TV Series Review: “American Genius”

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.

13 thoughts on “TV Series Review: “American Genius””

  1. About twelve years ago I read Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World. Fascinating book and it sounds like it covers the same ground as episode 1. I would not be surprised if the reverse were true and episode 1 was taken from that book.

    Here’s a Booknotes video of Brian Lamb interviewing Jill Jonnes, the author. I watched this program and then ordered the book:

  2. A history of rockets should include Robert Goddard, who actually inspired the Germans as von Braun later acknowledged

    Goddard continued his innovative rocket work until his death in 1945. His work was recognized by the aviator Charles A. Lindbergh, who helped secure him a grant from the Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics. Using these funds, Goddard set up a testing ground in Roswell, New Mexico, which operated from 1930 until 1942. During his tenure there, he made 31 successful flights, including one of a rocket that reached 1.7 miles off the ground in 22.3 seconds. Meanwhile, while Goddard conducted his limited tests without official U.S. support, Germany took the initiative in rocket development .

  3. > The show referred to George Westinghouse, who was Tesla’s sponsor in this battle, as “sort of a railroad baron,”<

    I guess so if you sell improved railroad technology to the railroad industry. He was also a "sort of electrical baron". proggtarded.

  4. Watching the series reminds me again of an old science fiction story in which a man from the early 1950s….who is fascinated with the idea of space flight…somehow time travels to the future. He finds that

    the future civilization indeed has created vehicles that would easily be capable of such exploration…but they are used only as super-airliners. Nobody has any interest in traveling into space, indeed, they can’t imagine why anyone would want to do such a thing. A sympathetic woman explains to the protagonist that “this is the Age of Man. We are terribly interested in what can be done with people. Our scientists…are studying human rather than nuclear reactions.” There appears to be no thirst for adventure in a form likely to be recognized by a 20th-century man. (Indeed, it seems that the reason the future people chose the protagonist as a research subject is that they found his interest in going to the moon and beyond to be so bizarre as to be worthy of psychological investigation.) The story’s subtitle is:

    To the men of the future, the scientific goals of today were as incomprehensible as the ancient quest for the Holy Grail!

  5. One thing that surprised me David was the program on Glenn Curtis vs the Wright Brothers – seemed to me that Curtis was the real innovator (ailerons – used on every aircraft – for one were a Curtis invention) – while the Wright Brothers were too busy trying to sue everyone who tried to improve their patent (the airplane).

    I think history has been kinder on Wilbur and Orville than they deserved.

    I was surprised too that in space race the idea for a lunar orbit rendezvous came from a Grumman engineer and not von Braun. I think you are right about history glossing over von Braun’s complicity in the use of slave labor. He was in the SS.

    Having spent some time training at Ft Bliss (in El Paso TX), I knew that is where they tested the original V2 rockets (and where the school of Army Air Defense resides to this day) – but I chuckled seeing in front of the German Barracks (they used our Nike Hercules and Hawk missiles at the time in the early 70s) a V2 rocket sitting in the front lawn. I did not realize that von Braun and his team lived there for a few years while Eisenhower decided when to use him.

  6. I think that conceptually, ailerons and wing-warping are similar: the key idea is that you must tilt the airplane around the roll axis in order to do a coordinated turn…there were some earlier experiments attempting to use rudder only to initiate turns, as one would do with a boat…this doesn’t work well because of the resulting skid.

    Wing-warping, though, seems pretty limited: hard to imaging it working with anything other than very light fabric wings.

  7. I thought the real breakthrough for the Wright Brothers was their wind tunnel tests…

    I’m with Grurray. I’m hardly an expert on the Wright Bros (I should read something on them), but I’m under the impression they’re credited with not only achieving the first heavier than air level flight, but almost single-handedly inventing the science of aerodynamic engineering. Essentially, they were doing a lot of experiments and testing and trying to derive laws of behavior from that.

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