A new college textbook, Inventing America: A History of the United States (W.W. Norton & Co.), is a look at American history through the eyes of innovation. It has created quite a buzz on college campuses and has even made a blip on the mainstream radar, garnering reviews in various media. "Our nation was founded as a nation of innovation," says Daniel Kevles, one of the authors and a Yale University history professor. "The spirit of entrepreneurship is wholly in line with our cultural, political and social commitment to innovation."
Besides historical innovators like Thomas Edison and Eli Whitney, Kevles notes the significance of modern-day entrepreneurs. "Innovation, in the economic sense, has involved partly technological innovation and partly innovation to meet needs others had not recognized, but that were real in society"-namely, changing policies, programs and institutions. In fact, Kevles says some of America's most lasting innovations have been in ideas or methods of doing business, from the first concept of limited liability companies to the original capital markets, predecessors to today's venture capital."
"Another source of entrepreneurial strength in the U.S. has been the willingness of our people to assimilate new groups into the entrepreneurial dynamic," Kevles adds. "For example, minority groups have tended to provide the entrepreneurial energy in areas that are somewhat on the margins of social acceptability." The contraceptive industry, for example, was one area where minority entrepreneurs led the curve.
As far as fostering innovation, Kevles believes the government has done its job. He cites the biotech and PC industries as examples of industries where federal investment has paid off. Says Kevles, "We have a huge commitment at the federal level to investment in new knowledge, and that process continues."