The Roots of Progress

American invention from the “heroic age” to the system-building era

Part 1 of my review of American Genesis

The most productive decades in American history were roughly 1870–1940: the era that saw the birth and growth of the electric light and power industry; the invention of the automobile and airplane, and the rise of the oil industry that fueled them; dramatic increases in manufacturing efficiency from innovations such as the assembly line; and the invention and distribution of telephone and radio—to name just a few of the major developments. (Robert Gordon’s Rise and Fall of American Growth illustrates and quantifies these advances, showing how progress was faster in this period than in the decades since.)

This period opened with what has been called the “heroic age” of independent inventors such as Edison, Bell, and the Wrights. After World War 1, industrial progress was driven more by large corporations and research labs. Several fascinating stories from both eras, and about the transition, are told in American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870–1970, by Thomas P. Hughes, a finalist for the 1990 Pulitzer. I’m going to review it in multiple parts, although each part should stand alone.

The central focus of American Genesis is large systems of production—systems based on technology, but also on management, organization, and control. The first half of the book describes how these systems were created. In this, part 1 of my review, I’ll recount some of those stories.

Science and the independent inventors

The book opens with stories of the “independent inventors” such as Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright Brothers, Nikola Tesla, Elmer Sperry, Lee de Forest, Reginald Fessenden, Hiram Maxim, and Elihu Thompson—independent not in the sense that they worked alone, since each had a lab and employed help, but in the sense that they directed their own work and did not report into any corporate overseer.

Most interesting to me was the detail on the relation between science and “tinkering,” a topic I’ve discussed before. Edison, the most famous American inventor, is also the one most derided for taking a “hunt-and-try” approach, ignoring the guidance of scientific theory. But:

Those who then portrayed Edison, the American hero, as a plain and pragmatic hunt-and-try inventor unencumbered by science and organized knowledge would have been surprised to learn of the emphasis he gave to a library. Handsomely paneled in dark-stained pine and graced by a large clock given to him by his employees, his library had alcoves and balconies stocking technical and scientific journals, a wide selection of books, and volumes of patents….

Because of outrageous, off-the-cuff, sometimes teasing remarks to newspaper reporters innocent of technology and science, Edison has left an impression that he had no use for science and scientists. Even though he roguishly dismissed long-haired scientists, however, he counted them among his friends and numbered them among his staff. Young Francis Upton, a Princeton graduate in science with postgraduate education at the University of Berlin… coached Edison in science and provided him with theoretical insights into electric circuits and systems.

Hughes explains why the independent inventors could not rely solely on established theory. His comments reinforce my hypothesis that invention by nature pushes beyond the frontier of knowledge:

Independents could not depend on science and abstract theory as guides into the future, because they were exploring beyond the front edge of technology and of knowledge. They probed beyond the realm of theory and the organized information that makes up packed-down science. Theory available to the independents usually explained the state of the art, not what was beyond it. Academic scientists working on their own frontiers did not customarily oblige the inventors by obtaining information or conceiving theories related to the areas in which the independents were working….

Scientists, unfamiliar with the details of new technology such as that being introduced by independents, often exasperated the inventors by insisting that they apply theory that the inventors knew was outmoded. Some scientists arrogantly ridiculed the empirical approach of the so-called Edison hunt-and-try method at the same time that they reasoned from anachronistic theory. Edison was impatient with stiff-necked, academic scientists who argued that the theory of electric circuitry, developed for arc lights, was valid for the newer incandescent lighting. Similarly, in the field of bridge building, Robert Maillart, the pioneer of reinforced-concrete construction, had to suffer unsolicited and erroneous suggestions from theoreticians who believed that the elegant theory worked out for older stone-and-iron construction was applicable.

As I’ve described, the invention of the transistor provides another example: semiconductor theory as it stood in the early 1940s was insufficient to create the transistor, and the researchers who did it needed to extend the theory multiple times as they encountered unexpected results from their experimentation.

Early military research

Another thing the book brought into focus for me was how much R&D was driven by the military during and even before World War 1. Most stories of 20th-century military research center on World War 2: Vannevar Bush, the OSRD, radar, the Manhattan Project. But the origins of this go back to the 19th century:

Lessons learned in Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian wars between 1866 and 1871 spread the conviction that new weapons and communications systems were major modes of military competition, the essence of advanced strategy and tactics. In these wars the Prussians coordinated their railroad system for rapid mobilization and troop movement; they used the field telegraph to maintain contact with, and some control over, field officers; and they equipped the infantryman with a breech-loading rifle to make firing possible from a prone position. Changes in naval technology were more dramatic. During the second half of the nineteenth century iron-hulled, steam-propelled vessels with larger and more accurate guns displaced wooden sailing ships. Inventors and engineers systematically integrated advances in metallurgy, machine tools, explosives, steam propulsion, guidance (compasses), and gunfire-control devices, and introduced the pre-World War I dreadnought-class battleship.

