July Fourth Is Time To Hail America's Tech Heroes - InformationWeek

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7/4/2007
10:14 AM
Alexander Wolfe
Alexander Wolfe
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July Fourth Is Time To Hail America's Tech Heroes

Independence Day typically revolves around fireworks, beaches, and picnics, with a little patriotism thrown in for good measure. It strikes me that nothing affirms the truth about the freedoms we enjoy more than the realization that the vast majority of technological innovations we enjoy--from radio and television to computers and the Internet--came to us by way of talented Americans, people who weren't always recognized in their own time for the heroes they were. So let's honor them this July F

Independence Day typically revolves around fireworks, beaches, and picnics, with a little patriotism thrown in for good measure. It strikes me that nothing affirms the truth about the freedoms we enjoy more than the realization that the vast majority of technological innovations we enjoy--from radio and television to computers and the Internet--came to us by way of talented Americans, people who weren't always recognized in their own time for the heroes they were. So let's honor them this July Fourth.The notion that technological innovation is a basic American virtue isn't meant to be xenophobic, nor to take anything away from the many fine inventors born in other lands. True, Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi laid the foundations of radio, with his spark-gap continuous-wave transmissions. (Did you know, though, that Marconi built a station in Massachusetts, from which he achieved the first trans-Atlantic radio transmission, to England?)

And the Scottish physicist Robert Watson-Watt invented radar, just in time to save England from the Germans during the Battle of Britain.

Certainly English-born Alan Turing is justly honored as one of the fathers of the computer. (Turing completed his doctoral dissertation at Princeton.) But now we start to tilt toward the domestic tech heroes. Another computer pioneer, John von Neumann, was born in Hungary, but did his key work in the United States.

Mostly, when I think of American tech heroes, I think of the lesser-known inventors. In much the same way that veteran ballplayers can't understand why the youngsters don't know the names of the people who did the heavy lifting--like Curt Flood, who broke baseball's reserve clause--I'm amazed at people who think U.S. tech begins and ends with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

Here then is my list of America's July Fourth tech best:

Edwin Howard Armstrong:

A true genius who bridges the divide between the attic tinkerer and the academically trained modern engineer, Armstrong made radio practical by inventing the superheterodyne receiver. Then he made it musical by inventing FM.

Unfortunately, Armstrong is equally remembered for his sad backstory. He got screwed out of most of his royalties and, in his lifetime, the credit for his inventions by RCA impresario David Sarnoff, and he committed suicide by walking out of a hotel-room window.

Philo Farnsworth:

Utah farm boy who conceived the idea of electronic television as a teenager, became rich in the Roaring '20s, but then faded into the background when his ideas were eclipsed--and possibly purloined--by RCA's Vladimir Zworykin. Farnsworth, a true visionary and genius, never did anything that mattered after the age of 30, though not for want of trying.

To read the whole, achingly sad yet totally compelling story (when have you ever heard technology history characterized thusly?) you owe it to yourself to read David E. Fisher's Tube: The Invention Of Television (Harcourt Brace, 1996). (It looks to be out of print; here's another site with information.)

Peter Goldmark:

OK, so here's another Hungarian-born inventor, but he came to the United States in 1936 and became a citizen. Goldmark is important because he developed a product that seems obvious to us today--the 33-1/3-rpm long-playing record.

Couldn't anybody come up with the LP, which was introduced in 1948? Well, no. Not if you understand the practical limitations that had made it difficult to place large amounts of audio on anything but specially handled disks.

So, no Goldmark, no Sgt. Pepper's, no CD, no rap music. (Oh well, the progression falls down at the end.)

OK, that's enough of my great tech Americans for July Fourth. I'll save my next group for next year. I hate to ask, but in the spirit of conversational blogging, I'll give it a shot: Who do you think are the great American inventors? Happy Independence Day!

Update, July 5: As one of the commenters below noted, it was a serious omission on my part to leave out the inventors of the transistor. William Shockley (born in England but raised in California), John Bardeen, and Walter Brattain invented the transistor in 1947.

The integrated circuit is also an all-American effort, invented almost simultaneously by Texas Instruments' Jack Kilby and Fairchild's (later Intel's) Robert Noyce.

I was tired when I wrote the original post, plus, I confess to a certain fondness for the pioneers of radio and TV.

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