BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Hint: not the government ...

Another dollar store pick-up … I almost passed on this one because of the funky cover until I saw the familiar name, Michelle Malkin, as author. Despite the rather descriptive subtitle of Who Built That: Awe-Inspiring Stories of American Tinkerpreneurs, I was rather expecting (hoping for?) something more political than what the book delivers, but that's more “my bad” than any failing of the author's (or, more realistically, it's a matter of dollar store dynamics – a $28.00 book for a buck that looks interesting gets tossed into the shopping cart without too much detailed analysis!).

Needless to say, the intent of this book is a big “F.U.” to the despicable Obama regime, and their pandering to the collectivist left. She cites numerous quotes by both B.O. and Biden, denigrating the entrepreneurial and business-owning population, and insisting that anything of worth was done, in essence, by the government (oh, and when I say cite, it's not used lightly – Malkin has about 60 pages of reference notes following up the roughly 250 pages of text!). Needless to say, what I was hoping for when I picked up the book was a enraged rant against the socialist scum, but instead this is an engaging look at ten products and their inventors/developers who created industries that are, in many cases, necessities of the modern world. She also, I take it (in that Googling the term only gets links talking about the book), coined the portmanteau “tinkerpreneur”, which she describes as:
These under-appreciated inventors and innovators of mundane things changed the world by successfully commercializing their ideas and creating products, companies, jobs, and untold opportunities that endure today.
The book is oddly broken up into four parts, the division being something I think could have been dispensed with. The first two, “Engineers of Prosperity” and “The Miracle of the Mundane” are pretty clear, but then the third “BFFs: Dynamic Duos of American Business” seems to be a different sort of characterization (partnerships that worked?), and the last chapter being in its own, fourth, part “Past, Present, Future”, at just 24 pages, might as well been an “afterword”. But, nobody asked me … although if I were an editor on this project, I would have made a serious pitch to have dropped that structure. That being said, it hardly is to the detriment to the content of the book, whose chapters are free-standing looks at specific topics.

Where much of the book deals with inventors/products that are several generations old, it begins with a living “tinkerpreneur”, Tony Maglica, the head of the Maglite company that makes top-quality flashlights. Since Maglite neither invented nor is necessarily synonymous with its products, Malkin spends a lot of this chapter “romanticizing” its founder's story … which is, admittedly, pretty much the iconic “American Dream” tale of a the child of penniless immigrants (coming from Croatia between the world wars in this case) rising up by wits and determination. He holds over 200 patents related to flashlights, and had been on the verge of introducing a revolutionary new type of incandescent bulb when the Obama regime instituted it's Soviet-style top-down dictate banning the U.S. manufacturing of this traditional sort of bulb (and Maglite has been devoted to being as close to using 100% U.S. made parts as possible). Maglica is quoted saying: “Government doesn't innovate. People like me do. Government doesn't create jobs. We do.” and Malkin points out that the bulb ban not only lost thousands of manufacturing jobs, but created an environmental issue with the mercury involved in the “selected” CFL bulb type.

The next look is at the air-conditioning industry, and the figures of Willis Carrier and Irvine Lyle who pioneered it. The two were young engineers at the Buffalo Forge Company (which made assorted industrial machinery), and met by chance on a streetcar coming in to work one day. The spring and summer of 1902 were extremely hot and humid, and a printing company was having problems with the paper on multi-color jobs reacting to the humidity by shrinking, expanding, and warping, wreaking havoc on registrations between impressions. The consulting engineer at the printer contacted Lyle for assistance, and he passed the project along to Carrier, who was making a name for himself in Buffalo's heating, drying, and blower systems. Carrier was the first to break down the issue into key sub-sections, and work back up from the constituent systems into an integrated approach. He and Lyle worked out efficient ways to make this work, and Lyle moved into high gear getting the word out on the new system. Carrier's 1906 patent is still amazing, as it uses the counter-intuitive approach of using water in a fog-like mist to dehumidify the air – with the temperature of the water going into the mist being the controlling factor. The technology was soon being used for quality control in tobacco, preventing rust in razor blades, and, in 1925, gave what was no doubt the biggest boost to the movie industry – air-conditioned theaters. The same systems soon were applied to hospitals, drug manufacturers, and offices … with eventual home use enabling the development of vast swaths of America that had previously been unfriendly to large population centers.

