Over at The Lexicans, Bill Brandt posted an item about an 8-part TV series titled ‘American Genius’…it is about a selection of inventors and entrepreneurs who have had a major impact on technology, society, and history. It sounded worthwhile and I’ve watched about half of the episodes–thanks, Bill!…definitely worth watching, but OTOH I think there are a few things in the series that should have been covered a little differently.
Edison vs Tesla is about the AC-vs-DC power wars, and correctly reports on the sleazy fearmongering tactics that Edison used in his unavailing attempt to maintain DC’s dominance. The show referred to George Westinghouse, who was Tesla’s sponsor in this battle, as “sort of a railroad baron,” completely ignoring the fact that Westinghouse was himself a major American inventor. Most people would think of a ‘railroad baron’ as someone who owns or manages railroads, not someone who invented the air brake.
Farnsworth vs Sarnoff is about the battle to dominate the emerging television industry. It was presented as a David-versus-Goliath story–though Goliath was in this case named David (Sarnoff)–individual inventor versus ruthless tycoon. Sarnoff was indeed ruthless, indeed could be fairly referred to as a prototypical crony capitalist…but it would have been interesting to point out that he wasn’t always a Goliath, wasn’t born to that position, but had in fact come to this country as an impoverished Russian Jewish immigrant and had encountered severe and career-threatening anti-Semitism on his path to Goliath-dom.
Space Race is focused on two individuals, the German/American Wernher von Braun and the Soviet rocket designer Sergei Korolev. Korolev was played by an actor who looked a little too young for the role at the subject time period: more importantly, it should have been mentioned that Korolev had been arrested and sent to the Gulag, where he lost most of his teeth due to the brutal labor-camp conditions. There were psychological scars as well–Boris Chertok , who worked closely with Korolev for years, said that there was only one single time that he saw the man really happy. In a series focused primarily on the leading characters and their conflicts rather than on technical details, these things deserved to be covered.
The program refers to a successful Soviet test in 1957 of a missile with intercontinental range, shortly before the launch of Sputnik. Actually, the test was a failure because the warhead disintegrated on reentry…and reentry, while a critical factor for ICBMs, is not important at all for one-way satellite launches. The American belief that Sputnik meant all of our cities were vulnerable to Soviet missiles was a little premature–not much.
I thought Wernher von Braun got off too easily in this program. The show did mention that the V-2 missile was assembled by slave labor in an underground factory adjacent to a concentration camp: the truly horrific nature of V-2 manufacturing (this was possibly the only weapons system ever made that killed more people in its making than in its employment) could have gotten more emphasis, and the evidence is that von Braun was fully aware of what was going on in this place.
I’m also not convinced that von Braun was as absolutely critical to US missile and space programs as the show implies. The program to build the Atlas missile, which was developed in roughly the same time period as Korolev’s R-7, was directed by USAF General Bernard Schriever, with technology expertise provided largely by the newly-formed Ramo-Wooldgridge Corporation and by Convair. I see no reason why this team could not also have conducted a Moon program, had they been so chartered.
The show does point out that von Braun, in addition to his technical and management contributions, played an important role in popularizing the ideas of rocketry and space travel…I had been unaware of his work with Disney to this end. So, in addition to being a genuine rocket scientist (and, arguably, a war criminal in at least a moral sense), von Braun was also one of the great PR men of the century.
Again, with the omissions and missed opportunities, the series is still very much worth watching.