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Cool Books

The Dawn of Innovation

Cincinnati slaughterhouses were the birthplace of America’s industrial revolution, reports John Steele Gordon in a Wall Street Journal review of The Dawn of Innovation, by Charles R. Morris (11/20/12).

In the early 1800s, America’s agrarian economy was booming in the Midwest, resulting in “huge surpluses of grain and meat, especially pork.” The pig fat — lard — that was a byproduct of Cincinnati slaughterhouses “served as the basis for the country’s first chemical industry … when lard processing was industrialized to make soap, it led to an array of byproducts such as glycerin, used in tanning and in pharmaceuticals.” Another byproduct, stearine, “made superior candles.”

Not coincidentally, Procter & Gamble, “founded in Cincinnati in 1837 by an Irish soap maker and an English candle maker who had married sisters, grew into a giant company as the fast-rising middle class sought gentility.” Other precursors of the Industrial Age were also in play, particularly “the development of interchangeable parts,” in New England.

Such ingenuity happened well before the steam engine “powered the steamboat and the railroad” and “knitted the country together into one huge common market,” creating the “industrial economies of scale that would, in the later 19th century, astonish the world.”

Bunch of Amateurs

In Bunch of Amateurs, “Jack Hitt explores the tension between professionalism and the proud amateurism he believes is bred into our national character,” writes Amy Finnerty in The New York Times (10/28/12).

Indeed, a certain amateurism was inherent in the very founding of the nation. When Benjamin Franklin went to Paris with John Adams in 1778, looking for French support, “he worked the salons deliberately dressed like a New World bumpkin, complete with coonskin cap, winning French hearts and minds.” Adams, “the consummate professional in a powdered wig,” was less successful.

Amateurs succeed, in part, because they are “liberated from stale institutions and ways of seeing” and “make breakthroughs by trial and error and collaboration.” According to Jack, amateurism happens when “the culture around you won’t let you out of where you are or into where you want to go.”

He brings American amateurism full circle with the story of Claude-Anne Lopez, an “uncredentialed ‘faculty wife’ at Yale” who was hired to transcribe Benjamin Franklin’s letters in French. She was supposed to “stick to clerical duties and … leave the scholarship to the pros, but she kept making astute connections, forming insights, and jotting notes in the margins.” She formed a view of Franklin that was “completely different” from that seen by the professionals, and “is now considered to be one of the great Franklin scholars of our time.”

Instant: The Story of Polaroid

Polaroid founder Edwin Land anticipated today’s phone-camera culture as far back as 1945, reports Christopher Bonanos, author of Instant: The Story of Polaroid, in The Wall Street Journal (11/10/12).

Land had already been cultivating the future of the camera for 25 years when, in 1970, he spoke of a “camera that would be, oh, like the telephone: something that you use all day long … a camera that you would use as often as your pencil or your eyeglasses.”

Land actually reached into his coat pocket, pulled out his wallet, “black and oblong,” and held it “vertically in front of his eye” to demonstrate how people would use cameras in the future. He “envisioned our being able to document our whole lives, building up an immense library — a wall-size memory bank that was, effectively, an analog Facebook page … It’s no wonder that Steve Jobs considered Land one of his first heroes.”

Land, like Jobs, saw his technology as a world-changer, envisioning a “new kind of relationship between people in groups … when the members of a group are photographing and being photographed and sharing the photographs.”

He said, “It turns out that buried within us … there is latent interest in each other … We have a yen for and a primordial competence for a quiet, good-humored delight in each other; there is tenderness, curiosity, excitement, affection, companionability, and humor … We have a pre-historic tribal competence … in being partners in the lonely exploration of a once-empty planet.”

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