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The First American Industrial Revolution

by Charles R. Morris

Pub Date: Oct. 23rd, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-58648-828-4
Publisher: PublicAffairs

In this historical overview, Morris (The Sages: Warren Buffett, George Soros, Paul Volcker, and the Maelstrom of Markets, 2009, etc.) asserts that American industry in its early days was far more concerned with growth and large-scale mass production than was Great Britain.

“By comparison with eighteenth-century Britons, Americans were strivers on steroids,” he writes. To illustrate this point, the author looks at several pioneering British and American inventors and engineers and describes key innovations in a wide range of early American industries, from clock making to furniture making. In one long chapter, Morris examines the manufacturing of guns, a topic to which he returns in another chapter. The author also briefly looks at a few major post–Civil War industrial figures, including Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, both of whom he wrote about at length in The Tycoons (2005). In a closing chapter that feels a bit tacked-on, Morris discusses how the past America-Great Britain rivalry resembles and differs from the current economic relationship between the U.S. and China. The author is at his best when he focuses on the people behind the technology—e.g., Eli Whitney, who became a “talented artisan and entrepreneur,” but was, in his early career, “something of a flimflam man.” While Morris’ research is thorough, his prose is often long-winded. His account of naval warfare during the War of 1812, for example, hardly seems worthy of a 36-page blow-by-blow chronicle featuring multiple tables and illustrations. Other sections get bogged down in engineering minutiae; many of the highly detailed diagrams will be of interest to engineers, perhaps, but not to casual readers. 

An ambitious but overlong historical study.