American Greats

American Greats

by Robert A. Wilson, Stanley Marcus


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781586480066
Publisher: PublicAffairs
Publication date: 09/28/2000
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 10.03(w) x 12.22(h) x 1.03(d)
Lexile: 1220L (what's this?)

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Chapter One

common sense: 'tis time to part

When the founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence in July 1776, it was an accepted fact that most colonists favored full separation from England. But only six months before, it was not so. There had been skirmishes with British soldiers. A variety of discontents had been diplomatically voiced by colonial leaders. But the Continental Congress was silent on the matter of New World indignation, and there was still a sense that Parliament in London could resolve the various disputes in a satisfactory way. If anything, the colonies vibrated with unarticulated emotions and buried hopes—poised for someone to bring the scattered opinions into focus.

    Clarity arrived in Philadelphia on January 10, 1776, when an English corset-maker—who had only been in the colonies about a year—published a pamphlet called Common Sense. In stunningly clear and moving prose, Thomas Paine gathered up the random unspoken thoughts of the average smithy or farmer, shook them in his face, and gave him the courage to accept a radical idea.

    "The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth," he wrote. "'Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age; posterity are virtually involved in the contest ... Now is the seed-time of continental union, faith, and honour.

    "The least fracture now will be like a name engraved with the point of a pin on the tender rind of a young oak; the wound will enlarge with the tree, and posterity read it in full grown characters."

    History wouldbe made now or never, Paine wrote, "The present winter is worth an age if rightly employed, but if lost or neglected the whole continent will partake of the misfortune."

    Then came the words from which there would be no turning back, "Every thing that is right and reasonable pleads for separation. The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, 'TIS TIME TO PART."

    For the first time, the notion of independence was on the lips of every yeoman in the colonies and a new idea of a separate nationality was in their heads. Thomas Paine was the first man to string together these five words: "The United States of America."

    However, the brilliance of Common Sense extends far beyond its brash call for revolution. The document is bound in emotion and plays off of it. Every chord of discontent in the colonies was plucked by Paine in Common Sense. To the Tories who defended the monarchy, Paine wrote with a poet's control of language and a passionate willingness to burn all bridges. He treasonously mocked King George as a "hardened, sullen-tempered Pharaoh" and a descendent of William the Conqueror, "a French bastard landing with an armed banditti and establishing himself King of England against the consent of the natives."

    A great fear among American commoners was a fear they had learned as subjects of the Crown: That the absence of an established, flourishing aristocracy meant that the colonists would lack the courage to govern themselves and would quickly dissolve into anarchy. Paine laughed away British "superstitions" about monarchical hierarchy, noting that in London "the rich are in general slaves to fear, and submit to courtly power with the trembling duplicity of a spaniel."

    Still, might not the old tranquillity and diplomacy between England and her American colonies somehow be restored? Paine replied, "Can ye give to prostitution its former innocence? Neither can ye reconcile Britain and America ... As well can the lover forgive the ravishers of his mistress as the continent forgive the murders of Britain." Act now, Paine implored, lest the time pass and we realize that "a little more, a little further, would have rendered this continent the glory of the earth." Then Paine adds, "since nothing but blows will do, for God's sake let us come to a final separation, and not leave the next generation to cutting throats...."

    When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence six months later, he knew what his readers would hear when he declared his purpose "to place before mankind the common sense of the subject in terms so plain and firm as to justify ourselves."

    Common Sense is a brilliant piece of propaganda from the American Revolution. It insulted the enemy, explained the reasons for revolt, implored the masses to act, and reached for the noblest explanations for a fight. Paine once said of his own writing that he would "avoid every literary ornament and put it in language as plain as the alphabet." And that is Paine's lasting contribution to American belles lettres. Like Franklin, he avoided the prolixities of Fleet Street and the clotted prose of the clergy. He pioneered a voice and style that is quintessentially American. Unadorned and plain, the American voice of simple declarative sentences set off by vivid imagery is the pioneering literary achievement of Common Sense.

the automobile self-starter: kettering's practical solution

Doctors called it a "chauffeur's fracture"—the radial styloid or wrist fracture that occurred when a driver tried to start a horseless carriage by turning the crank at the front of the car. If the engine backfired, the crank would spin backward, often causing broken bones. Those early automobiles motoring down the streets of American cities were considered an engineering marvel. But what a challenge to start. The two requirements were a blacksmith's arm and a perfect sense of timing. The driver had to adjust the spark and the throttle before jumping out to turn the crank mounted on the car's outside front grill. Once the spark caught and the motor fired, the driver dashed back to the controls to adjust the spark and throttle before the engine died. Oh, and if the car started but was in gear, it could lurch forward to run over the cranker. Seem far-fetched? Ask your oldest relative if someone in your family ever suffered broken bones—or worse—from trying to start a car by crank.

