Review: American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm 1870-1970 by Thomas P. Hughes Print E-mail

American_G(San Diego Union-Tribune June 9, 1989)

Technology Will Save Us, Right?

In 1909, the second year the Model T lumbered down the assembly line, a new one emerged every 12 1/2 hours.

In 1925, still in production, a new tin lizzie zipped off the track every 30 seconds.

The later cars were every bit as good as the first. What do we call this remarkable ingenuity to produce quality goods and make the production systems themselves continuously more efficient? Call it Thomas Edison, Elmer Sperry, Henry Ford. Call it the American century, 1870 to 1970, an era University of Pennsylvania professor Thomas Hughes lauds as the heyday of the inventor, the systems builder, the managerial genius.

But call its story the rise and fall of the inventor-entrepreneur, from machine shop maverick to government apparatchik. If we can put anything from this formidable book in a nutshell, it is that our belief in the efficacy of technology has soured as our computer-filled world has become more and more obtrusive.

The faith that "considered invention, industrial research, and systems of production the sources of goods for the good life and an arsenal of weapons for the great democracy" changed radically within 100 years. Probably the greatest reason for this change was the growth of the modern megamachine in which "authority is centered (to no one's advantage) in the system itself."

Just like humans, systems break down: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Challenger.

With humans we can fix blame.

Can we fix it at all in systems? I wish this were the thesis explored in Hughes' book, or that any central idea controlled his excesses—something as clear as the many wonderful photographic illustrations the book includes.

But sorry to say, Hughes' purpose escapes me. What is pervasive is a brier patch of technological growth and author Hughes without his clippers.

He says so much, so much of the time, that I tired quickly of the storms of names and dates and found only brief solace in the few sunny portraits about quirky inventors.

After much labor, here's a sketch of the quirky highlights. The American century begins with the Great Men of Invention, like Edison, who we remember for lights, camera, action (although we have forgotten that he said his creations were never intended for "damn capitalists.") A few inventors then become the Great Men of Production, like Ford. Next come the Great Men of Scientific Management, like Frederick W. Taylor, who devised time quotas for factory work (based on the fastest laborers), to which he then tied incentive payments based on their efficiency. (Once the quotas were filled, the workers stopped and rested.) Then, Samuel Insull and the Great Men of Consumer Services or controller of huge private utility holding companies began the superpower age by insisting that the more electricity we produce, the cheaper it gets and the bigger America gets. Great Man history.

Like Canseco and McGwire, the big bats get all the credit.

Surely there was more than Henry Ford responsible for making better cars. Finally we get to the Great Conglomerate, the government-industry-military-university brain trust—still overseen by the Big Man. Since Arthur Morgan's managerial success with the Tennesee Valley Authority or Hyman Rickover's nuclear-powered navy, the can-do specialist has shaped a consortia of interests to create the monster of monsters: deep-pocket government programs such as the Manhattan project, NASA and the Defense Department.

Result: Hiroshima, the 1969 moon walk and better living through chemistry.

Ultimately all this headway was critiqued by Eisenhower who warned, Hughes reminds us, of the dangerous "military-industrial complex." Okay, but what new insights have grown from the soil of Hughes' analysis? Too few sprouts, I fear, appear.

His last chapter tells us that our technological enthusiasm is being galvanized again because the environmental movement and some decentralization (like desktop computers) are challenging the corporate-consumer grip on our lives. The man's moon-struck!

Coercive systems, more powerful than ever, prevail everywhere.

A very ingenius system of values—propagated by the government and the multinationals—now begets a whole new-wired empire. All while we weren't looking. Likewise, if we don't watch it, Hughes' history, bloated on unplumbed research and unabashedly patriotic, may try to slip through and stand for some meaning.

What, other than bigness, I've no idea.