First Things

Good old American ingenuity

Leslie C. McDaniel

Leslie C. McDaniel

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As the calendar digits rolled over this winter, we spent a lot of time looking back. Newspapers, magazines, TV – all have been in unusually retrospective moods of late. As I read about those who have brought us to where we are, I wonder about those who'll carry us the next lap. And then I worry.

TIME Magazine's man of the year has figured out how to sell widgets online. The hottest new companies all have ".com" as part of their names. Fresh out of college, our best and brightest work 14-hour days-at the computer.

This technology fixation is all very well and good. But I wonder about the man or woman who can conceptualize, create, craft. Take Benjamin Franklin. He invented the bifocal lens, the Franklin stove, the lightning rod; he devised the theory of positive and negative charges; negotiated treaties; and helped craft constitutional law. Franklin had a stunning intellect, to be sure; but also the ability to put that intellect through its paces in a variety of ways.

Today's movers and shakers are measured by their ability to multi-task, to delegate, to network. It's all very efficient, and vastly more productive than one person working alone. But one wonders how many Franklin-like inventions, discoveries or philosophical theories sprout from all that efficiency.

This issue of Farm Collector includes an article on the Esterly reaper, the product of a long forgotten company. The founder, George Esterly, was nothing if not an enterprising sort, as this excerpt from his autobiography – circa 1837 – shows:

" ... I returned to Heart Prairie and bought a claim ... hired a company of breakers to break 10 acres for us. It was commenced on Monday morning with five plows and finished the same day. Mr. Davis sowed the wheat in front of the plows. When he began sowing, I took a pocket compass and some four or five newcomers and blazed or marked a road through the openings from Heart Prairie to Richmond, a distance of some seven miles ... We reached Detroit Thursday – had done what? I had walked 60 miles; laid out seven miles of road, mostly through the woods where I had never been before; had sowed and planted 10 acres of prairie; had traveled some 600 or 700 miles by water; stopped on the way, collected at Mackinaw what under ordinary circumstances was a bad debt-all in four days."

Esterly went on to invent a slew of farm machinery. You'll read about him, and other "bootstraps" kinds of people in this issue. And mankind? Safe for another day. American ingenuity's not gone; it's just changing to face new challenges. FC