Monday, November 30, 2015

"The Wright Brothers" by David McCullough (2015)

Your wife's parents gave you this one for your birthday. Sometime people give you books and you have to pretend to think they are good books. When you finish them, you have to bend the truth a little to tell the gift-giver how much you enjoyed their literary selection. This is not one of those times. This was absolutely brilliant.

McCullough has written some of the definitive histories of the American experience. He can boast titles like "1776" and "Truman" and "John Adams" (granted, he is not the most creative when it comes to book titles).  This book, his newest, does not disappoint. For as long as humans have existed we have watched with envy as birds effortlessly defied the laws of gravity before our very eyes. There has always been a romantic sense of freedom in the idea of being able to fly unencumbered through the air. We long for the liberty to soar above all the obstacles of the world, past the walls that life seems to throw in our way, to glide effortlessly over the broken ground we have scrabbled to overcome since we first made our way out of the trees. Humans have dreamed of this for eons, but it wasn't until December of 1903 in North Carolina that we finally achieved controlled flight. And it was no daredevil, no artistic genius, no acolyte of Icarus who pulled it off. It was a pair of conservative, careful, and meticulous brothers who finally slipped the bonds of gravity and discovered how to challenge the birds in their own elements.

McCullough begins his story by describing the Wright brothers. Wilbur, the older brother, was born in 1867 and was bald with a grave countenance. Energetic and serious, he was the brother who felt most at ease speaking in public and who wrote most of their published works and journal entries. Orville was the quiet one, the one with the mustache who was painfully shy. Born in 1871, Orville was the brother who was best with his hands and was always the most fashionably dressed of the two. Their mother had died in 1889 and their father was an influential pastor who was often away from their Dayton Ohio home on church business. Although they had other siblings, Wilbur and Orville behaved in a way usually unique to twins, sharing a joint bank account, finishing one another's projects, constantly arguing and fighting but without ever holding a grudge.

When he was in high school, Wilbur's future looked promising. There was talk of his going to Yale after graduation, until one day, that is, when he was smashed in the face with a hockey stick during a game on the frozen lake beside the Wright house. The assailant was no ordinary young hockey player. Oliver Crook Haugh would grow up to become a mass murderer, eventually executed for killing his entire family. Wilbur's teeth were knocked out by this psychopath and his full recuperation took years. His ambitions were squashed and he spent months secluded in his room. All talk of Yale ended. For years afterward he would suffer from depression, focusing his attention upon keeping his ailing mother healthy. This time alone allowed Wilbur to spend more time than ever reading books at a pace that he never had before. This time of scholarly solitude provided Wilbur with an education that would prove to rival any he could have gained from any Ivy League school of the time. You found it fascinating to wonder at how much of human history might have been changed but for the swing of a hockey stick.

After the brothers spent a few years running their own printing press business, they opened a bicycle repair shop. Bicycles were new inventions and the Wright brothers worked on the safest and most popular style, the kind with two equal sized wheels which we think of today as normal bikes. Eventually the brothers moved from simple repairs to building their own models. The Wright brothers were coming of age in an unprecedented era of invention and technical innovation. In just over a decade they had seen the creation of cheap portable cameras by Kodak, the first electric sewing machine, the first elevator, the first safety razor, the first mousetrap, and the first cars. It was a world primed for the introduction of a new flying machine.

As the turn of the century approached, the world became obsessed with manned flight, not floating in a balloon or parachuting from impressive heights, but real, powered, controlled flight. Prototypes and innovations were popping up all over Europe and the US. Most of them crashed immediately and men were regularly dying in spectacular fashion in their efforts to defy gravity. Rather than being swept up in the hysteria, Wilbur characteristically dove deeply into any literature he could find on the topic. In May of 1899 he addressed a sternly serious and pointedly academic letter to the Smithsonian requesting, "...such papers as the Smithsonian Institution has published on this subject (flight), and if possible a list of other works in print in the English language." But even as serious a book worm as Wilbur Wright knew that studious reading alone would not be enough, experimentation and experience would be the key to achieving the dream of manned flight.