Steam turbines, replacing reciprocating engines, made the new ships more efficient and faster (and the engine room quieter). Electric power enabled the naval submarine. Wireless telegraphy and telephony were also important to navies. Airplanes and zeppelins were used by armies (there was yet no “air force”). Hiram Maxim invented a more powerful machine gun. Fritz Haber in Germany developed chemical weapons and ammonia synthesis (the latter was a boon to the world as a source of artificial fertilizer, and also to the army as a source of explosives).

Most interesting to me were the control systems of Elmer Sperry. A master of gyroscopes, Sperry developed gyrocompasses and gyrostabilizers for naval ships. He also created an analog computer called the “battle tracer”:

The “battle tracer” automatically received information about the ship’s course from the compass, the ship’s speed from revolution counters on the propeller shafts, the target bearing and range from sighting devices aloft, and then combined these with other information about ocean currents. The output from the analogue computer consisted of a small ship model that moved along a chart continuously showing the ship’s position, and an arm extending from the ship model that continuously marked on the chart the enemy, or target, ship position.

He even made a prototype of an aerial torpedo: an unmanned small airplane laden with explosives, piloted by an automatic control system—a flying bomb. From a 1916 patent description:

The gyrostabilizer would maintain the plane in level flight… the automatic steering gyro would hold the airplane on preset course; an altitude barometer would activate controls to level the airplane after its initial climb and to maintain elevation; and a simple engine revolution counter would cut off power and dive the aerial torpedo at its target after a predetermined distance. Servomotors activated by the various controls, and powered by small wind-driven propellers, moved the airplane’s ailerons, elevator, and rudder. A windmill also drove the generators supplying electricity to the gyro motors.

Hughes points out that this system long predates Norbert Wiener’s “cybernetics.”

Twilight of the independent inventor

Hughes identifies WW1 as a transition point between the age of the independent inventors and the subsequent age that was more driven by academic scientists and teams working in research labs.

Symbolic of this transition was naval R&D during WW1. A Naval Consulting Board was set up in 1915, in anticipation that America might enter the war. The board was headed by Edison and “deliberately omitted representatives of the American Physical Society (physicists) and the National Academy of Sciences,” because, as one engineer explained, Edison wanted “to have this Board composed of practical men who are accustomed to doing things, and not talking about it.” Not to be totally left out, the National Academy of Sciences set up their own wartime board, the National Research Council.

Both organizations tried to solve the critical problem of the submarine threat. The inventors’ Board developed “a system involving antisubmarine nets, wireless-transmitter buoys, patrol boats, and depth charges…. The net snared a test submarine, but the wireless signaling buoys became snarled in the net and unable to call the patrol boats, which then could not accurately drop their mock depth charges.“ The scientists’ Council made more progress, developing a “stethoscopelike” submarine detector. Eventually it was the convoy system that did more than either of these approaches to reduce the submarine threat, but the episode raised the reputation of the scientists relative to the inventors. Further, Edison asked for a large budget to build full-scale models of inventions for testing, which wasn’t needed by scientists who were better at applying math and physical theory to problems of design.

After WW1:

Independent inventors began to fade from public view. When peace returned, the independents never again regained their status as the pre-eminent source of invention and development. … Industrial scientists, well publicized by the corporations that hired them, steadily displaced, in practice and in the public mind, the figure of the heroic inventor as the source of change in the material world…. When, for purposes of publicity, Elmer Sperry, who had never before worn one, was asked to don a lab coat for a photograph, and when he, who had never used one, was then told to peer through a microscope, these attempts to change image clearly signaled that the heyday of the professional inventor was passing. …

“Research and development” began to replace “invention” in everyday language. … Independent inventors had manipulated machines and dynamos; industrial scientists would manipulate electrons and molecules.

Several key inventions in the post-WW1 era depended on scientific theory and mathematics. One example is the loading coil, a device that reduces distortions in signal transmission, and which “made possible the extension of AT&T’s long-distance line beyond a twelve-hundred-mile circuit, like the one from Boston to Chicago. Installation of loading coils on the telephone lines doubled this practical distance and lowered the cost of the lines,” which AT&T predicted “would save $1 million on New York City circuits alone.” The device could not have been invented “without a fundamental knowledge of physics and a highly developed competence in mathematics.” The phone company also developed the triode amplifier, which enabled coast-to-coast long-distance. Although Lee de Forest gets credit for the original invention of the triode vacuum tube, or “audion”, he did not understand how his own device worked or what it was capable of—he had invented it as a receiver, not an amplifier—and it was the AT&T research team who, “understanding the principles of electronic amplification, which de Forest did not… transformed ‘the weak, erratic, and little-understood audion into the powerful and reliable triode amplifier that the Bell system needed.’” Other examples include the more-efficient tungsten filament for light bulbs, developed in the GE laboratory; and nylon, invented at Du Pont about a decade after the company’s central laboratory took a dramatic turn into fundamental research.

This transition from the independents to the industrial scientists may further explain why Edison in particular was painted as a pure tinkerer:

To promote the industrial laboratories and further enhance the prestige of the industrial scientists, proponents trivialized the image of Edison, the symbolic figure among the independent inventors—the sons felt compelled to destroy the fathers. Writing or speaking to company management, investors, and the public, heads of the rapidly growing number of industrial research laboratories often caricatured the Edison method as hunt-and-try.

