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Published 22 October 2008, doi:10

Who Built That: Awe-Inspiring Stories of American Tinkerpreneurs

by Michelle Malkin
Threshold Editions/Mercury Ink (Simon & Schuster, Inc), New York, NY, 2015
336 pp., illus., b/w. Trade, $28.00
ISBN: 978-1-4767-8494-6; ISBN: 978-1-4767-8495-3 (ebook).

Reviewed by Richard Kade
Ubiquitous Iconoclast


The back cover blurb and introduction begin with the quote, used by several prominent U.S. politicians, "If you've got a business -- you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen."[1] That line inspired the author to share the uplifting stories of some of America's greatest innovators from before the founding of the United States to the present day. By way of prebuttal, an epigraph from George Westinghouse (in 1907) precedes the table of contents, "So I suppose all those great works built themselves!"

Another contention compelled completion of this compendium of creativity. "Every single great idea that has marked the 21st century, the 20th century and the 19th century has required government vision and government incentive. Private enterprise lags behind."[2]

This particular statement almost has an iota of validity to it even if not intended as used. A quick seeming digression for historic context is in order.

In response to the Sputnik launch, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration (DARPA) was formed to develop technologies needed to leap-frog the Soviets. By the time the LBJ administration decided nothing productive was happening and started to shut down most operations (and the Nixon administration largely completed that task), a good chunk of what would later be considered the backbone of the internet and eventual web (DARPA-Net) was conceived and under development. (True, many of those PhDs landed at Xerox PARC and continued the work until corporate brass pulled the proverbial plug and showed "those hippies" the door.)

Back to the folks in the Eisenhower-to-Nixon administrations and Congresses from the late 50s to early 70s ... had any speculated upon which PhDs would find the "magic bullet" to make the world a better place (forecasting where lightning would strike) none could know that the answer was "none of the above" but, rather, a pair of boys barely out of diapers: Bill Gates and Steve Jobs [3].

Perhaps the more interesting issue is: When considering all that is termed "intellectual property," "intellectual capital" and "intellectual assets" ... how exactly are those quantified? The classic formula was spelled out nearly two decades ago by Thomas A. Stewart [4].

Consider a company such as Apple or Microsoft. Compare the book value (total number of shares times price per share at the close of any day) and subtract all fixed assets. That difference is the value of the intellectual capital.

Regular readers of Malkin's syndicated columns and blogs will no doubt be disappointed in how the stories of these entrepreneurs along with the businessmen and customers who helped propel the innovations into world-wide businesses spurring other un-thought-of innovations and businesses tend to drag until the book is nearly done. As effective as her writing usually is when dealing with immediate events, this collection of essays about people and their creative works that she obviously feels passionately about does little by way of contagious enthusiasm.

The opening chapter tells of Tony Maglica, inventor of the iconic Maglite flashlight. Malkin actually spent time visiting with Maglica, touring his facilities and meeting many of the people who have worked there for many decades so her account should have been more riveting.

The next chapter concerned Willis Carrier and Irvine Lyle, who brought modern air-conditioning into existence. While reading all the positive (often life-saving) developments resulting from this innovation, I kept yelling in my head until the last page of this chapter the one notoriously negative side-effect which, of course, had not been forgotten: air-conditioning bears blame for members of Congress remaining in Washington, DC, year-round promulgating deleterious legislation non-stop. Had this book only gone to press in late June, the recent papal encyclical, Laudato Si, could have been woven effectively into the fabric of the chapter to examine the anthropological and functional-Darwinism aspects of issues under consideration.[5]

The story of John Roebling, (along with son, Washington, and daughter-in-law, Emily) is far more effectively recounted ... from forming the first commercially successful wire rope company that manufactured the suspension cables on the Golden Gate and George Washington bridges. The control cables in the Spirit of St. Louis (the first airplane to cross the Atlantic Ocean), as well as the tramway and construction cables used to build the Panama Canal (even the wires used to stabilize the wings of the Wright Brothers' aircraft) all used Roebling trusses. Their crowning achievement, the Brooklyn Bridge, which took its heaviest personal toll upon them, stands as a towering legacy of the countless pursuits of individual American innovators who benefited the public.

The essay on how mundane items needed by all forges interconnected relationships (functional, economical, etc.) between people disbursed over such wide expanses, geographically, that they never meet centers upon the invention of toilet paper. Stylistically, Malkin chose to model this chapter, "I Toilet Paper", upon a favorite bit of reading from her youth, I, Pencil: My Family Tree as told to Leonard E. Read [6].

The trouble with the Read piece was that many of the more interesting historic details are omitted for the sake of brevity. The accounting by Henry Petroski [7] breathes far more life into the origin of this most ubiquitous artifact, from the days of the ancient cave dwellers, through Leonardo and even Henry David Thoreau.

The next four chapters deal with machine automation by William Painter in marketing disposable bottle caps, King Gillette with disposable razors, Charles E. Hires with Hires Root Beer as well as Edward Libbey and Michael Owens with their machine-blown glass products.

