A Summary of "Genesis" by Thomas Hughes

by Mary Barton
Hughes describes how American innovation changed the world.

Hughes describes how American innovation changed the world.

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"American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870-1970," by sociologist and historian Thomas P. Hughes, tackles the subject of the growth and dominance achieved by the United States in economic, cultural and military arenas over a 100-year period. He proposes and delineates how inventions and the industrial economy improved life in America and influenced the world.

Conquering the Land

The expansion of America by the pioneers was built on the strength and fortitude of individuals. As the country was populated, creative inventors, primarily self-taught or through apprenticeships, worked alone to solve the immediate needs of a land filled with work accomplished by manual and animal power and the challenges of vast distances. Hughes emphasized that these individuals, like the Wright Brothers, had the freedom to choose what they wanted to work on and succeeded because of that freedom to explore and match their imagination and interests to finding solutions. These inventors were primarily non-academic, non-scientist loners driven to experimentation and model building. Hughes emphasized that this process was a form of systems construction and resulted from their methodology and declared that "the greatest invention of the nineteenth century [was] a method of invention."

Conquering the Nation

This method of invention created machines, distribution systems, increased knowledge, techniques, new jobs and social change. The opportunities provided by the wealth of the country created robber barons who developed monopolies for the new markets and capital infrastructures. When the wars came along, these systems became essential resources for the country to centralize political power, develop research and sanction privilege in the political system.

Large Scale Production

Hughes describes in depth the development of the electrical power systems, military improvements, automobile manufacturing and mass production. He shows how scientific management developed along with increased emphasis on chemistry, mathematics and physics in universities. The impact of large government projects such as the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Manhattan Engineer District are presented as theory converted to practicality. By the 1930s, independent inventors were over-shadowed by scientists, researchers and engineers working directly for the government or industrial giants.


The evolution of technology and culture resulted in the loss of equality, freedom and opportunity, with an attempt by individuals to regain those values through the Populist and Progressive movements. Hughes shows how the utility monopolies and industrial companies managed to control any process that that would compete with their patents and inventions. This continued until the 1960s when the civil rights and peace movements began to significantly influence the status quo. Hughes believes that the civil rights and peace movements had little impact prior to 1989 when this book was published.

About the Author

Based in the Pacific Northwest, Mary Barton has been writing professionally since 1990. She has written two nonfiction books, worked as the product manager for a publishing company, an editor for two newspapers and was the content manager for various Microsoft websites. Barton has a Bachelor of Science in computer science from the University of Texas at El Paso.

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