Perhaps a less “common use” product is in the next chapter … the metal cables that replaced fiber ropes in many settings – notably here in bridges, such as the Brooklyn Bridge, the great achievement of the Roebling family. John Roebling immigrated from Germany in 1831, and (after finding himself unsuited for farming) was inspired to come up with an alternative for the hemp rope that frequently broke under stress. He had read, back in his homeland, about attempts at making “rope” out of iron, and began to experiment with ways of making that a reality. In 1842 he was awarded a patent for a machine that would do this. His product, however, was nearly killed off in its infancy … by, of course, corrupt government … in this case, makers of hemp rope conspired with authorities to sabotage a major demonstration of the new cabling – filing through the metal to insure it would fail. Fortunately, he found a sympathetic ear in the specific commission, and was allowed a second test, which showed the clear superiority of his metal rope. On the strength of this demonstration, Roebling won a contract for replacing the Pittsburgh aqueduct in 1845, the success of which led to his developing the Monongahela bridge. Moving to Trenton, NJ, he and his sons built a manufacturing center that produced cables and wire for a wide array of projects, which even included the stabilizing wires used by the Wright brothers, the control cables on the Spirit of St. Louis, and the cabling used in the construction of the Panama Canal.

Roebling's company increasingly became a family operation, with his son Washington (following service in the Civil War) and daughter-in-law Emily, being key figures in its projects. And projects came (although often still being opposed by other factions), such as the Covington-Cincinnati bridge, the railroad bridge at Niagra Falls, and, of course, their crowning achievement, the Brooklyn Bridge. John Roebling suffered an injury early in the construction, and died some time later, leaving Washington and Emily to complete the bridge … Malkin waxes poetic with:
The pilgrim, the soldier, and the female trailblazer bound themselves to greatness by their shared steel will, endless thirst for self-improvement, and veneration of American ideals.
The first of the “mundane” products is something about as basic as it gets … toilet paper. Malkin does an homage to Leonard E. Read's famed “I, Pencil” essay, in framing this “I, Toilet Paper” (eliciting a snickering review by the leftist Washington Post), and doing the chapter as a first-person look at the “family story” of this essential paper product. This starts out with some historical examples, which are hard put to not drift into the scatological, including materials used for the purpose before its invention, including the venerable Sears & Roebucks catalog that was parodied as “Rears & Sorebutts”, and notes:
Dependence on bathroom reading for bathroom wiping was once so common that The Old Farmer's Almanac came pierced with a hole for easy hanging in outhouses and water closets.
Much of what's here is a tale of the growth of the paper milling and printing industries, from the first mill established near Philadelphia in 1690, through the printing necessities of the revolution, from newspapers to bank notes to pamphlets. Remarkably, some of the mills started back then are still producing paper today, such as Crane, which was founding in 1770. Other familiar names are the Kimberly & Clark company, which ended up seeding many more mills in Wisconsin's Fox River valley, including Hoberg (originators of “Charmin”), and Northern (as in “Quilted Northern”). The last part of the chapter looks at the Scott family, which, over several generations, developed that familiar brand of paper products (which was bought by Kimberly-Clark in 1995). The author has this product decree in closing:
I, lowly toilet paper, am the lofty result of faith in freedom, not the product of a bureaucrat's mandate. Innovation can't be manufactured by force or decree. It's the outcome of constant self-improvement and entrepreneurial synergies.
The next chapter deals with the bottle cap (the metal crimped-on kind) … one of those things that one rarely thinks about having been engineered, however, to get to William Painter's “crown cap” a lot of other methods had been attempted, especially with the growing popularity of carbonated beverages.
The genius of Painter's success could be summarized in a single directive: Invent something “which everybody needs, better and more cheaply provided than ever before”. Competition in the manufacture of the best and cheapest necessities was fierce in the Age of Progress. The quest for the perfect bottle closure was crowded. Winning the war of the bottle tops would be Painter's crowning glory.
Malkin notes that before Painter came along there had been some 1500 patents approved for bottle stoppers, “… contraptions made of cork, glass, wire, ceramic, loops, gaskets, thread finishes, levers, and bails, or some chunky combination thereof”, all of which were intended to be reusable. Painter himself had patented a number of different systems, but kept trying to make the costs lower … for instance, while his “Triumph” stopper sold for $3.50/144, his “bottle seal” went for a mere $0.24/144 … but his 1892 patents for the crown cap (and related equipment – including the ubiquitous “bottle opener”) was revolutionary in that it was a disposable item.

