Savage Fury

by on January 22, 2008 · 2 comments

I’m reading Telephone: The First Hundred Years, written in 1975, and I found this passage striking:

The century of invention was at zenith. Robert Fulton’s first commercially successful steamboat dated from 1807, Mcihael Farady’s dynamo from 1831, Samuel F. B. Morse’s telegraph from 1835, the steam-driven electric generator from 1858; in 1875 Thomas A. Edison’s phonograph was three years ahead, his incandescent lamp four years, the skyscraper about a decade, the automobile and the airplane a generation or less. Behind them all was a persuasive idea; as Alfred North Whitehead would write, “The greatest invention of the nineteenth century was the method of invention.” Moreover, the economic rewards of invention under the U.S. patent system were great and well advertised; Bell and others like him knew well enough that the inventor and original backer of the telegraph had become millionaires, and his passion for secrecy about his experiments, along wit his early and intimate association with the Patent Office through Hubbard, suggest how well he realized he might be onto something commercially big. And he was urged on by both his philosophical background and the current social climate in America. The Scottish Calvinism of the nineteenth century made a primary virtue of material success achieved through hard work, and as an example Bell had his countryman Andrew Carnegie, twelve years his senior, who had come to the United States from Scotland in 1848 and by 1875 was already a millionaire in the process of consolidating the largest steel company in the world. As to the social climate, 1875 was the heyday in America of laissez-faire venture capitalism, when men had a kind of savage fury for fame and fortune that the more jaded twentieth century can scarcely conceive of.

I think that last sentence is fascinating, not so much for what it says about the 19th century as for what it says about the late 20th century. I find it hard to imagine someone writing that sentence today. We certainly don’t consider the pursuit of fame and fortune through invention passé these days.

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