America invented everything

By Conor Clarke

Two of Obama's claims from the SOTU:

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.  

After a period of prolonged study and meditation (ie, I consulted Wikipedia for 45 minutes after the speech), I have concluded that these claims are questionable at best and false at worst. Not quite sixteen words, we-invaded-Iraq-on-the-strength-of-this-information false. But probably false. Here is my evidence:

An English scientist by the name of Willoughby Smith first discovered that selenium was photoconductive, and a French scientist named Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect. That was the basis of "solar technology." That, and the English Chemist Edward Weston apparently holds the first American patent for a solar cell.

The history of automobiles is more complicated, but Wikipedia has the rundown here. In a nutshell: The British, French and Russians (!) had all developed some form of steam-powered automobile in the 18th century. (The British were apparently doing pretty well until something called the Locomotive Act of 1865 came along: It required that any motorized vehicle be preceded by a man waving a red flag. Talk about stifling innovation.)  Anyway, here's the kicker: "It is generally acknowledged the first automobiles with gasoline-powered internal combustion engines were completed almost simultaneously by several German inventors working independently." German inventors, it must be observed, are not American.

So who cares? 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. 


This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2009/02/america-invented-everything/976/