They Made America, by Harold Evans
Since road trips couldn't exist without the inventions that make them possible -- internal combustion engines, to name an important one -- it's hard to think of a better audiobook to slip into your CD player on such a journey than Harold Evans' They Made America. As you zoom past power lines, railroad tracks, and generating plants, the author himself will regale you with the fascinating stories behind the innovators who made them integral parts of daily life. It's a refreshing way to travel through American history, and Evans' selection of subjects includes not only names you'll recognize, but also a number you might not.
The audio version of They Made America is an abridgement on five CDs. While this is not enough air time to include all of the innovators covered in Evans' formidable book, it is a well-rounded selection beginning with steamboat magnate Robert Fulton and ending with Pierre Omidyar, who started Ebay in a San Jose apartment. In between, you'll hear how Theodore Judah brought the first transcontinental railroad into being, how Samuel Colt changed the course of history with his revolver, and how Ruth Handler came up with the idea for Barbie dolls. Madame C. J. Walker is here, too, and the story of her rise from destitution to wildly successful manufacturer of hair care products.
Of course, no collection of this sort would be complete without Thomas Edison, and Evans' profile is not only a thorough outline of Edison's accomplishments, but also a picture of the man himself. The same is true of Evans' portrait of sewing machine king Eli Singer, whose unconventional personal life would have provided more than enough fodder for a fat novel.
Evans draws a distinction between
innovation and invention. Invention, he claims,
is only one step in a process that must also include
vision and persistence. It wasn't enough that Edison
invented an incandescent bulb. It was his determination
to light up Manhattan that changed the world. The profiles
in They Made America all reveal not only minds
capable of brilliant ideas and clever constructs, but
also personalities with enough stubbornness and vision
to make a difference.