One of the challenges in getting his new system utilized was that the bottles the caps were going on needed to be redesigned, with a recessed area where the cap could be crimped. To illustrate the value of the type of seal enabled by the crown cap, “Painter convinced a Baltimore brewer to send a cargo of crown-capped beer to South America and bring it back”, the bottles were then opened at a party for the press, who enthusiastically reported on the undiminished quality of the brew, despite its long journey (the PR guy in me loves this story).

One of Painter's sales/marketing team was a young man by the name of King Camp Gillette … which provides a pretty good clue as to what the next topic is here … and it was the disposability model of the crown cap that led to the invention of the disposable razor. One morning in 1895, Gillette was starting to shave, when he realized his razor was so dull that it was going to be have to be sent out to be sharpened – it was then that the idea of the “safety razor” was born, with the patent (after a great deal of problem-solving on how to make and sharpen a thin sheet of steel) being issued in 1904. The famed Gillette Blue Blade (“double-edged, rust-proof, oxidized, and dipped in a signature blue lacquer”) debuted in 1932, unfortunately, Gillette died some months before.

Last in the “mundane” section is the story of Charles E. Hires, of root beer fame. Like other soft drink inventors in the late 1800s, Hires was in the pharmacy business, and before he got around to marketing his “root beer”, he had another success with “fullers clay”, the telling of which takes up more of the chapter than the beverage story does. He'd been “perfecting and publicizing the root beer concoction he had been blending at his pharmacy since 1870”, and a childhood friend (who was a local newspaper publisher and a fan of the beverage) encouraged Hires to start advertising it, and set up a deal where his paper would carry ads for Hires' root beer, and not charge Hires until he was making a sustainable profit. Fortunately for both of them, the product took off, and soon there was advertising in all media for the beverage. It reached national attention at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, and has been a fixture among soft drinks ever since.

The next part of the book is “Dynamic Duos”, but only offers two examples (neither being Batman & Robin). The first of these deals with the glass industry, and the figures of Edward Libbey and Michael Owens (whose names live on in the Libbey glassware company, and Owens-Corning). Malkin dives into a lot of history, looking back 3,000 years. This makes various stops, but spends a number of pages talking of Tiberius' Rome, where, the perceived threat of a product demonstrated for the Emperor, vitrum flexile – a flexible glass, resulted in the execution of its inventor. The author draws the obvious similarities to how governments tend to react to innovation:
This murderous dictator and his central planners cared more about protecting workers in the existing copper, silver, and gold industries than in pioneering anything new. They simply could not imagine how many more jobs, industries, and riches might result from pursuing the untried and untested. Competition and creativity were public menaces. Violent suppression, stasis, and government coercion were cures.
While glass making technologies were for a long time tightly held knowledge (Malkin writes: “For centuries, glassblowers were sworn to secrecy. The masters of fire and sand guarded their recipe books like highly classified nuclear codes.”), when governments got involved things turned ugly. The author reports that the Great Council of Venice around 1275 sought to make glass making “a tightly run government monopoly”, and rounded up all the glassmakers to an island (that she compares to Gitmo), and destroyed all high-temperature furnaces in Venice (on the pretext of “fire safety”, and if that didn't work, I'm sure they would have come up with “for the children”). This arrangement lasted for three centuries until France's Louis XIV broke the monopoly in 1684! One of the taxes that spurred the American revolution was that imposed on glassmaking … so this has been a government money-grab essentially for ever.

