Books: Mother Lode Of Invention

As soon as you start reading the new college textbook "Inventing America," you wonder just how far the authors are going to go. They promise to tell the story of America, complete with bewigged Founding Fathers, abolitionists and the Sherman Antitrust Act--all the stuff you dutifully highlighted in yellow when you took American History 101--but with a twist: it will all be seen from the point of view of innovation. Americans, they passionately believe, are inveterate creators and tinkerers, whether it's the light bulb they're inventing or constitutional government. So, you wonder, does this mean concentrating on Benjamin Franklin with the key and the kite and skipping Franklin in Paris? Not exactly. But it means the authors start our nation's history about 9,000 years ago with maize--"a cultivated food so unlike its wild ancestor, and so adaptable to different growing conditions, that its creation was perhaps the most important plant-breeding achievement of all time." Which is a polite way of saying that the Europeans who came later did not have a lock on experimentation.

Americans are hungrier than ever for their history these days--look at the success of popular historians like David McCullough or the late Stephen Ambrose or filmmaker Ken Burns. Right now, PBS is airing its ambitious eight-hour series "Freedom: A History of Us," narrated by Katie Couric. And on college campuses, "Inventing America" has become something of a phenomenon. Twenty colleges and universities signed up to teach the book before it even came out last summer. Norton, the publisher, expects 40 more schools to gobble up most of the rest of the 40,000-copy first printing this spring. The book's also received a surprising amount of attention in the mainstream press, with mostly glowing reviews. Even teachers who aren't fans of social history or technology have fallen for this one.

But if you're a skeptic, you might well ask: isn't "Inventing America" just one more gimmicky way of retelling the same old story? (The fact that this book comes equipped with not one but two CD-ROMs doesn't allay those doubts.) But as soon as you get into the book, suspicions disappear. This is a solid piece of scholarship, written by four of the most respected historians alive: Pauline Maier, Merritt Roe Smith, Daniel Kevles and Alexander Keyssar. "None of us were just emptying our heads," says Maier, who teaches at MIT. "You have --to be learning while you're writing or the text is dull. We were learning all the time." A scholar of the Colonial period, Maier points out that "before the Industrial Revolution, there really isn't much in the written record about science and technology. If I wanted to find out something about how they grew indigo in the Colonial period, I had better luck searching for the answer in the literature on slavery."

The result is fascinating. Even familiar subjects seem fresh. We all know, for example, that more Americans died in the Civil War than in all other American wars combined, but not everyone knows why. The answer lies in technology: when modern firearms that were accurate up to 100 yards were used against soldiers still marching in traditional closed ranks, men died by the thousands in a matter of hours (at Antietam, more soldiers died than in the Revolution and the War of 1812 combined). And science hadn't advanced enough in the field of medicine. Surgeons were helpless to save men shot in the chest or stomach. Seventy-five percent of all operations were amputations, and amputees who survived surgery often died from infection. But there began to be modest improvements. Soldiers learned for the first time about the need for sanitation. The Union formed the first ambulance corps, which was so successful it remained a model for armies through World War I. Both sides built more hospitals--204 on the Union side alone. By the end of the war the nation had some of the best hospitals in the world.

Even more arresting is how the book explains the invention of ideas. Ellen Holmes Pearson, who is using the text at Western Connecticut State University, was won over by the way the theme of innovation was woven through the sections on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. "The inventions of this period weren't technical," Pearson says. "They were inventions that put ideology into practice." Or as "Inventing America" puts it, "The Constitutional Convention became in part an intense and productive working seminar on the cutting issue of its time, the architecture of a free government." It was, in other words, a lab or studio, and those famous Founding Fathers were experimenting and improvising just as surely as Thomas Edison or Thelonious Monk.

Sometimes the book doesn't go far enough. You want to hear more about the intersection of technology and art, specifically how technological change has controlled advances in areas like photography. Come to think of it, a whole chapter on how Americans got so hooked on entertainment (including the way we like our history) would have been welcome. But there's little to quibble about. You envy the students who will use this book. Reading "Inventing America," looking at the nation's history through the powerful lens of ceaseless innovation, you see events falling into place in ways they never have before. It's almost like a light bulb going off in your head.