    The danger spelled opportunity. New Yorker Clyde J. Coleman secured a patent in 1899 for an electric self-starter. But his was a theoretical solution and never marketed. The big winner was the inventor Charles F. Kettering who, in 1910, developed a self-starter small enough to fit under the hood of a car and run off a small storage battery. After graduating from Ohio State's College of Engineering, Kettering had gone to work for the invention staff of the National Cash Register Company (NCR). There he created a high-torque electric motor that would supply power to drive a cash register, allowing a salesperson to ring up a sale without turning a hand crank twice each time. This small motor would inspire future inventions.

    After five years at NCR, Kettering set up his own laboratory in a barn behind the E.A. Deeds's home at 319 Central Avenue in Dayton, Ohio. There Kettering, Deeds, and a group of engineers, mechanics, and electricians began work in 1908 on a new ignition system for the Cadillac Motor Cars Company. By 1910 they had formed the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company, which became known as Delco Products.

    Conventional thinking held that an electric self-starter was impossible; a motor powerful enough to crank an engine would have to be as large as the automobile engine itself. So much for conventional wisdom. But Henry Leland, then head of Cadillac, believed Kettering, whom he called an "absolutely unknown electrical genius," and his "Barn Gang" could devise a small motor that could crank the engine. The small motor developed for the cash register illustrated, as Kettering stated, that "more than once, we have seen research accomplishments fit together, like the words of a crossword puzzle, to aid us in solving other problems." They worked day and night for more than six months to the strains of the only record they had—"When You and I Were Young, Maggie." By January 1911, they tested an electric starter in a Cadillac; the Cadillac was then taken to Detroit for Leland to try out personally. Kettering returned to Dayton with an order for 12,000 units to be installed on every 1912 model Cadillac.

    Within a year, the system was installed in six other makes of cars: Hudson, Packard, Cole, Oldsmobile, Oakland, and Jackson. In five years the self-starter helped increase sales more than sevenfold. This was the breakthrough the young motor car industry needed. The self-starter became a liberator, expanding the country's romance for the road. It came into general use as the final campaign for woman suffrage began. Women could now easily start and drive a car alone, prompting an editor of the Detroit Free Press to write that "Kettering's self-starter did more to emancipate women than Susan B. Anthony."

barbed wire: the devil's hatband

Allis's Black Hills Ribbon. May's Pigtail. Shellabarger's Snake Wrap. Along with dozens of other varieties of barbed wire with equally exotic names, they all did the same thing: make a fence that even the toughest longhorn steer could not destroy. Robert Frost wrote long after the West understood, "good fences make good neighbors." But good fences in the Northeast and along the Eastern seaboard were comparatively easy to build. There were plenty of rocks and trees. As Americans began to migrate westward to the prairies and plains, however, where trees were in short supply, barbed wire allowed farmers and cattlemen to fence in their property.

    Just who invented barbed wire has been hotly contested. Although the idea for a fence of twisted strands of sheet metal had been patented in France in 1860, American inventors, who seemed to know nothing of the French patent, perfected the concept of twisting two or more wires to hold barbs. The first three American patents were issued in 1867, but barbed wire was not a commercial success until 1876 when the wire manufacturing firm of Washburn & Moen of Worcester, Massachusetts, joined forces with Joseph Glidden and Isaac Ellwood of DeKalb, Illinois, two of the earliest patent holders.

    Ellwood believed the greatest potential for sales of barbed wire was in the Southwest, especially Texas. He sent a salesman named John W. Gates to San Antonio to drum up business. Gates encountered dubious cattlemen and farmers, but he found a way to convince them. He built an eight-strand barbed-wire corral in the middle of the Military Plaza and told dubious onlookers: "The cattle ain't born that can get through it. Bring on your steers, gentlemen." The crowd gathered—at a distance—since no one believed the barbed wire was going to stop the Longhorns. When the cattle were driven in, they charged the fence again and again, but it held. By sunset John W. Gates had sold hundreds of miles of barbed wire at 18 cents a pound.

    It was simple in design, inexpensive, unlimited in supply, and could be easily moved, mended, or rebuilt. Sellers of barbed wire believed their product made the opening of the West successful. Others argue that it was the opening of the West that made the success of barbed wire possible. Either way, the "devil's hatband," as it was called, left an indelible mark on the West.

the baseball diamond

Fame and significance do not necessarily equate. Asked to name the most famous diamond of all, most would reply "the Hope." But the truly significant diamond in our national life, the one with the magical ninety-foot dimensions, is the baseball diamond created by Alexander Joy Cartwright in 1845.