Before the year was out the brothers had realized that altering the shape of their model aircraft's wings might be the key to changing direction and altitude. Wilbur devised a completely new means of controlling a man-made wing in flight. Changing the shape of the wing with pullies and strings (called wing warping) would prove to be the most important innovation in the technological advancement of human flight. But their observations of birds in flight and their years of working with bicycles also convinced the Wright brothers that balance was as important in designing and aircraft as aerodynamics.

Wilbur and Orville decided to seek a testing grounds that would facilitate greater experimentation. They built a glider and took it to a remote place called Kitty Hawk on the Outer Banks island of North Carolina. The conditions there provided exactly the steady winds, soft sandy landing places, and towering dunes for launch sites that the brothers needed for their experimentation. Soon they were riding their glider above the dunes, perfecting their technique. But they were no daredevils. Instead they were methodical about their testings. They were careful and scientific in their approach to every challenge.

After two years perfecting their designs and honing their skills as pilots at Kitty Hawk, the brothers realized that some of the established technological wisdom they had taken as gospel truth from some of their heroes in the field were deeply flawed. Undaunted, they went to work trying to figure out on their own the complicated laws governing the physics of fluid dynamics required for any true understanding of flight. Using a wind tunnel they made by hand, Wilbur and Orville tested the effects that differently curved wing structures had on the air flowing across them. They weren't afraid to throw well established theories of flight out the window if they proved suspect under scrutiny, and they weren't afraid to accept the seemingly absurd if repeated experimentation proved it true.

Six months before their first flight, Wilbur gave a now famous speech in Chicago asserting that the biggest problem with manned flight, "is apparently not so much one of better wings as of better operators." This was a revolutionary idea in the field. For hundreds (if not thousands) of years humans had dreamed of building wings which allow them to soar like birds. The Wright brothers were the first ones to realize that the miracle of flight was in the birds' brains, not just in their wings. Wilbur argued that a successful operator must be experienced in the operation of his craft. In dangerous situations, he, "must know that in an emergency his mind and muscles will work without conscious effort. There is no time to think." Men not only needed to build artificial wings, but before they could operate with any confidence in the air they would need to learn the art of flying.

On December 17th 1903 only five men were present besides the Wright brothers at Kill Devils Hill at Kitty Hawk. It was a cold winter day with winds out of the north at 20-27 miles per hour. In retrospect, attempting a first flight in an untrained vehicle under such conditions was crazy. Three days before, on their first attempt, Wilbur had won the coin toss to be at the controls of their new flyer, one with a gas fed motor turning two large propellers. Wilbur had overcorrected on takeoff and had slammed back into the sand only a few feet from the launch point. Now it was only fair that Orville get to make the next attempt.

At 10:35 AM Orville lifted off. The headwind was so strong that Wilbur had no problem keeping up with the flyer, running beside it on foot. A friend snapped a photo with the camera the brothers had brought along to document their progress. It was on of the most historic photos of the 20th century. There is something magical about it. The flyer itself is extraordinary, huge and frail with the hazy shadow underneath proving that men had finally broken the bonds of gravity. But it is Wilbur to the right of the plane who always gets your attention. There is an excitement about his body language, an eagerness, a palpable kinetic drive. He wants to be on that plane! As excited as he must have been to have witnessed the singular moment from just a few feet away, you can sense that every fiber of his being is straining to be on board, to be the one flying. His silhouette, stark against the white sands, stands out as an emblem for all of us, stretching back to our ancient history. He bore witness to something we have all longed for and in that moment had the most relatable of human reactions, he wanted to be a part of it. In that moment, in that iconic photo, Wilbur Wright is all of us.

That first flight didn't last long. With such strong headwinds the flyer couldn't move forward very fast, but in 12 seconds of erratic, bouncing flight, Orville covered 120 feet before landing gently back in the sand. The brothers took turns flying three more time that day with Wilbur making the longest flight of 852 feet in 59 seconds. That is half a mile in one minute, quite literally as the crow flies. This was not gliding. This was not floating in a balloon. This was not falling with style. This was powered flight. Before any more flights could be made that December day, an errant gust picked up the flyer and sent it tumbling over the sandy hills, smashing it to pieces.