Samuel Insull and the growth of the electric industry

The independent inventors created machines and devices: the telephone, the automobile, the light bulb. But to deliver these to the world required large systems of production and distribution—the central focus of this book. The telephone required a network of phone lines, switching stations, and operators. To manufacture the automobile affordably required large, highly-organized factories with well-functioning supply chains. To fuel those same automobiles required an oil drilling and refining system, plus a network of gas stations. And to light the electric lamps required large systems of power generation and distribution through widespread electrical grids.

Edison and Westinghouse get the limelight for inventing electric power, but this book brought to my attention the work of Samuel Insull in scaling the system. After working for Edison and managing the Edison General Electric plant, Insull left to build the electric system in Chicago, merging some twenty local utility companies and then connecting them to other systems in the broader region. He pioneered the transition from reciprocating steam engines in power generation to the more efficent steam turbine (as others had done in navy battleships). And he continually worked to lower prices for customers. Hughes contrasts the European approach, where “products were priced and designed as luxury goods,” to Insull’s “democratic” approach:

Unlike European utility magnates, he stressed, in a democratic spirit, the supplying of electricity to masses of people in Chicago in the form of light, transportation, and home appliances. In Germany, by contrast, the Berlin utility stressed supply to large industrial enterprises and transportation, but was relatively indifferent to domestic supply to the lower-income groups. In London, utilities supplied at a high profit luxury light to hotels, public buildings, and wealthy consumers. Fully aware that the cost of supplying electricity stemmed more from investment in equipment than from labor costs, Insull concentrated on spreading the equipment costs, or interest charges, over as many kilowatt hours, or units of production, as possible.

Insull and his team were some of the first to fully grasp and to tackle the challenge of utilization. Drawing demand charts like the one below “starkly revealed the utilization of capacity, or investment”:

The book contains disappointingly little detail on how load balancing was achieved, but it seems that one key method was expanding the service area to achieve diversity of consumption, and another was offering variable rates:

Expansion to achieve diversity is an infrequently recognized but major explanation of the inexorable growth of technological systems. Often the uninformed and suspicious simplistically attribute the expansion of systems only to greed and the drive for monopoly and control. All other circumstances being the same, a utility is more likely to find in a large area, rather than a small, a diversity of consumers, some of whom would use electricity during the valley—rather than the peak—hours of consumption. Then the utility attracts them by favorable rates.

The book also mentions very briefly that chemical plants made great electric customers because their “nearly labor-free processes” could be done 24 hours a day; and that “home appliances such as irons, fans, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, and, later, air conditioners” helped manage load, although it’s not clear to me how.

Beyond capacity utilization, Insull was able to lower prices through financial methods as well:

Because of Insull’s reputation for management, and because of the profits and expansion of his company, its securities could be sold at lower interest rates. Lower interest rates, in turn, meant lower-cost electricity.

Insull was attacked by politicians such as FDR, who in the 1932 presidential campaign denounced the electricity holding companies, speaking of the “lone wolf, the unethical competitor, the reckless promoter, the Ishmael or Insull whose hand is against every man’s.” In that same year, his holding company went bankrupt—apparently on the basis of a shift in accounting methods by hostile creditors, rather than on the economic condition of the utilities. Insull, 73, retired and tried to ride out the coming storm in Europe, but was sued for fraud and was extradited from Greece by FDR to stand trial. Ultimately, though, he was cleared of all charges:

The prosecution rested its case on a mass of evidence taken from the records of the Insull companies. The defense, led by Floyd Thompson, a brilliant trial lawyer, succeeded in showing that critical prosecution arguments depended on the interpretations—not illegality—of accounting methods. For instance, a key prosecution witness testified that the Insull company had improperly treated certain expenses, but then, under cross-examination, had to admit that the system used by Insull was used by the government itself. The defense built its case on a sentimental account of Insull’s life story that he had been persuaded to organize into autobiographical reminiscences while he was awaiting trial. On the stand, Insull told a story of the rise of a young immigrant to a position of wealth and power. He stressed his long association with the legendary Edison and the build-up of the utility industry through technical and organizational changes. The jury was fascinated, and even the prosecuting attorney half-said, half-inquired, privately to Insull’s son, “Say, you fellows were legitimate businessmen.” The jury, impressed by Insull’s system building and persuaded that a crooked business would not have exposed all of its crimes in its books as, in effect, the prosecution was maintaining it had, quickly returned with a verdict of not guilty.

Hughes adds that all of Insull’s utilities survived the Depression and that overall his securities did better than average through that period.

The response to large technological systems

The creation of large technological systems is the theme of roughly the first half of American Genesis. The second half describes the social, political, and aesthetic response to the rise of those systems. That was even more fascinating, and I’ll cover it in future posts.

Hat-tip to James Pethokoukis and his newsletter “Faster, Please!” for bringing this book to my attention.

Relevant books

American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870–1970

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