Thursday, February 21, 2008

Top 10 All-American Inventions

The airplane

Numerous principles of flight are necessary to get a plane off the ground. By the beginning of the 20th century, different people had added various components, but the goal of sustained flight eluded all of them -- except the Wright brothers. While not the first to achieve flight, the Wright brothers applied aerodynamic principles they had researched and developed out of thin air to fly the first fully controlled, heavier-than-air, manned, powered, fixed-wing machine.

Their primary and most important contribution can be considered the last one: The creation of a fixed-wing aircraft, where the wings don’t move in order to generate the necessary lift. This was the missing component for flight, and is the essential principle behind every glider, prop plane, jet airplane, and rocket you see in the sky.

The brothers best embodied the American spirit in 1905, after the success at Kitty Hawk. Despite neither being wealthy nor enjoying government funding, the Wright brothers quit the bicycle business and risked all they had to “make it” in a field that didn’t even exist. Perhaps the most thrilling event came during the Hudson-Fulton celebration in New York City in 1910. As over one million New Yorkers looked on in awe, Wilbur Wright flew up and down the Hudson before executing a dramatic circle of the Statue of Liberty.

The steamboat

The steamboat was powered by an external combustion steam engine in the form of a boiler that burned wood or coal. Engineer Robert Fulton probably gets too much credit for the steamboat, but he made a variety of improvements and launched a successful prototype in 1803. Four years later, he built the world’s first commercial steamboat.

Its appearance on America’s inland waterways is serendipitous to the growth of America; a year later, President Jefferson completed the Louisiana Purchase. Although these boats had more than a few major malfunctions -- including catastrophic exploding boilers --in their time they made an incalculable contribution to America’s great westward expansion.

Last but not least, before getting into the amusement business, no less an American icon than Mickey Mouse earned his chops as a steamboat pilot in Steamboat Willie.


Born of West African spirituals, rooted in blues and 19th-century slave songs, and driven by improvisation and polyrhythms, jazz is a uniquely American Musical style. Born in New Orleans at the turn of the century, by the 1920s, jazz bands were regulars at speakeasies. Thanks to the development of both the phonograph and the radio, jazz was able to reach a wider audience and created more than a few household names, including Waller, Goodman, Armstrong, Basie, Fiztgerald, Holiday, Ellington, and Miller.

Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis sees jazz as a product of the black experience, invented not despite the absence of civil rights, but as a response to it. Calling jazz an art form “based on freedom,” he wrote that black Americans “… have been more concerned with freedom and the quality it can provide than any other group in this country…”

Jazz has remained true to those roots. Its vast flexibility as a musical form has allowed it to evolve seamlessly through swing, bebop, free-form, fusion, and more.

The presidency

While some U.S. presidents make their citizens prouder than others, all Americans can be proud of the presidency. It symbolizes countless American institutions and ideals, including representation, constitutional rights, checks and balances, and even freedom itself.

Against centuries of monarchs and autocrats, the Founding Fathers virtually invented the role of the president in 1787. A position designed for a private citizen to become an elected official and head of state of a constitutional republic, backed by neither the Right of Kings nor military might, but the will of the people and the strength of the Constitution.

In drafting the president’s role, the Constitutional Convention was especially wary of any form of government that could create an autocrat. Thus, although the office represents the executive branch of government, its power is limited by the legislative and judicial branches by a brilliant series of checks and balances.

In fact, Benjamin Franklin was so amazed by the workings of the new American government that he was known to remark, “... to find this system [of government] approaching so near to perfection as it does...”

Blue jeans

Ever since German-born Levi Strauss reinforced the denim pants he sold to gold rush minors with copper rivets, blue jeans have embodied the rugged freedom and independence of the American frontier.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, jeans were little more than a durable pair of work pants. In the economic boom following World War II, teenagers began flexing some economic muscle with jobs and disposable incomes. Youth culture entered the mainstream with a fury, and for a calling card they stole blue jeans out from under the working man. Despite the next half-century’s worth of turbulence, jeans have never gone out of style. Instead, they’ve been adopted by every age group, and in the words of a writer for American Fabrics magazine, “Denim is one of the oldest fabrics, yet it remains eternally young.”

