NEW YORK — When Harold Evans thinks about American history, he thinks big. His latest book, “They Made America: From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine, Two Centuries of Innovators,” is a survey of the individuals whose impact on American technology and commerce has been greatest. Its scope extends from Eli Whitney and Isaac Singer to Bill Gates and Russell Simmons. Published this month by Little, Brown & Co., the book was adapted for a four-part series that will air next month on PBS. To mark the launch, Evans will moderate a panel discussion at the Broadhurst Theater on Thursday featuring Ted Turner, Oscar de la Renta and Martin Scorcese. WWD caught up with him this week for a discussion of our own.
WWD: Throughout your book you make a distinction between inventors and innovators. Can you explain that?
Harold Evans: My definition of innovators is people who bring changes to a mass of people. Inventors very often don’t get their inventions translated to the masses. Only 1 percent of patents have commercial implications. Everybody thinks that Alexander Graham Bell was the inventor of the telephone. If the telephone had been left as he “invented” it, it would be utterly useless. It needed Thomas Edison to build a carbon transmitter, and it needed Theodore Vail, who founded AT&T and Bell Labs. Time and time again, we see that somebody who’s not even a scientist, not even capable of making a scientific discovery, nonetheless brings a discovery to a large number of people.
WWD: Many of the innovations detailed in your book seem inevitable in retrospect. Does that diminish the role of the innovator?
H.E.: I challenge that. If it was inevitable, why were so many of these innovators regarded as crazy? For instance, when Gary Kildall came along and devised a system by which computers could operate software of different kinds, nobody thought it was possible. Before the Wright brothers, man had been trying to fly for centuries — centuries! — and was still killing himself. When Ted Turner adopted the idea of 24-hour news, television had been around for four decades. Everybody had come to accept news as a half-hour or an hour. The whole cable industry developed from his innovation.
WWD: Turner is a good example of how innovations can have unintended consequences. Many people think the changes CNN sparked in TV news have resulted in people being less, not more, informed.
H.E.: I would say that the way Ted Turner conceived 24-hour news with Reese Schonfeld would utterly dismiss that criticism, but the way other people developed it, that might be valid. I’d like to see more of Turner’s original vision. The curious thing is television today, having the facility to bring us live pictures, very often cuts them off just when they get interesting. You hear, “Kerry and Bush made terrific speeches yesterday attacking each other,” then you see them in the background for three seconds, you hear a 30-second summary of what they said, then it’s back to a pundit in the studio. I think the election has been so badly covered.
WWD: How did coming from England affect the way you approach American history?
H.E.: When I came to America, I was coming from a society that had endured great privation during the war. We weren’t starving, but we had no comforts. The meat ration could fall through the hole in the bus ticket, that was the joke. And of course America came to the rescue, so for those of us in the air-raid shelters, it was a fantastic relief to hear Franklin Roosevelt. I came here with a lot of awe.
When I returned to England as a young science reporter following my post-graduate work, I visited the National Physical Laboratory, where radar was invented in 1934. Radar, the jet engine, antibiotics, the hovercraft and the computer, in the Thirties to 1945, were all way ahead in England of where they were in America. Every single one of those inventions was taken up in America and became a dominant American enterprise. I began to wonder: Why the hell does England invent these things but never develop them? The distinction between an inventor and an innovator was borne in on me.
WWD: Your book explains how World War I was a major factor in the invention of the brassiere. Can you talk about that?
H.E.: In World War I, the need for steel was so great, all the steel was taken out of corsets. They took enough out of women’s corsets to make two battleships. The result was the new fashion became no corsets and breasts that flopped, or didn’t flop, as the case may be. So women started tying a bandage around their chests and the flat chest look came in. Ida Rosenthal and Enid Bisset, a Russian immigrant and an Englishwoman, made very nice dresses but didn’t like the way they looked when a woman’s natural shape was flattened. So they started stitching in what was in effect the brassiere designed by Rosenthal’s husband. It wasn’t the first brassiere, but it was the most important.
WWD: Why did you include Estée Lauder?
H.E.: The gift-with-purchase was a great original marketing idea. It was a gamble. She was so certain people would like her stuff that she was prepared to run the risk of people taking it and not buying anything more, and of course she was vindicated. It was what you might call a faith-based initiative.
WWD: Do you foresee a time when America won’t be the global leader in innovation any longer?
H.E.: There’s a danger that it will fall behind, but I think there’s so much resilience in the American economy, so much talent here, so much openness, so much mobility, that, in fact, when America wakes up to the danger, such as it is, it will recover and should remain dominant for the next 100 years.