The section on George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla was based for the most part on historians who are understandably partial to the AC pioneers (given that alternating current did win out) and seems to cast Edison, J.P. Morgan and others in those earliest days of what would become General Electric Co. and RCA as evil-to-incompetent figures failing to note that Edison's numerous inventions still thrive only supplanted by their "newer, improved, extra-strength" digital (or green-updated) descendants (light bulbs, phonograph, moving pictures, etc.).

A passing reference to the friendship between Tesla and Mark Twain and photograph of Twain with a Tesla generator was of peripheral interest only because of a series of discussions (actually begun nearly two decades earlier) on the topic of what is now termed intellectual capital with Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes (Sr.) and continuing (1885) in Washington, DC when Congress was considering the Hartley International Copyright Extension Act and, finally, culminating in the most substantive exchange (in 1899) with Lord Henry Thring in England. [8]

Certainly, Edison had more than his fair share of missed targets including, most notably, his contention that direct current would be the only safe means of electric power delivery and his prediction that, within his own lifetime -- based upon practicality of obtaining materials and economics -- most furniture in homes and offices would be made out of concrete.

One must note, however, that his greatest blunder was as a businessman. His egomaniacal sale of all shares he owned of GE when shareowners voted to shorten the name of the company dwarfed all the aforementioned predictions if one considers that, a single share of GE stock, at the time of incorporation (with splits over the decades) as of 1999 would have been worth in excess of $6 Billion. (Yeah, he showed them!)

Most of the appreciation of shareholder value of GE stock was due to the so-called "Welch premium" when Jack Welch, CEO and Chairman from 1981 to 2001, made GE the most valuable and profitable company in the world. At the time of his retirement, GE was more profitable than their 17 nearest competitors (including Samsung and Westinghouse) combined. This value-added was, for the most part, achieved by driving out bureaucratic nonsense.

On that count, the greatest threat to innovation these days for entrepreneurs in the United States is from governmental pressures including everything from so-called environmental initiatives to meddling in imposition of solutions to nonexistent deficiencies of patent laws.

Malkin notes that as part of his ongoing bid to "fundamentally transform" America, President Obama signed the Orwellian-titled America Invents Act (AIA) in 2011. The law was sold as a job-creation vehicle that would relieve a backlog of an estimated 700,000 patent applications and crack down on patent "trolls" supposedly abusing the system through frivolous litigation against alleged infringers. If truth-in-advertising laws applied to politicians who front massively complex bills that do the opposite of what they proclaim to do, these hucksters would be jailed for their patently fraudulent "reform" legislation.[9]

With characteristic clarity Malkin concludes her assessment, "In truth, the AIA and its legislative successors are special interest boondoggles that enrich corporate lawyers, Big Business and federal bureaucrats at the expense of the independent inventors and fledgling innovators the American patent system was created to protect and encourage.

"Real 'reform' begins with the repeal of the innovation-stifling 'America Invents Act' and a return to first constitutional principles that maintain a level playing field among makers and builders of all shapes and sizes."


[1] White House Transcript, 13 July 2012, accessed 15 May 2014, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/07/13/remarks-president-campaign-event-roanoke-virginia. See also, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/elizabeth-warren-there-is-nobody-in-this-country-who-got-rich-on-his-own for use by Elizabeth Warren on 22 Sept. 2011.

[2] Powers, Doug, The Biden-ism of the Day: Every Great Idea in the Past 200-Plus Years Has Required Government to Succeed 27 Oct 2010 [posted at: http://michellemalkin.com/2010/10/27/the-biden-ism-of-the-day-every-great-idea-in-the-past-200-plus-years-has-required-government-to-succeed ].

[3] Jobs, Steve, "Prepared text of the Commencement address delivered on June 12, 2005", (Stanford Report, Stanford, CA: Stanford News Service, 15 June 2005) Posted at: http://news.stanford.edu/news/2005/june15/jobs-061505.html

[4] Stewart, Thomas A., Intellectual Capital: The New Wealth of Organizations (New York, Doubleday/Currency, 1997)

[5] Malkin, Michelle Holy Hypocrisy and Hot Air [posted at: creators.com/print/opinion/michelle-malkin/Holy-Hypocrisy-and-Hot-Air.html ].

[6] Read, Leonard E., I, Pencil: My Family Tree as told to Leonard E. Read (Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., 1999) http://econlib.org/library/Essays/rdPncl1.html (See also http://fee.org/files/doclib/20121114_IPencilUpdatedCover2012.pdf )

[7] Petroski, Henry, The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance (New York, Knopf, 1990)

[8] Twain, Mark (edited by Harriet Elinor Smith, et al.) Autobiography of Mark Twain Volume 2 (Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 2013) p. 286, 290-291. This last sequence is of most interest in that SLC writes how Thring "asked me if I was not aware of the fact that it had long ago been decided that there could be no property in ideas." SLC retort was how all value added to property, especially in real estate, comes specifically from ideas on the part of a developer [think Donald Trump] sprucing up mere land so as to increase the resale price. Stipulated, the discussion was on copyright and neither discussant had sufficient perspicacity to envision the applicability to patents.

[9] Malkin, Michelle How Obama Radically Transformed America's Patent System [posted at: http://michellemalkin.com/2015/05/22/how-obama-radically-transformed-americas-patent-system ].

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