The brothers decided to keep their next experiments closer to home and continued in a new flyer at Huffman Field just outside of Dayton, Ohio. Here is where the Wrights truly learned to fly. they devised a catapult to launch their new flyer into the air, canceling out the need for Kitty Hawk's reliable gusts. For years they used this field to make longer and more complicated flights, they learned how to bank and turn, how to control altitude and how to land gently. They learned how to fly in curves and then circles and then figure eights. Here, in the Ohio skies, they gained the experience that Wilbur had asserted was so crucial to any successful flyer. Oddly, the local populace as well as the press corps were not interested in the historic, inspiring work being done a mere stone's throw from their front porches.

The United States War Department, for some odd reason, showed no interest in buying the Wrights' flyer so Wilbur made a trip to Europe to see if he could interest any buyers in France or Germany. His patriotic heart recoiled at not being allowed to sell to the US first, but, as the proverb says, you can only lead the horse to water. Wilbur elicited quite a bit of excitement on his visit to Europe. The Europeans had caught the flying bug and they were interested in this man who claimed to have mastered flight. Wilbur fell in love with the architecture in Paris and spent most of his time in the Louvre delighting in the endless halls of unmatched works of art. He even shocked some of the locals with his intimate knowledge of the history of some of the areas he passed through... Not bad for a man with no college education.

Soon both France and the United States (at last!) were now interested in the Wright's flyer and were offering substantial money. But none of these potential buyers had actually seen the brothers fly their crafts. Demonstrations would be necessary, and Wilbur and Orville were rusty. They returned to Kitty Hawk to test out their latest ideas and, most importantly, to become experts in the art of flying. They developed a plane with two seats rather than the initial design which had only the solo pilot lying on his stomach. The brothers vowed to never ride together so that if one were killed in a crash the other could carry on the work.

On August 8th, 1908, almost five full years after that initial historic flight (the one with only five witnesses present) Wilbur gave his first truly public demonstration at Le Mans, France in front of a decent crowd of several skeptics, a handful of reporters, and more than a few rivals. He flew for just two minutes and covered a distance of barely two miles, but his absolute control of the air was so evident that once he landed the crowd exploded into cheers and screams. They could hardly believe what they had witnessed. The spectators raced en masse onto the field to kiss Wilbur and his "aeroplane" with one rival pilot even exclaiming that "we (meaning all other pilots) are as children compared to the Wrights." It wasn't that the flight had lasted any significant length of time that impressed them all, it was the obvious control that Wilbur had over his flyer that sent them all into apoplexy. Day after day as Wilbur gave more demonstrations, the crowds grew and word spread.

The press went mad with excitement that summer. This was not a fad or some flimsy, childish trick that would ultimately disappoint the quixotic dreams of a few enthusiasts. This was real! Every skeptic who had claimed that man simply was not meant to fly, every fanatic who had insisted that God himself had intentionally limited humans to scramble on the surface of the planet for eternity, every scientist who had expressed academic certainty that it could not be done... they had all been silenced in a day.

It was clear to all who witnessed these flights that Wilbur Wright could stay in the air as long as his fuel lasted, that he could overcome any obstacle. Those throngs of witnesses at Le Mans realized that they had seen what almost no other human being had ever seen before, they had seen a human fly like a bird. And they knew that this had changed the world.

Less than a month later, at Fort Mayer, only a few miles from Washington DC, Orville repeated his brother's performance. He broke every record in manned flight that anyone had ever set, including his older brother. He was the quintessential test pilot, a man who knew what his airplane could do and who knew, better than anyone, how to get the most out of his aircraft. Even when he suffered a crash that killed a passenger, he was sure the theory was flawless.

Soon Orville and their sister Katharine (instrumental in running the Wright household and encouraging the brothers to achieve their best) joined Wilbur in Europe. The French pilots Wilbur had trained were proving their skills in solo flights. Kings and queens, debutants and playboys, millionaires and farmboys, all flocked to witness the dawn of a new era. The knowledge was spreading. There was no stopping it now. One year after Wilbur's sensational flight at Le Mans, France hosted an aerial race with over a dozen pilots competing. Humans were now animals who could fly.

