Author Interviews
5:36 am
Sat October 12, 2013

From Divided States, A 'United' Nation — Thanks To These Men

Originally published on Sat October 12, 2013 8:27 am

The United States is not just a phrase. The country stretches across six time zones, from the Atlantic well into the Pacific. The British settled some regions; the Dutch, Spanish and French settled some others. And we once fought a bloody Civil War, North against South, over the issue of slavery.

And yet for more than a century, most regional rivalries in the United States have been over football games or who makes the best pizza. Americans can be born in New Jersey, move to California, then wind up in Florida or the other way around — all the while retaining regional accents and tastes, but still living in one nation.

British author Simon Winchester explores how this national unity came about in his new book, The Men Who United The States: America's Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics, and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible. In it, he depicts some of the men, the inventions and the enterprises — from the transcontinental railroad to Morse code, from the Erie Canal to the Internet — that helped make the United States whole.

Winchester talks to NPR's Scott Simon about the uniting influence of canals, roads and (our favorite) radio.


Interview Highlights

On how his perspective as an Englishman allows him to appreciate the United States' unity

I think our experience in Europe shows how very difficult it is for a polyglot peoples to be welded into one. ... It is, to me, quite remarkable that a nation full of as many peoples and ethnic varieties and languages and religious affiliations can nonetheless call itself united.

On the Chicago Sanitary District Canal, a unifying solution to a very messy problem

Chicago is beguilingly close to the Mississippi River, so why not link the two? And there was an additional problem ... all Chicago's sewage — and I don't want to put people off their breakfasts here — but all the sewage would sweep through central Chicago out into the lake. And of course, on a hot day, the effluent, it was a ghastly smell. And so there were numerous pleas from the citizens of Chicago, saying, "Let's get the sewage out and send it to the West and to where people don't care about it."

So, they did build first of all the Illinois and Michigan Canal ... and then finally they took it upon themselves — this engineer called Isham Randolph — to build an almighty canal to serve the dual purpose of sending the sewage out to the West, but also to allow ocean-going ships.

On the "wire rope express," a name for the early telegraph

That was the name given by Native Americans to this peculiar phenomenon of a copper or metal wire suspended between poles. ... Samuel Morse's telegraph that allowed the transmission of information from one corner of America to the other in seconds changed everything. And, of course, it led the way to the telephone and radio and television and, of course, to the Internet. So Samuel Morse: hugely important figure.

On two American presidents and one massive road system

This remarkable, curmudgeonly man Thomas MacDonald — who was the chief of the Bureau of Roads — was called into the Oval Office by FDR, who unrolled an enormous map and drew, with a chinagraph pencil, three lines east and west, five lines north and south and said to MacDonald, "Build me a road system along those lines."

But it was actually Eisenhower who, long before that, had the first idea of the system, and that was in 1919. Just after the first world war, the American National War College was somewhat afraid that ... the United States might be attacked by an "Asiatic enemy," and by that presumably they meant the Japanese. How do we get troops as rapidly as possible across the country by such roads or railways as exist?

So they assembled a convoy 3 miles long, and they trundled off westward as fast as they could. But of course west of Omaha there were no roads and bridges kept breaking, and it was a complete disaster. It took 58 days for them to reach San Francisco at an average speed of 5 1/2 miles an hour. Clearly, if there had been an invasion, it would have succeeded by then. And the conclusion that Eisenhower came to at the end was that America really needs a high-speed road system. To be united this country needs miles and miles of concrete.

On radio's role in bringing the country together

Hugely important role. First of all it was Morse, then it was voice transmissions. The first radio station was above a record store, which still exists in Pasadena in Southern California. People loved it. The first proper radio station was in Madison, Wis., and then the rest is history. The national conversation really got going.

On the regional differences that never really go away

I've been somewhat involved in this remarkable dictionary produced in Madison, Wis.: The Dictionary of American Regional English, which shows very firmly how the language is very different all over the country.

And the food is different. The different types of pie in America are — it's quite extraordinary. So it might look as if — because there's a Walgreen's and a McDonald's at every interstate highway system interchange in the country — it seems the country is all the same, but you get off the interstate and it isn't. It's very, very different, so regionalism survives in a big way in this country.

On government — big, small and shutdown

There's an irony I want to mention ... I write about the bringing of electricity to rural America and the role that the government played in the 1930s with the Rural Electrification Administration and very moving stories of farmers who never had electricity finally getting it. The first place in America to get electricity courtesy of FDR was out in the sticks, in Western Ohio — the 8th Congressional District, which is the district today represented by John Boehner. John Boehner — I don't want to get into a political fight here — is an archetype of "against big government," and yet the district he represents benefited hugely from big and wise government in the 1930s.

So today, it's monstrous to me that the national parks are closed [because of the shutdown]. The national park: another great unifying feature of this country. Hayden, [the] geologist who discovered effectively Yellowstone, [and] Powell, who effectively discovered the Grand Canyon: They would be spinning in their graves if they thought that America was being deprived access to these parks because of a somewhat trivial, political row in Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The United States is not just a phrase. The country stretches across six time zones, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the mountains to the prairies to the oceans white with foam, or whatever. The British settled some parts, the Dutch, Spanish and French some others, but although we once fought a bloody Civil War, north against south over the issue of slavery, for more than a century most regional rivalries in the United States have been over football games or who makes the best pizza.

