The artist EDWARD SOREL updates for our century a classic view of Americans who changed the world
Schussele, an Alsatian-born academic painter, had gotten the job from a New York ironmaker named Jordan Mott, and Mott had picked his cast of characters for his work simply by choosing himself (he had invented stoves that helped popularize the ! use of coal), a number of his friends, and some other important American innovators and manufacturers of the time. Sorel turned to the editors of American Heritage and American Heritage of Invention & Technology to help him choose his subjects, and we advised him with the help of several outside experts.
Schussele’s nineteen have become Sorel’s twenty, to accommodate two Wright brothers, and the earlier artist’s snapshot of a time and place—the 1850s and the industrial Northeast—has given way to a convocation of men and women from across a continent and a century, but the focus on technological pioneers remains. The notion of progress may seem as battered today as is the idea of men as progress’s only progenitors, but of course the role of technological pathbreakers in society has only magnified over a century and a half.
Of Sorel’s twenty Americans, half a dozen are household names, a couple are virtually unknown today, and the rest lie somewhere in between. They all have either conceived inventions that changed technology or deployed those inventions to remake our world—with the one exception of Rachel Carson, whose impact was so immense and focused so completely and effectively on technology that the gathering would have seemed incomplete without her.
Schussele’s placement of Benjamin Franklin in a painting on the wall as a tutelary genius overlooking the whole assemblage has been supplanted in Sorel’s work by a benevolent Thomas Edison. Edison lived and invented well into the twentieth century, but his big achievements were all in the nineteenth, and he has continued to loom as the very symbol of the heroic resourcefulness that all these men and women embody.
- 1. Philo T. Farnsworth , 1906–1971. Inventor of television. Visualized the principles of electronic TV as a thirteen-year-old farm boy; sent his first image, a single line, when he was twentyone—after he had already applied for a patent. The patent expired before he could profit from the commercialization of his technology.
- 2. George Washington Carver , 1861–1943. Botanist and agricultural innovator. Born a slave; taught and experimented for forty-seven years at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Pioneer investigator into soil conservation, plant diseases, crop diversification; developed peanuts and sweet potatoes as leading crops and invented hundreds of plant-based products. He stands for all the enormous, underappreciated field of agricultural technology.
- 3. Jonas Salk , 1914–1995. Developer of a polio vaccine. Created his killed-virus vaccine with a team of researchers at the University of Pittsburgh; it reduced the incidence of polio in the United States 96 percent between its introduction in 1954 and 1961. Dr. Albert Sabin’s live oral vaccine (Dr. Salk’s was injected), introduced in the United States in 1961, became the standard thereafter.
- 4. Henry Ford , 1863–1947. Automotive pioneer. Built his first automobile in 1896 and had two failed efforts to start a, car company before incorporating the Ford Motor Company in 1903. Introduced the Model T in 1908 and the moving assembly line in 1913; together they made the automobile a product for the masses.
- 5. Orville Wright , 1871–1948. Inventor of the airplane. With his brother mastered problems of flight control while building gliders between 1900 and 1902; they then had to design and build more efficient propellers than had previously existed and a light internal-combustion engine before they could achieve the first controlled, sustained, powered flight, in 1903.
- 6. Wilbur Wright , 1867–1912. Inventor of the airplane. Initiated a correspondence with the aviation experimenter Octave Chanute that helped lead to his and his brother’s realization that a plane must be controlled on three axes: pitch, yaw, and roll. (This was achieved by, respectively, a forward elevator, a rear rudder, and wing warping.) By the time he died of typhoid, European technology had surpassed the Wrights’ planes.
- 7. Albert Einstein , 1879–1955. Physicist. Made most of his greatest discoveries, including special and general relativity and the equivalence of mass and energy, long before his move to the United States in 1933; they advanced understanding of the universe more than anyone had done since Newton. Wrote the letter to President Roosevelt in 1939 that led to the Manhattan Project and the development of atomic weapons and power.
- 8. Charles H. Townes , 1915- . Progenitor of the laser. Was a professor at Columbia when, sitting on a park bench one morning in 1951, he was struck by the idea of using feedback to stimulate the emission of microwave radiation from excited molecules. This led directly to the maser; its outgrowth, the laser, was built in a race among several scientists that ultimately was won by Theodore Maiman, of Hughes Aircraft.
- 9. Charles Steinmetz , 1865–1923. Electrical engineer. Born in Germany, trained as a mathematician, emigrated to the United States in 1889, and soon was pioneering the understanding of electrical transmission. Went to work for General Electric in 1892, and as its first director of research and development spearheaded both the spread of electrical networks and the rise of the corporate research lab.
- 10. J. C. R. Licklider , 1915–1990. Father of the Internet. Was a psychologist and an acoustician before work on a 1950s defense project got him involved in human-computer interaction. Wrote an influential paper in 1960 that foresaw much of the future of computing, and took a job at the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency in 1962 to pursue his vision; the outfit created Arpanet, which would become the Internet.
- 11. John Von Neumann , 1903–1957. Mathematician, physicist, computer visionary. Born in Hungary but spent almost all his adult life at Princeton. In addition to major work in quantum mechanics, game theory, and other fields of pure science, made crucial contributions to the Manhattan Project and the hydrogen bomb, and in 1945 wrote the seminal document describing the stored-program computer, the basis of today’s computer industry.