Within five years the Great War would push the science of airplane technology faster than Wilbur or Orville ever could have. A few decades later, another world war would begin with propeller driven planes and end with jet fighter, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and four engine, high altitude, pressurized bombers that rained nuclear destruction on civilians and soldiers alike. Dismayed at the violence wrought by their inventions, the Wrights took no personal blame. They likened it to the discovery of fire. Men could use either for good or for evil, but neither was inherently bad.

Your house right now sits underneath a virtual high way in the skies. An hour does not pass that a massive metal jet airliner does not pass over the heads of you and your family. You and your children continue to draw inspiration at the miracle that humans have figured out how to accomplish this feat, and you are still inspired at the unprecedented global connection human flight provides the world. That first, short, dangerous flight at Kitty Hawk set events in motion that changed the course of human history in ways that were both as profound and inspiring as they could be horrific and unforgivable. The last paragraph of the book was a reminder where Wilbur and Orville took us all.
"On July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong, another American born and raised in southwestern Ohio, stepped onto the moon, he carried with him, in tribute to the Wright brothers, a small swatch of the muslin from a wing of their 1903 flyer."
It makes you wonder just how much farther we will go, riding with the Wrights all the way.

On to the next book!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

"Nothing Like it in the World" by Stephen E. Ambrose (2000)

You are a sucker for Stephen Ambrose books. Reading his "D-Day" and "Pegasus Bridge" back in high school helped make you the wannabe historian you are today. Over the door frame of his guest bedroom Major Dick Winters (of "Band of Brothers" fame, a man who should be considered a hero to every American) placed a plaque that read Stephen Ambrose Slept Here. You have read every book the man ever wrote on World War II, but he's written books on other subjects and you haven't yet read all of those. So, when you saw this one on clearance for $1 you couldn't say no.

In 1869 the United States completed a railroad that linked one coast of the continent with the other, the Atlantic with the Pacific. It was the greatest engineering achievement of the 19th Century an it was hand-built by free men who employed both cutting-edge technology as well as ancient techniques developed by Leonardo da Vinci. It was the first time anyone on Earth had spanned an entire continent with a railroad. Just a few decades before, steam power didn't even exist. Until the invention of steam engines no human being had ever moved faster than a horse, running water, or a sail could carry them. During his administration in the 1830's, President Jackson had to travel at the same speed across great distances as Alexander the Great had two millennia before. As the 19th Century unfolded however, humans began to change that. Now they could even race upstream at a fairly fast clip, they could cross oceans without fear of being becalmed, and they could move large numbers of people and material across vast distances at speeds never before imaginable, but for that last one there had to be a railroad there first.

In 1848, at the end of the Mexican American War, the United States had claimed California from Mexico in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. That same year, just a few miles east of Sacramento, someone discovered gold. Young men from all over the US felt the call of the gold rush, the desire to get filthy rich in the blink of an eye, but California might as well have been on the other side of the world for them. Even in the best of conditions the ocean voyage around the tip of South America might take two to six months (and it was a horrible trip). Try to cut the trip in half by sailing to Panama and hiking the 24 miles over the spine of mountains to hitch a ride on another boat up to the California coast and you exposed yourself to the most interesting of diseases, not to mention that you ran the risk of not being able to even find a ship headed north which would leave you sweltering, stranded in a tropical jungle. Crossing the North American continent from Iowa to California along the Oregon Trail was fraught with dangers as well. As anyone who grew up playing the video game can tell you, you were very likely to die from starvation, dehydration, exposure, or dysentery. A railroad would make travel to California infinitely easier, safer, and more profitable.

In the 1850's more miles of new railroad track was laid in the United States every year (mostly in the northern states) than in the rest of the world combined. More than half the railroad track on Earth was in the US by 1859. Everyone knew it was only a matter of time before trains were crossing the continent, it was merely a matter of when and where. Southern politicians (lead by Secretary of War and future president of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis) wanted the east-west tracks to come out of the south. Northerners (lead by the great railroad lawyer and future president of the United States Abraham Lincoln) couldn't bear the idea of using this new technology to further spread the sin of slavery and insisted the transcontinental railroad must come from the northern states.