    Those ninty-foot distances between bases have maintained a fragile balance between offense and defense for over 150 years. Red Smith wrote: "Ninety feet demands perfection. It accurately measures the cunning, speed and finesse of the base stealer against the velocity of the thrown ball." He also said, "the world's fastest men cannot run to first base ahead of a sharply hit ball that is cleanly handled by an infielder; he will get there only half a step too late. Let the fielder juggle the ball for one moment or delay his throw an instant and the runner will be safe."

    The nation's pastime is played on fields reflecting a belief older than baseball, as old as the nation itself: the belief in freedom of expression. Build the fields as big as you want, the wails as high or short or as irregular; they are not the secret of this game.

    The diamond's dimensions determine the nature of the conflict: base to base and across the diagonals, first to third, second to home, and home to the rubber on the elevated pitcher's mound. The magic derives from the ninety-foot borders that make the diamond of our national pastime seem like it could last forever.

Table of Contents

Common Sense: 'Tis Time to Part2
The Automobile Self-Starter: Kettering's Practical Solution4
Barbed Wire: The Devil's Hatband8
The Baseball Diamond10
The Berlin Airlift: We Stay in Berlin. Period12
The Birds of America: Audubon's Great Idea14
Black Baseball: The Bumpy, Begrudging Road20
The Brooklyn Bridge24
Burroughs-Wellcome and Gertrude Elion: The Perfect Chemistry30
C-SPAN: Where Content is the Star32
Calder Mobiles36
Carnegie Libraries38
There Is Only One Chez Panisse40
The Chicago Defender: Aiding and Abetting the Great Migration44
Coca-Cola's Recipe: The Greatest Secret Ever Kept, Told By The Man Who Keeps It48
Coney Island54
The Corvette: Like a Bat Out of Hell58
Country Music: The Bristol Sessions62
The Duke Ellington Orchestra66
Edison's Invention Factories: "Stick-To-Itiveness"70
The Elements of Style: Parvum Opus72
Farm Security Administration Photographers74
FDR's Fireside Chats: Holding Us Together76
Freedom of Expression78
Freedom Riders: "We Are Prepared to Die"82
The G.I. Bill: Helping Create the Middle Class86
The Gettysburg Address88
A Great Day in Harlem92
Huckleberry Finn96
The Iditarod: The Last Great Race100
Industrial Design: "A Superior Sense of the Practical"104
Industrial Light and Magic: "To Leap Without Looking"110
Out in the Garage: Where Inventions Begin114
Keeneland: Racing As it Was Meant to Be116
The Kimbell Museum: "The client is human nature"118
Lend Lease: "The Most Unsordid Act"124
The Library of America128
LIFE Magazine130
M*A*S*H: The Final episode136
The Marshall Plan: Essentials for European Recovery140
Mohawk Steel Workers: Dealing With the Fear142
Making Journalism History: "We Take You Now to London"146
N.C. Wyeth's Treasure Island Illustrations: Scaring Us Stiff148
National Geographic Maps: A Sense of Where We Are150
Navajo Code Talkers: The Century's Best Kept Secret152
The New York Public Library's Room 315156
The New York Times158
The New Yorker164
The Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889: "A Handful of White Dice Thrown Out Across the Prairie"168
The Outermost House172
The Paris Review Interviews with Writers: Getting Black on White174
The Pony Express176
The Populists: "Caught in the Tentacles of Circumstance"178
The Portable Faulkner182
The Transfer of Presidential Power184
The Pursuit of Happiness190
A Romance with the Road: "Light out for the territory"194
Can You Tell Me How To Get To Sesame Street?198
The Skyscraper202
The Smithsonian Institution: The Nation's Attic208
The Snapshot214
Sousa's Band: The Music Men218
The Spirit of St. Louis: Shooting Star220
Sportswriting: The Golden Age224
Sun Records: "When All Hell Broke Loose"228
Surfing Oahu's North Shore: "Eddie Would Go"232
Tabasco Sauce236
Television Situation Comedy238
Ticker-Tape Parades244
Travis's Letter from the Alamo: "Victory or Death"250
The Tuskegee Airmen: All Blood Runs Red252
The Underground Railroad: Following the North Star254
Volkswagen's Campaign in America256
Webster's American Dictionary: "The Final Volley of Independence"260
The Western262
The Woman Suffrage Movement: "Failure is Impossible"266
Wright Brothers: Concept of Genius270
Yellow Fever: "A Common Cause for a Disease all too Common"276
Yellowstone, Our First National Park280
Your Show of Shows: A Legacy of Laughter286
West Point290
Photo Credits304

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