Anyway … Michael Owens was a child worker in a glass factory, and taught himself the ways of the masters he was assisting. He ended up being a key figure in the union. Edward D. Libbey also started early, as a “chore boy” in a glass factory's offices – with a significant difference that his father was a bookkeeper in the organization. Libbey was well schooled and rose up the ranks, traveling to Europe to learn the history and technology of glass manufacturing. The two found themselves on the opposite sides of conflict, with Owens being a key catalyst of a strike called on the company that Libbey was by that time running.
In a last ditch effort to save his company from union saboteurs, Libbey relocated {it} to Toledo, Ohio, and officially incorporated the Libbey Glass Company in 1892.
As is often the case with manufacturing moves, many of the employees were unable to follow, so Libbey began to advertise for workers. Professionally, Owens had become a glass blower at age 15, and thirteen years later he was still a glass blower, and wanted more. Despite their previous conflicts, Libbey hired Owens, who, within three months, had replaced the plant supervisor, and started to fire incompetent and lazy workers, moving up rapidly in the organization. Another labor dispute (with a different manufacturer) moved the two into a partnership, where their company managed to pick up the business that the strike at the other plant was destroying. The talents of the two men were the right strengths at the right time, and they developed innovation after innovation, completely changing the way glass was made.

I'm going to have to sort of skim the next chapter, as I've read so much over the years about Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse, that it's hard to separate that background from what Malkin's presenting here. Of course, she brings a particular spin to it: “Private capital, individual initiative, personal integrity, and an abiding respect for intellectual property rights cemented the alliance between Westinghouse and Tesla.”. While Westinghouse is mainly remembered as a “captain of industry”, he was also a prolific inventor and an entrepreneur with numerous companies based on his innovations. When Tesla broke away from Edison (after having been very shabbily treated, Malkin has a very interesting background portion on this) over the conflict between Edison's direct current (DC) power and Tesla's alternating current (AC) system, he came to the attention of Westinghouse, who had himself been doing research on AC power. Again, the details on this are quite interesting … as Westinghouse's (or his researchers') work on this get less attention than the flashy Tesla's.

The 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago won the “battle of the currents”, with the Westinghouse/Tesla AC system lighting the fair – the first time most people had ever encountered electric light. The growth of the electrical power grid is, of course, something that seems inevitable these days, but it had a start with a test plant in Telluride, CO (based on a gold prospector's pitch), and then scaled up to a regional model with the remarkable power plant built at Niagara Falls. Malkin has a couple of interesting bits here, first, quoting Tesla on Westinghouse as “the only man on this globe who could take my alternating-current system under the circumstances then existing and win the battle against prejudice and money power”, and then noting on the reciprocal relation: “Instead of working to exploit and crush Tesla, as Edison had attempted to do, Westinghouse threw his entire corporate weight behind the scientific visionary.”. It turned out that Edison had one more dagger to thrust into Tesla, unfortunately, despite the fact that Marconi's radio was based on work that Tesla had developed, Edison threw his support behind the Italian, who got the credit (and Nobel Prize) for the invention.

The last section is on artificial limbs, and other prosthetics, from Civil War technologies to the cutting edge work being done by a bunch of different companies, individuals, and groups. It's one short chapter, which covers a lot of ground, so I'm just going to leave that description. The book's Conclusion deals with intellectual property law, patents, etc., which starts out with the U.S. Constitution's first article, runs through Thomas Jefferson (who was the first patent examiner), into some of Abraham Lincoln's own patents, and to the current perversions of these systems by, among other things, the so-called American Invents Act, the AIA, which Malkin says is a special-interest boondoggle that enriches corporate lawyers, Big Business, and federal bureaucrats at the expense of independent inventors and fledgling innovators the American patent system was created to protect and encourage”.

While I would have liked Who Built That to have been a more in-your-face broadside against the leftist corruption of American greatness, it certainly is an interesting read, with little nuggets of calling out the collectivist enemies of our culture. If you have an interest in American innovation, industry, and history (and a libertarian bent), you should find plenty in here to enjoy. As noted up top, I got a copy of the hardcover at the dollar store, but it looks to still be in print, so you should be able to get a copy via your local brick-and-mortar store, and otherwise the on-line big boys presently have it at 42% off of cover, and the paperback edition at about 2/3rds of that … while their new/used guys have “very good” copies available for under five bucks (with shipping). This may not be the anti-socialist screed that I was hoping for, but it's still a quality read, and worth checking out!

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Tags: book review
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