- 12. William H. Gates III , 1955- . Personal-computing promulgator. Learned to program at fourteen, started his first business at sixteen, and dropped out of Harvard to design a Basic compiler and found Microsoft. His company’s programs Excel, Word, and Windows have dominated personal computing and given it broad conformity since the 1980s; his hegemony over the field has involved him in antitrust battles since 1990.
- 13. Robert Goddard , 1882–1945. Rocket developer. At seventeen had a mystical vision of space flight while sitting in a tree; devoted his life to that goal thereafter. Shot off the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket in 1926, and by 1935 was reaching eight thousand feet. His 214 patents cover the entire range of rocket technology, though his insistence on working alone helped let Germany take the lead in the field by World War II.
- 14. James Dewey Watson , 1928- . Co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. Once said, “I was trained to find the structure of DNA as Prince Charles is trained to be a king.” Collaborated with the British physicist Francis Crick to beat the chemist Linus Pauling to be the first to work out DNA’s form; the breakthrough came in February 1953, when he realized there must be two matching chains of molecules linked in pairs.
- 15. Wallace Hume Carothers , 1896–1937. Chemist, inventor of nylon. Went to work for Du Pont in 1928 exploring the nature of polymers and building long-chain molecules. In April 1930 his lab created neoprene synthetic rubber; in 1934 it produced the first practical synthetic fiber, a superpolymer called nylon. Prone to depression and convinced he was a failure, he committed suicide in 1937 three weeks after the basic nylon patent was filed.
- 16. Rachel Carson , 1907–1964. Marine biologist, writer. After a career with the Fish and Wildlife Service and having written the bestseller The Sea Around Us , was persuaded by friends to undertake a book about the perils of DDT. The resulting publication of Silent Spring , in 1962, did more than any other single event to launch the environmental movement; the world would never look at industry or technology the same way again.
- 17. Willis Carrier , 1876–1950. Inventor of air conditioning. Standing in a Pittsburgh train station one night in 1902, he realized that air could be dried by saturating it with water, to induce condensation. Built his first air conditioner that year, a primitive machine, but with the cooling power of 108,000 pounds of ice a day. By the 1940s he held more than eighty patents; his invention made possible everything from Houston to jet travel.
- 18. Gertrude Elion , 1918–1999. Biochemist. Worked her way up through the labs at what became Glaxo Wellcome without a doctorate and, often in collaboration with her colleague Dr. George H. Hitchings, developed breakthrough drugs against leukemia, herpes, gout, malaria, and the body’s resistance to transplants. Her work won her the Nobel Prize, and after her 1983 retirement she went on to oversee the development of the AIDS drug AZT.
- 19. Edwin H. Armstrong , 1890–1954. Radio inventor. Fascinated by radio from childhood, built a 125-foot-tall antenna in the front yard in 1910; invented the continuous-wave transmitter in 1912, the superheterodyne circuit in 1918, and FM radio in 1933, all of which remain underpinnings of broadcasting today. Exhausted by nonstop patent battles from the 1920s on, he took his own life—and then won most of the suits posthumously.
- 20. Robert Noyce , 1927–1990. Co-inventor of the integrated circuit. In 1958 Jack Kilby, of Texas Instruments, made the first true integrated circuit, all by hand; the next year Noyce, working independently at Fairchild Semiconductor, came up with a version that could be miniaturized and reliably manufactured. He also built the business to make the most of his invention: In 1968 he cofounded Intel Corporation.
- 1. William Morton , 1819–1868. Co-discoverer of anesthesia.
- 2. James Bogardus , 1800–1874. Inventor whose varied output ranged from engraving machines to the cast-iron building.
- 3. Samuel Colt , 1814–1862. Gun inventor and manufacturer.
- 4. Cyrus McCormick , 1809–1884. Inventor and manufacturer of the reaping machine and other agricultural equipment.
- 5. Joseph Saxton , 1799–1873. Inventor whose devices included tide gauges, hydrometers, and minting machinery.
- 6. Charles Goodyear , 1800–1860. Inventor whose vulcanization process made rubber useful.
- 7. Peter Cooper , 1791–1883. Built the first American steam locomotive; innovated in iron and glue manufacture; founded Cooper Union.
- 8. Jordan Mott , 1799–1866. Inventor and manufacturer in iron and related technologies.
- 9. Joseph Henry , 1797–1878. Physicist, electric-motor inventor, and first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.
- 10. Eliphalet Nott , 1773–1866. Stove inventor and president of Union College for sixty-two years.
- 11. John Ericsson , 1803–1889. Developed marine steam engines and the screw propeller and designed the revolutionary warship Monitor .
- 12. Frederick Sickels , 1819–1895. Inventor of cutoff valve crucial to later stationary steam engines.
- 13. Samuel Morse , 1791–1872. Inventor of the electric telegraph.
- 14. Henry Burden , 1791–1871. Inventor of horseshoe-making machine and agricultural machinery.
- 15. Richard Hoe , 1812–1886. Inventor of the rotary printing press.
- 16. Erastus Bigelow , 1814–1879. Inventor of power carpet looms.
- 17. Isaiah Jennings , 1792–1862. Inventor of friction matches.
- 18. Thomas Blanchard , 1788–1864. Inventor of numerous lathes and steam vehicles.
- 19. Elias Howe , 1819–1867. Inventor of the sewing machine.