineering schools. Most readers will find this an useful new perspective on American History.
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