Today, blue jeans are arguably the most popular or ubiquitous item of clothing in the world, and may be America’s most easily recognizable export.

The Corvette

The sports carbrings to mind many things, such as speed, freedom, sex, and the open road. And since the first Corvette rolled out of the Chevrolet factory in 1953, it has been all of those things and more to generations of Americans. It’s the great American sports car for everyone, from teenage boys dreaming about one day owning one to middle-aged men who make their teenage dreams come true and finally have the privilege of storing one in their garage.

The Corvette is the first sports car built by an American car manufacturer. After six generations, it’s been made into coupes, hatchbacks, and convertibles, and branded as roadsters, Grand Sports, Sting Rays, Z06s, and more.

The Corvette found a place in pop music when Prince released “Little Red Corvette” in 1983, and in 2001 Chevrolet responded, sort of. Specifically, they featured a red 1963 Corvette Sting Ray on a number of billboards with the caption, “They don’t write songs about Volvos.”

Bourbon whiskey

When 18th-century Kentucky farmers in the county of Bourbon turned leftover corn crops into mash, they distilled the world’s first corn-based whiskey. Legend says the county -- and by default -- the whiskey, were named after the French House of Bourbon, for the aid provided to America in the War of Independence against Britain.

According to U.S. law, bourbon such as Jim Beam or Wild Turkey must be aged in new barrels that are first charred by fire, an essential process that gives bourbon its smooth flavor. Tennessee whiskey, such as Jack Daniels, is a type of bourbon with an added step: It’s filtered through sugar maple charcoal, which contributes to an even smoother flavor.

Bourbon’s place in Americana was formalized in 1964, when Congress designated it “America’s Native Spirit,” and named it the official distilled spirit of the country.

Colt .45

The preferred firearm for iconic figures like Theodore Roosevelt and General Patton, the Colt .45 enjoys a celebrated spot in America’s long love affair with guns. Often imitated by other manufacturers, this single-action revolver is the trusted quick draw pistol for literally hundreds of characters in Westerns, including Will Kane (Gary Cooper) in High Noon.

The .45-caliber Colt Single Action Army (SAA) was originally designed by Colt’s Manufacturing Company in 1873 for the U.S. cavalry. It is still manufactured today, although neither marketed nor sold under the gun’s ironic alias: The Peacemaker.

In 1914, the U.S. government created the Division of Civilian Marksmanship, whose purpose was to distribute surplus military weapons to its law-abiding citizens. During this time, the Colt .45 was the chosen firearm.

The Western

Along with jazz, the Western is an art form Americans can truly call their own. Although found in television, paintings, sculpture, literature, radio and more, the Western’s most profound vehicle has been film.

Owning to the vast adaptability of its essential plot, the Western is constantly being reinterpreted. Filmmakers have explored it through virtually every other major genre, from adventure and drama to comedy, sci-fi, musicals, and more. As a result, the Western often acts as a mirror on culture, portraying distinctly American values -- sometimes with flattery, other times with irony or cynicism.


The so-called national pastime speaks to the American character because it blends skill, timing, athleticism, and strategy into a team sport that also relies heavily on individual performance. Individuality also finds expression in Baseball parks as no two are the same; each is unique in dimension, ambiance and character -- a trait by which fans inevitably develop pride-of-place.

So many sayings in the vernacular find roots in baseball, including “ballpark figure,” “cover your bases,” “thrown a curveball,” “getting to first base,” “right off the bat,” and more. As a professional export it has found homes in Japan, Cuba, Puerto Rico, South Korea, Taiwan, and parts of Central and South America. Meanwhile, Little League baseball is played on six continents by millions of kids.

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