Innovation Nation


Slide Show >>With the U.S. population expected to reach 300 million in the coming months, it seems a good time to ask, with apologies to David Byrne, "How did we get here?" What were the innovations, technologies, and inventions that enabled the settlement of a vast country and growth of a population that size? We set out to identify 10 innovations, large and small, that played parts in ways both plain and surprising.

A nation's population count, of course, is influenced by births, deaths, the emigration of existing residents, and the immigration of new ones. In the case of the U.S., great waves of immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries were accompanied by advances in health care and nutrition, which cut infant mortality rates and lengthened the average life span. While some developments, like "wonder drugs" such as antihypertensives, are obvious contributors, the package of frozen spinach stuck in the back of your freezer points to another key to increased health and longevity.

FOOL'S ERRAND? All those people had to live somewhere, so we also included factors that influenced the geographic movement of the population and the settlement of previously sparsely populated areas of the U.S. To get from Point A to their new home at Point B, migratory Americans needed an effective means of transportation and the prospect that the new area they would inhabit would have a decent chance of providing them with a living, whether they were establishing a farmstead or hoping to land a job in a rapidly industrializing town or city.

Here too, innovations great and small played a part, from the mighty steam locomotives that roared to life in the 19th century to the chlorination that enabled people across the country to have access to safe drinking water in the days before Evian.

The currents of history are multifarious and maddeningly complex, and it seems almost a fool's errand to narrow the list to 10 things. But that didn't stop us. We can't pretend this is a comprehensive list, but we wanted to give a sense that the rapid growth and settlement of the U.S. reflected the interplay of innovations and inventions both momentous and mundane.

Click here for the slide show on 10 innovations that changed a nation.


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