Every day on Christie Street, in what was once the town of Raritan, N.J., a loudspeaker broadcasts the words of Thomas Alva Edison, taken from early gramophone recordings, Simon Winchester writes. On Edison’s birthday in February, the speakers are full of praise for the man who “invented today.”
Edison, of course, was one of many explorers and inventors who helped build the infrastructure that unified a large, heterogeneous nation. In “The Men Who United the States,’’ Winchester, author of “The Professor and the Madman,’’ “Krakatoa,’’ and “The Man Who Loved China,’’ who recently became a US citizen, provides an elegantly written account of the achievements of these men — and all are men — some of them little known or long forgotten.
He provides a timely reminder as well that for two centuries, with the Lewis and Clark expedition, subsidies for canals, telegraphs, railroads, and highways, the US Army Corps of Engineers, the Rural Electrification Administration, and ARPANET, government has played a pivotal role in stimulating and supporting innovations that have promoted prosperity, national security, and the common good.
Winchester’s history begins in 1785 and moves chronologically to “tomorrow,’’ dividing itself into five sections reflecting the importance of emerging technologies on an evolving nation, from “When America’s Story Was Dominated By Wood’’ to “When America’s Story Was Told Through Metal.’’
The project is not without flaws. John C. Fremont’s slogan in the presidential contest of 1856 was “Free Soil, Free Men, and Fremont,” not “Free land, free silver, free men” as Winchester claims. The public was not wary of the telephone in 1979, when the ad agency N.W. Ayer came up with the slogan “Reach out and touch someone.” Walter Cronkite’s withdrawal of support for the Vietnam War was not “an important factor” in Richard Nixon’s decision to wind the conflict down.
Winchester’s decision to travel the country, following in the footsteps of his subjects, seems gimmicky; his attempt to connect innovation to “present-day global reach” superficial.
Still, Winchester’s narrative is filled with fascinating information. The infant science of geology, with its surveys, maps, and forecasts, he demonstrates, encouraged millions of Americans to venture across the continent. Winchester re-creates the epic journey of John Wesley Powell, the second director of the US Geological Survey, whose right arm had been shot off at the Battle of Shiloh, down the Colorado River and across the Grand Canyon. In the 1920s, he points out, Edward Hooley sprayed tar on John Macadam’s crushed rock surfaces, creating “tarmac,” later referred to as blacktop. And, according to Winchester, Thomas MacDonald, who ran the US Bureau of Public Roads from 1919 to 1953, deserves the gratitude of all Americans for supervising the construction of 3.5 million miles of the nation’s highway system.
Winchester is passionate — and eloquent — about the impact of an enhanced infrastructure. When the final connections of coast-to-coast telegraphy were “soldered together,” he writes, “and the last of the knurled brass screws tightened, when switches were thrown and voltmeters flicked upward and to the right, quivered and stayed there, then began the roar of a long withheld national conversation.” And the apparatus of a fully functioning capitalist economy, which depended on up-to-date, accurate information “was now in place, ready to be pressed into service.”
He’s aware as well that “enforced unity” has been “a mixed blessing.” A “miasma of chemical sprays, cattle waste, powdered feedstuff, and atomized drugs,” he reports, suffuses Denison, Ohio, “lying over it like a fetid swamp, like an old dog blanket.”
Intent on bringing his story into the 21st century, then, Winchester raises the age-old question of whether progress, inevitably, despoils and pollutes. And he leaves us wondering, rather apocalyptically, whether the current generation’s “new corps of forge masters,” with their “unstated vision of uniting the whole world . . . may be a dream, or it may be a nightmare.”