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'Dawn' wanders through century of innovation

| Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012, 3:46 p.m.
In 'The Dawn of Innovation,' author Charles Morris explores how the United States of America, a fledgling nation during the 19th century, managed to thrive against colossal odds.

The United States of America, a fledgling nation during the 19th century, managed to thrive against colossal odds, even surpassing Great Britain as the world's hyperpower.

Charles R. Morris -- lawyer, former banker and prolific popular historian -- has wondered how the metamorphosis occurred. So he decided to write a book on the subject.

To some extent, The Dawn of Innovation is a piece of Morris' opus. For example, it grows organically from his previous book, The Tycoons: How Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould and J.P. Morgan Invented the American Supereconomy.

On the other hand, the new book seems far afield from his profile of AARP, subtitled America's Most Powerful Lobby and the Clash of Generations, as well as his American Catholic: The Saints and Sinners Who Built America's Most Powerful Church.

Morris obviously possesses an inquiring mind, and that mind wanders in unpredictable directions.

The Dawn of Innovation shows Morris' mind wandering within one book. The chapters do not always connect fluidly, but close enough. As Morris wanders through the 19th century, his mind is on the 21st century as well.

The wandering accounts for the final chapter, which speculates whether China will replace the United States as a hyperpower, much as the U.S. replaced Great Britain.

Here is how The Dawn of Innovation proceeds, sort of -- "sort of" because Morris includes some wonderful digressions. To begin, Morris harks back to the War of 1812, when the British invaded its former colony.

Part of that war consisted of a naval arms race on, of all places, Lake Ontario. The perceived need for warships to fight the iconic British navy helped jump-start American industrialization. Necessity as the mother of invention, so to speak.

To demonstrate the growth of regional economies within the sometimes dis-United States of America, Morris focuses on the Northeast as a hotbed of industrialization. Makers of clocks and cast-iron stoves, for example, thrived because of their mechanical genius and operating efficiency.

But American gun manufacturers were the most revolutionary of all, with their precision machines and marketing prowess.

As the U.S. expanded beyond the Appalachians, the steamboat played a unique role. And soon after, the transcontinental railroads brought more into reach. Morris explicates both transportation developments skillfully. Improved transportation led to more innovation.

Morris notes that the West's "great grain, lumber, and meat animal enterprises were centralizing in Cincinnati, as a tight-knit riverine economy took shape within the Ohio, Missouri, and Mississippi valleys.

Cincinnati invented the meatpacking 'disassembly' line later made famous by Chicago, and Cincinnati brothers-in-law Procter and Gamble were innovators in America's first chemical industry."

The Civil War, despite its obvious downsides, hastened American hegemony, as Great Britain declined. The war diminished the power of the slave-based Southern economy. Slowly, former slaves became a vital part of economic growth within the South as well as throughout the sprawling continent.

Will Morris turn to China as a hyperpower for his next book? Time will tell.

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