Book Review: They Made America – Harold Evans

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It is hard to tell anyone working in innovation that the products or services they are developing today will fail. The future is uncertain, but on balance we believe it will be good. The past, though, is a different story, and ‘They Made America’ tells the remarkable tale of INNOVATION in the land of opportunity.

I use capitals for good reason. All too often, we mistake invention for innovation. It is one thing to be a creative genius, it is entirely another to build a multinational company as a result.

History is compelling. Someone had to invent the first automated plant (Oliver Evans in the late 1770s). Someone had the guts to aim for a 50X productivity improvement in cotton production (Eli Whitney’s cotton gin). Mass marketing barely existed until a desperate Samuel Colt tried to push his now-famous revolver (he invented celebrity endorsements too).

I found this book an amazing validation for the new work that has been conducted by firms such as Imaginatik to expand our definition of innovation. Today’s over-focus on R&D and cost reduction has blinded companies to the fact that the greatest achievements have come outside of known core business activities. Edison may be the father of electricity, but his protégé Samuel Insull made it cheaper and invented new business models (a chance glance at a shop window sparked the tiered pricing model based on time-of-day).

I cannot say enough good things about this book. My only complaint is that the book is physically too large for me to carry with me on my trips. It is a coffee table book of the finest order – I just wish I could read it on the plane!


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