America invented everything?

My friend Maria, who grew up and lived in Eastern-Block Communist countries for the first 20+ years of her life, will tell you that one of the things propagandists were most adept in the olden days was to try to make you believe they invented every darn thing.

Back in 2006 a museum exhibition in Manchester, England was touted in an article on the “top 20 Muslim inventions”, which I briefly debunked in two posts.

So I find it bothersome when politicians resort to exaggerated claims on inventions. Why do they do it? Clearly the US is a technologically advanced country with no need for exaggeration. Yet in his speech last night, President Obama claimed

We invented solar technology, but we’ve fallen behind countries like Germany and Japan in producing it.

and

I believe the nation that invented the automobile cannot walk away from it.

As it turns out, the start of solar techonology was developed mostly by English and French individuals, and automobiles’ internal combustion engines were developed by several German individuals. It’s not a country who invents anything; it’s the individuals who do the work.

Marc Ambinder is bothered, too, by these claims:

Well, I’m a little bit irked by Obama’s claim for two reasons. First, it’s gratuitous, unappealing boosterism. Yes, America is great and its people are highly inventive. God bless America! But it just happens to be true that, in the case of solar technology and the automobile, the Europeans got there first. Claiming otherwise is both desperate and unnecessary, like copying homework in kindergarten. We should learn to settle for the atom bomb.

Second, as an argument for why we should we should continue to support certain technologies, Obama’s point is laughable. The value of technical innovation isn’t nationally contingent. In fact, one of the best things about technical innovation is that it’s so easy to steal: a great invention in Luxembourg is still a great invention in Cleveland. We should be investing in the technologies that are most useful or with which we have the most comparative advantage, not the ones that happen to come out Cleveland. Even if Cleveland is a great city with highly inventive people.

So please, speechwriters, check your facts, and when you need to bring forth an argument, skip the boosterism.

UPDATE
Jules Crittenden has more.

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10 Responses to “America invented everything?”

  1. expat Says:

    But Fausta, you must admit that Al Gore invented the internet. What is it with dems when they get in the vicinity of the White House?

    I hope BO visits Stuttgart on his next European trip. The works at Daimler Benz will love his humility.

  2. E.M.H. Says:

    Not to dispute your point about needless boosterism, which I completely agree with… and also not to try to defend someone I didn’t vote for. But, to clarify the historical point: French researchers Antoine and Edmund Becquerel (father and son) may have indeed observed the photovoltaic effect in their experiments, but it was Charles Fitz – an American – who put together the first solar cell, and another set of Americans – their names escape me right at the moment – who put them together in the first solar panel. So the Becquerels discovered the principle, but it was some Americans who actually engineered something practical out of it.

    My point here is that you can make a legitimate argument either way, but if you’re talking the actual product – the photovoltaic “cell” or “panel”, then it is indeed a US work. A couple of Frenchmen may have “initiated” the invention by discovering the concept but again, it was an American who built the first true component using this effect, and a group of Americans who built the first real solar “panel”.

    Anyway, I just wanted to point that out to make the historical record clear. Here ends my indulgence in didacticism.

  3. E.M.H. Says:

    Oh, and as far as I know, you’re absolutely correct on the point about the auto. Henry Ford was the first to apply mass production principles to its manufacture, but if I remember correctly, the actual “invention” was a convergence of several different people’s inventions in Germany.

    If I want to get super pedantic about the first “auto” mobile, then it was actually a Frenchman who came up with that. But his was steam powered. Anyway, I’d better stop here; I’m breaking my promise above to end my didacticism. <:-|

  4. Fausta Says:

    I appreciate it, EMH, and stand corrected. One of the patent holders for one of the solar technologies lives down my street. He has a nice solar house.
    The point, however, is that
    a. it’s not “we” who invent anything. It’s individuals.
    and b. as Armbinder points out, the value of technical innovation isn’t nationally contingent.

  5. E.M.H. Says:

    Oh, that’s cool! He must have nice electric bills. The flip side of that is, he must go through hell when it’s time to clean leaves and branches off the roof. :)

    Anyway, yes, I do agree with your overall point about individuals vs. nationalization of an invention. I simply failed to mention that. None of those cases were government driven, that’s true and I don’t see how anyone could disagree. And yes, the value is indeed inherent to the technology, not its country of origin. I do agree fully with all of that.

  6. Pat Patterson Says:

    I loved the suggestion that Pres Obama made by saying, “…I believe the nation that invented the automobile cannot walk away from it.” Something is very odd when part of the stimulus is going to mass transportation and gambler’s trains which seems that the government is precisely saying to walk away from the automobile. Maybe the solution is simply to hire all the auto and auto parts workers to not make cars thus stimulating the economy, securing votes and getting rid of that nasty old smog.

  7. Pat Patterson Says:

    Forgot to mention that Germany is falling behind on solar cell technology because it placed its future on the wrong technology. The bulk of the new panels are thin film of which the US and China seem to be dominant. Another caveat is that as the last of Germany’s nuclear power plants is closed by 2017 they will have an almost unbelievable gap in the amount of electricity needed and available. So guess what is coming back on the drawing board? Coal fired power plants. “Back into the future Marty!”

  8. expat Says:

    Pat,

    Last year our ridiculous city council (Green and Social Dems) passed a law that property owners must install solar panels when they have any significant roof work done. It is in the courts now. Our roof is OK, but it’s not comforting to think that a group of idiots can make you invest in crappy technology in an area with little sun so that you’ll never recoup your investment. I suspect that students who rent probably tipped the election for the idiots.

    Germans are simply inundated with greenie propaganda put out by folks who like to remember their heroic youth as protestors.

  9. And the Prize for Inventiveness Goes To: Says:

    […] Obama for his pseudo-State of the Union address. The Won claimed, as noted in Fausta’s Blog (which is always worth a read or twelve) a couple of things namely that: We invented solar […]

  10. Pat Patterson Says:

    Is that similar to what happened in England recently when there was absolutely no electricity from wind power for 3 hours? People blamed Parliament for not being in session but the boffins at Greenwich reported that this event is fairly normal in that early winter storms hesitate off of Scotland in the North Sea for hours and days to gather energy which creates stagnant lows all over Eire and the UK.