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 Rebels & Revolutionaries | Newcomers | Gamblers | Innovation 


  1. As the television program points out, the early American government was in no position to provide funding for steamboats, instead offering Fitch an exclusive charter for certain rivers. But the new United States had few alternative sources of investment for entrepreneurs, and this may have contributed to Fitch's failure (Fulton, by contrast, was good at securing benefactors). By Samuel Colt's time, the federal government was willing to invest in weapons innovations. But modern innovators like Turner and Simmons have once again turned to the private sector for their financing.

  2. Students should be encouraged to explore the ways in which a capitalist system can simultaneously promote both competition and innovation, even though these forces may sometimes be at odds with each other. For example, companies profiting from doing things "the old way" (like Motown records in the Simmons example) are unlikely to embrace unproven new strategies from an innovative competitor. And when dealing with new forms of transportation, like Fitch's steamboats, competition came from stagecoach owners whose businesses would have been displaced by the new technology.

    One key difference between the two men (and their time periods) can be found in the source of financing for their innovations. In Fitch's day, America had very few sources of private funding, while such opportunities are more plentiful now. Simmons also had the benefit of an established marketplace for music in general (even if not for hip-hop in particular) and record companies he could approach; no equivalent capitalist infrastructure was available for Fitch.


  1. Much of colonial land travel occurred along post roads created for delivering mail. The most extensive account of travel along one such road was written by Sarah Kemble Knight and is called Private Journal of a Journey from Boston to New York in the Year 1704. A general description of the discomforts of travel in colonial America, as well as the time it would take to travel between cities, can be found in a 1904 U.S. history text reprinted online. The University of Georgia provides an online list of helpful maps (focusing on the southern colonies), and The Library of Congress also has an extensive map collection, much of it viewable on-line.

  2. As the television program notes, there were only three steam engines in the United States, so someone like Fitch would have to rely on drawings because he might never see an actual engine. Blueprints remain important today, even though we now know what many inventions are "supposed" to look like. As an alternative exercise, you could have students try to put together a model airplane without the instruction book and see how much more difficult that is.


  1. Examples of anti-democratic innovations to discuss include whether A. P. Giannini's massive bank empire ironically drew power away from the "little guy" his banks had originally been designed to celebrate. Other "anti-democratic" possibilities are the impact that mass department stores like John Wanamaker's had on mom-and-pop retailers; the effect of Clarence Birdseye's frozen foods on rural communities that had been able to meet their own agriculture needs through farming and traditional food preservation methods; and the current battle over whether Microsoft is a monopoly that has violated anti-trust laws.

  2. Before completing their assignments, students may want to get an example of the style and substance of typical letters to the editor, either by reviewing the op-ed page in their local paper or by reading the current issue of a news weekly like Time or Newsweek. However, student letters should themselves be longer and more developed than the printed samples they read.


  1. Here are five possibilities: both came from outside the mainstream of the fields they tried to infiltrate -- and were looked down upon, as a result; both were principally innovators rather than inventors -- they took existing trends and worked with them; both had an idealistic goal that went beyond mere business success; both faced key moments of failure and were forced to adapt as a result; and both were masters of promotion and marketing.

  2. As a part of this exercise, it may be interesting for the class to consider whether they think certain innovations were "inevitable" given the nature of the problems they were trying to fix in the societies of the time (the steam engine, telephone, blood bank, fire safety hood, or modern bra are interesting examples to consider), or whether innovations might never have occurred, or been substantially delayed, without the particular contributions of an individual innovator. For example, Leonardo Da Vinci created drawings for a flying machine in the 15th century, but no one could realize that dream until the Wright brothers. Conversely, Alexander Graham Bell secured a patent for his revolutionary telephone only hours before a rival, Elisha Gray, with a very similar design. To help imagine the impact of not having a particular innovation, you might have students read Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair, which posits a modern-day England with time travel but no jet airplanes.

 Rebels & Revolutionaries | Newcomers | Gamblers | Innovation 
page created on 6.30.2004
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