American Know-How 

Sir Harold sounds off.

The wonders of affordable low-tech gadgetry:

You can buy a handy microcassette tape recorder for 40 bucks, and it'll do if the setting for an in-person interview approximates a sound-proof booth. Inside the noisy lobby of the hotel Peabody, however, a recorder's apt to also pick up every tourist yakking, piano tinkling, and duck quacking. In other words, the recorder's worthless.

Scribbling quotes, however, turns out worse than worthless. It's impossible given that the subject of a recent interview with the Flyer is Harold Evans -- "Sir Harold" if you want to acknowledge his knighthood earlier this year, but "Mr. Evans" will do. What won't do if you don't know shorthand is thinking that you're up to speed and can capture Evans' soft-spoken but enthusiastic English-accented delivery. The solution: You forget scribbling; you lean in to listen; and you count on your lousy short-term memory. It isn't your job to ask Evans to keep it simple, slow it down, and would you mind repeating that. You're talking to the former editor of the Sunday Times of London, former president and publisher of Random House, former editor in chief of the Atlantic Monthly, former editorial director of U.S. News & World Report, and author of numerous books, including 1998's best-selling The American Century.

Members of the audience who heard Evans inaugurate the first of the John Burton Tigrett Innovators and Entrepreneurs Lecture Series at the U of M's FedEx Institute of Technology on November 3rd surely didn't have these problems. (Evans, in fact, praised the institute's state-of-the-art lecture facilities.) Readers of Evans' new 480-page, coffee-table-size book, They Made America: From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine; Two Centuries of Innovation (Little, Brown), won't have a problem at all. And if they should for some reason, they can turn to PBS on Monday nights this month for a four-hour series based on the book, a series that began November 8th and continues on the 15th and 22nd.

They Made America borrows from the proven success of The American Century: highly readable essays and sidebars by Evans supplemented by photographs (some famous, some seldom seen) and contemporary illustrations (from ads to diagrams) assembled by photographic historian Gail Buckland. David Lefer was Evans' chief researcher, and design kudos go to Wendy Byrne.

The subject of the book is innovation, not invention: those men and women, 70 in all, be they rebels, revolutionaries, newcomers, or gamblers, who took an invention (their own or someone else's) and found its maximum application. "Their distinctive quality is not that they filed a patent or elaborated a formula," Evans writes in his introduction. "It is that somehow they got their hands on the most important ideas and turned them into commercial realities with enormous impact."

Thus, Alexander Graham Bell, an inventor not innovator, discovered how sound waves could be converted into electric current. Thus, Thomas Edison, an inventor and innovator, produced an effective transmitter to solve the problem of indistinct and muffled sound. But it was Theodore Vail who foresaw a national long-distance phone system and overcame all the technical and bureaucratic obstacles to get such a system in place.

Thus too in recent times: Ted Turner of CNN, Ruth Handler of Barbie-doll fame, Fred Smith of Federal Express, and Russell Simmons of hip-hop.

But, for the record, back to The Peabody, where memory does sometimes serve: Evans grabbing a pen and paper to rapidly sketch the rise and leveling-off (and future decline?) of America's genius for innovation. (The big question? The quality of education.) Evans recalling his affection for the father of the transcontinental railway: Theodore Judah. Evans proud to have (somewhat) mastered the programming language devised by Gary Kildall, father of PC software. Evans unimpressed by an uncooperative Bill Gates. Evans recalling Ted Turner's answer to his greatest failure: "My marriages!" Evans relieved to learn that Raymond Damadian, father of the MRI, objected to only a couple of minor technical errors in the book's profile. (Evans calling Damadian "relentless, egocentric, paranoid, abrasive, excitable and easily angered": no problem.) And Evans, in his mid-70s, eager to see advances in medical, not digital, technology.

This personal note now: Having interviewed Harold Evans in 1998 (by phone; on tape; no problem; thanks, Mssrs. Bell, Edison, and Vail!), I can tell you, sitting down with the man was a pleasure and a privilege. You heard it here.

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