The Dawn of Innovation: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: December 14th, 2012 by bobmorris

The Dawn of Innovation: The First American Industrial Revolution
Charles R. Morris
PublicAffairs (2012)

How the story of U.S. business development “can be charted as an evolution from local to regional and finally national networks”

What we have in this volume is a remarkably comprehensive, consistently entertaining as well as informative examination of the early development of industrialization in the U.S. from the War of 1812 until the Civil War. Charles Morris (no relation) also provides an assessment of U.S. and China’s current rivalry, one that bears at least some resemblance to U.S. and England’s rivalry throughout much of the 19th century.

As Morris explains, “The political and cultural threads of this story have been unraveled many times, most recently in Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty. I will concentrate on the nitty-gritty of the economic transformation — the details of the machinery, the technologies, and the new processes and work organizations that underlie America’s stunning record of growth.” He uses two main thematic hooks to organize the story: “First, I frame it as an implicit co petition between America and Great Britain…The second theme is to argue for a broader definition of what came to be called the American system of manufacturing…There was indeed s distinctly American approach to manufacturing in the nineteenth century: it was the drive to mass production and mass distribution in every field.”

Here in Dallas near the downtown area, we have a Farmer’s Market at which several merchants offer slices of fresh fruit as samples. In that spirit, I now provide a few brief excerpts that are representative of the thrust and flavor of Morris’ narrative:

“Destructive though it was, the Civil War broke the slaveocracy’s power to obstruct an American development agenda. In one of the darkest years of the war, the Republican congress passed the Homestead Act, the Land Grant College Act — no other country had conceived the possibility of educating farmers and craftsmen — and the Transcontinental Railroad Act. The rise of a new world economic hyperpower was virtually assured.” (Page xiii)

“By 1822, [Thomas] Babbage had constructed a mechanical calculator that very rapidly executed standard arithmetic operations up to eight figures…and proposed that the government finance a much larger machine that would calculate and print any regularly sequenced table…By his own account, Babbage undertook to complete the project ‘in two, or at most three years,’ with a commitment of his own funds of 1,500-2,500.” (61)

“In effect, the South exploited its slaves, while the rest of the country exploited the South. Cotton prices were generally strong from the 1830s until the Civil War, and virtually all the South’s resources were sucked into cotton production. Cotton was very profitable, but the first large slice of cotton profits accrued to Northern finance houses in the form of hefty trading [fees], marketing, shipping, banking, and insurance revenues.” (167-168)

“Abraham Lincoln came out of the old Whig tradition of Henry Clay — egalitarian, pro-manufacturing and protective tariffs, pro-education, and pro-canals, roads, and interior development. In his famous 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln stressed the economic perils of the extension of slavery as much as he did the system’s moral depravity. Extending slavery into western territories, he insisted, would inevitably drive the wages of free working men to the slave standard.” (268-269)

“In 1800, the output of American factories and mines was only a sixth that of Great Britain; by 1860, it was a third, and by 1880, two thirds [and soon pulled ahead]…Strikingly, despite the country’s high rate of population growth, per capita production grew faster in the United States than anywhere else in the world…Loss of leadership in steel was especially painful for Britain. Steel was the foundation industry for the late-Victorian period, much as information technology is today. Nor was there any question of British ability to produce the world’s finest steel.” (290 & 291)

I am grateful to Charles Morris for what I have learned about several dozen major “players” throughout the 50-year period, especially those of whom I previously knew very little (if anything). They include these whose surnames begin with an A, B, or C: Nathan Appleton, Charles Babbage, Thomas Blanchard, Isaac Chauncey, Samuel Colt, and George Corliss. Each is worthy of more attention than other authors of books about the history of U.S. business tend to allocate. They and countless others were there at the “dawn of innovation” and — in different ways and to varying extent — helped to ensure that era’s rapid growth and unique vitality.

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