Americans can be born in New Jersey but moved to California, that wind up in Florida, or the other way around, retaining regional accents and tastes, but living in one nation. In a new book, Simon Winchester depicts some of the men and the inventions, treks and enterprises, from the Transcontinental Railroad to Morse Code, the Erie Canal to the Internet that helped make the United States whole.

His new book, "The Men Who United the States: America's Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible." Simon Winchester joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

SIMON WINCHESTER: Thank you very much, Scott.

SIMON: Does it take someone who was born an Englishman to recognize how unusual it is for a country this big to be tied together?

WINCHESTER: Well, I think our experience in Europe shows how very difficult it is for a polyglot peoples to be welded into one. So, it is to me quite remarkable that a nation full of as many peoples and ethnic varieties and languages and religious affiliations can nonetheless call itself united.

SIMON: Let me ask you about some of the - sometimes I mean less well-known chapters. I have a fondness for the Chicago Sanitary District Canal. Tell us about that, if we could, and this is an important part of what made America.

WINCHESTER: It is an important part. All Chicago's sewage - and I don't want to put people off their breakfasts here - but all the sewage would sweep through central Chicago out into the lake, and of course on a hot day, the effluent, it was a ghastly smell. And so there were numerous pleas from the citizens of Chicago, said lets get the sewage out and send it to the west and to where people don't care about it.

And so they did build, first of all, the Illinois and Michigan canal and then finally they took it upon themselves, this engineer called Isham Randolph, to build an almighty canal to serve the dual purpose of sending the sewage out to the west, but also to allow ocean-going ships. And for a substantial period of time, ships would be able to come from Duluth through Lake Superior down Lake Michigan and then turn right, go through Chicago and ultimately join the Mississippi River and go down to the Gulf.

SIMON: I love the chapter too about the what was called by a few people the Wire Rope Express.

WINCHESTER: Yes, that was the name given by Native Americans to the peculiar phenomenon of a copper or metal wire suspended between poles. Well, that really was Samuel Morse's telegraph that allowed the transmission of information from one corner of America to the other in seconds. Changed everything, and of course it led the way to the telephone and the radio and television, and of course to the Internet.

SIMON: And the highways. I want to ask you about, I guess it was called the Great Diagonal Way. A lot of people over the years have credited President Eisenhower. No doubt he played a role, but you say, in fact, it was Franklin Delano Roosevelt who drew lines across a map.

WINCHESTER: It is true that this remarkable, curmudgeonly man, Thomas McDonald, who was the chief of the bureau of roads was called into the Oval Office by FDR who unrolled an enormous map and drew with a China graph pencil, three lines east and west, five lines north and south, and said to McDonald, build me a road system along those lines.

But it was actually Eisenhower who, long before that, had the first idea of the system, and that was in 1919. Just after the First World War, the American National War College was somewhat afraid that they might be - the United States - might be attacked by a, quote, "Asiatic enemy." And by that they presumed they meant the Japanese.

How do we get troops as rapidly as possible across the country by such roads or railways as exist? So they assembled a convoy three miles long and they trundled off westward as fast as they could. It took 58 days for them to reach San Francisco at an average speed of five and a half miles an hour. Clearly if there had been an invasion, it would have succeeded by then.

And the conclusion that Eisenhower came up with at the end was America really needs a high-speed road system. To be united, this country needs miles and miles of concrete.

SIMON: And I'm pleased to say the medium in which we're conversing has a role too, doesn't it?

WINCHESTER: Hugely important role. First of all, it was Morse, then it was voice transmissions. The first radio station was above a record store, which still exists in Pasadena in Southern California. People loved it. The first proper radio station was in Madison, Wisconsin, and then the rest is history. The national conversation really got going. And the image in the 1930s, if you like, of a family grouped around the radio listening to radio dramas - of course, Orson Welles, and that famous, or infamous landing from Mars was one of the more frightening aspects of it - but it really was a unifying phenomenon. I mean, when I first hitchhiked across this country in 1962, I met Johnny Carson. It was one of the things that I'll never forget, of course. And it was only recently that it occurred to me that Johnny Carson is the kind of figure who, in his own way, his entertaining way, brought America together late at night.

SIMON: Yeah. A lot of what you've described in this book is private enterprise that was at least made possible by inducements from the government or sometimes outright government programs. Do you have any reflection on the shutdown?

WINCHESTER: Well, just before I reflect on the shutdown, there's an irony, I think, I want to mention which is that the first place in America to get electricity, courtesy of FDR out in the sticks, was in Western Ohio - the 8th Congressional District, which is the district today represented by John Boehner. So, I mean, John Boehner - I don't want to get into a political fight here - is an archetype of against big government, and yet the district he represents benefited hugely from big and wise government in the 1930s. So today, I mean, it's monstrous to me that the national parks are closed. The national park, another great unifying feature of this country. Hayden, geologist who discovered effectively Yellowstone, Powell, who effectively discovered the Grand Canyon - they would be spinning in their graves if they thought that America was being deprived access to these parks because of a somewhat trivial, political row in Washington, D.C.

SIMON: Simon Winchester. His new book, "The Men Who United the States: America's Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible." Thanks so much for being with us, Simon.

WINCHESTER: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.