How America Became Exceptional

by Greg Satell

dome of US Capitol building Washington DC with rippled American

In 1929, just before the stock market crash, Louis Bamberger and his sister, Caroline Bamberger Fuld, sold their department store in Newark to R.H. Macy and Company for $25 million ( $343 million in 2015 dollars). Grateful to the people of Newark for their support, they planned to endow a medical college in that city.

Yet when they approached Abraham Flexner, the foremost authority on higher education at the time, he told them that there was little point in building a medical school just across the river from Manhattan, where there was no shortage of medical talent.  Instead, he asked the Bambergers to be more ambitious.

What he had in mind was a place unlike any the world had ever seen, the Institute for Advanced Study.  It was to be an academic institution without classrooms or laboratories, but would host great minds in an idyllic setting where their genius could roam free.  As it turned out, it was an idea that would have enormous impact on America and the world.

The Great European Brain Drain

No event can be separated from its historical context and the Institute was no different.  Just as the idea was taking shape, things for Jews were becoming difficult in Europe.  The Bambergers, with their longstanding devotion to Jewish causes combined with the also Jewish Flexner’s academic reputation, would be an ideal conduit top scientists.

Their first efforts they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.  On a trip to Caltech in 1932, Flexner met with Albert Einstein.  As it turned out, his timing was fortuitous as there was growing hostility to Einstein and his “Jewish physics” in Germany.  A group of Aryan scientists had just published a book denouncing him and he had decided to leave Europe.

Einstein’s arrival at the Institute soon attracted others.  The influential Hermann Weyl, whose wife was Jewish, came in 1933, as did John von Neumann, the Hungarian polymath, also born Jewish.  In 1935, Wolfgang Pauli came too.  As the trickle of great minds became a flood, America quickly amassed the greatest collection of talent the world has ever known.

As events would have it, this unusual band of refugees fleeing persecution would arrive just in time to not only alter the course of the war that was to come, but to change the fate of their adopted country.

America’s New Immigrants Help to Win The War

In 1939, another emigre, Leo Szilard, went to see Einstein.  Szilard, who had helped develop the idea of a nuclear chain reaction, realized that the process could be used to make a bomb of unimaginable power.  Together with fellow Hungarians Eugene Wigner and Edward Teller, he drafted a letter to President Roosevelt.

Normally, a letter from some immigrant scientists would not reach the President’s desk, but Einstein’s signature carried a lot of weight.  The President ordered the idea studied and determined that it required action.  As luck would have it, an engineer from MIT, named Vannevar Bush, was also in the process of selling Roosevelt an idea.

Bush’s brainchild was the OSRD (Office of Scientific Research and Development), which would capitalize on America’s newfound talent to conduct scientific research to support the war effort.  Bush would run it and report only to the President.  His proposal was approved and given almost unlimited resources and funding.

The OSRD was an unparalleled success.  In addition to the Manhattan Project that built the atomic bomb, it also developed a number of other innovations that contributed greatly to the war effort, including the proximity fuze and radar.  Perhaps most importantly, it forever changed how science was funded and undertaken in the United States.

The Post-War Boom in Science and Innovation

As the war drew to a close, President Roosevelt asked Bush to write a report about how to organize future funding for science.  That report, called Science, The Endless Frontier, was presented to Truman in 1945.  It proposed the formation of a new government agency to direct government funds for basic research.

Bush’s work led to the formation of a variety of agencies, including the NSF (National Science Foundation)NIH (National Institutes of Health) and DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency).  Like the OSRD, in time this new funding architecture became critical to America’s technological leadership.

The NSF has funded innovations such as barcode scanners and next generation materials. NIH backed the Human Genome Project as well as research that has led to many of our most important cures.  DARPA, quite famously, invented the Internet and GPS.  It’s hard to imagine what life would be like without the breakthroughs that these programs developed.

And there is nowhere that the exceptional American approach has been more successful than in information technology.

The Dawn of the Digital Age

The first digital computer was not, as many believe, invented in the United States, but in Britain’s own World War II skunk works, Bletchley Park.  Unfortunately, Churchill ordered the machine destroyed at the end of the war in the name of national security.

To compound the error, further work was cordoned off in an obscure government lab and Alan Turing, the British mathematical genius who pioneered the field of digital technology, killed himself after enduring untenable persecution for being a homosexual.  That, in a nutshell, was what killed the British technology industry.

Things went much differently in the US.  John von Neumann, one of the immigrants who fled anti-semitism in Europe, developed a new model, partly based on the British version, at the Institute for Advanced Study.  Further, unlike in Britain, this work was done openly and the design of the IAS machine was shared widely.

Today, virtually every digital device in the world is based on the von Neumann architecture and America dominates the global market for digital technology, estimated to be worth nearly $4 trillion a year.  We are also leaders in every other advanced area conceivable, from medical research to nanotechnology to energy.

Throughout our history it has been our openness—to new people as well as new ideas—that made it all happen.

The New American Exceptionalism

Today, America remains exceptional, but for far different reasons.  We are, for example, the only advanced country where a majority of the population does not accept evolution.  Instead of prizing immigrants for their energy and ingenuity, we call them rapists and drug trafficking migrants with calves the size of cantaloupes.

Our politicians, looking to pander to the lowest common denominator, score cheap political points by waging a war on science.  Perhaps not surprisingly, we are losing our lead.  The epicenter of physics has shifted to Europe, where they discovered the Higgs boson at the massive particle accelerator at CERN (we defunded ours).  A rising China, similar to America a century ago, is poised to assume leadership.

What made America great was the choices we made.  While the rest of the world clung to class and caste, we chose to offer hope and opportunity. When Europe descended into death and destruction, we became a beacon for those who wanted a better life.  Within our borders, desperation was transformed into hope, which unlocked ingenuity, industry and prosperity.

The truth is that America as an exceptional nation is not a birthright to gloat about, but a legacy to be lived up to—and lately we’ve been failing miserably.   The open, inviting country that we once were is quickly disappearing into a bacchanalia of ignorance, superstition, and selfishness.

Just as the foresight of our predecessors had far-reaching consequences, so do the ones we make today.  We should endeavor to make wise ones.

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Greg SatellGreg Satell is a popular speaker and consultant. His first book, Mapping Innovation: A Playbook for Navigating a Disruptive Age, is coming out in 2017. Follow his blog at Digital Tonto or on Twitter @Digital Tonto.

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