On July 1st, 1862, one year into the Civil War, President Lincoln, the transcontinental railroad's greatest ally, signed the Pacific Railroad Bill into law. The southern states having abandoned their seats in Congress, there was no longer any question about whether the railroad should have its eastern end anchored in the north. The river Platte in Nebraska seemed a logical place to start. With the rebellion as an impetus, the government of the Union had become accustomed to passing extraordinary spending bills. There was a war on, a war that cost ungodly amounts of money as well as blood. In addition to that, many Congressmen now considered passing this bill a matter of pride. They could brag that even while fighting a rebellion, the United States was still able to look to her future and provide for her posterity.

This was a uniquely American prospect. The men who were tasked with building this railroad were not challenged with bringing different people groups together or uniting separate tribes and clans under one banner (indeed, the tribes in the middle of the country were going to prove a problem). Their challenge was instead to forge a new nation, to carve out an expansive geographic area and claim it with the intention to populate it with immigrants, both from the existing states and from nations of all the world. The idea was a new one in the human experience. The railroad sought to bring settlements to its line of advance. Always before, trails and trade routes had been blazed from settlement to settlement. Not now. This time the path would be laid and the towns and villages would spring up in its wake.

Two massive companies were inaugurated to accomplish this task. The Central Pacific would come eastward out of Sacramento and the Union Pacific would move westward out of Omaha. The government would pay them by the mile in both cash and land grants which they could sell to generate even more revenue. Each company was moving into unforgiving and extreme countrysides filled with mountains, deserts, landslides, blizzards, and hostile natives. No one knew where the two iron roads would meet, but the race was on. The material and manpower they would need dwarfed anything anyone had ever attempted before. This was the first great industrial enterprise. Fortunes were made and the government helped make them. Monopolies were created, strikes were broken, corporate profits were put ahead of the individual worker's well being. This was the great corporate leap forward into an aggressively capitalist society, beyond anything even the most pro-manufacturing of the Founding Fathers could have envisioned. And, with Lincoln driving the whole project, this whole ethos was inexorably tied to the Republican party... as it still is today.

As impressive as the effort was, these companies that were born to pull it off, the Central Pacific (CP) and the Union Pacific (UP), instituted awful business practices, the kind that would give capitalism a bad name. They gobbled up smaller railroad companies in order to use the monopoly to control prices, they employed shameless lobbyists and encouraged corruption in the US government, they refused to compromise with striking workers with legitimate requests, they actively searched overseas labor markets in order to keep labor costs artificially low, and they intentionally played on their workers' racist tendencies and most base fears to keep them placated and quiet. This was the inauguration of the Gilded Age.

As urgent as the desire for the railroad was, the first spike was not driven until 1865. Consequently, the transcontinental railroad was a product of the American Civil War. Not only had the war supplied the effort with men perfectly suited for the job, men who knew how to give and follow orders, who could organize large numbers of men and material on tight time tables, and who were accustomed to a rough lifestyle, but the war had also created a nation that now knew it could achieve great things. With this knowledge came a population that expected such greatness as payment for the sacrifice of its children, a population that had suffered the ravages of a terrible war and were eager to find inspiration in something that could bring them together again. The war also created a professional press corps that was now hungry for the next big story that would capture the attention of the nation.

First came the surveyors. Small groups of young educated adventurous engineers staking out the lines the great iron roads would take across plains and valleys and mountain peaks, into land few white men besides Lewis and Clark had seen. The weather, the land itself, and the natives made their jobs more than difficult, they made it deadly. Next came the graders. They dug and piled up the grade for the future tracks to rest on top of. The grade was a berm two feet high and twelve feet across at the flat top and it ran unbroken for miles and miles, from horizon to horizon. The graders dug up the earth and vegetation along the line the surveyors had laid and built a dirt mound strong enough to hold the weight of a fully loaded train. They were not educated men, as the surveyors were. These men were almost all immigrants, or the sons of immigrants. Most were veterans of the war, lured to the railroad by the promise of steady pay and a regimented lifestyle.

Both companies primarily used immigrant labor. The UP was built by the Irish, men who had come to a new land and fought in the war between North and South. Now they were turning their efforts to the frontier to unite that same nation East and West. They advanced across the High Plains, graders, rail layers, blacksmiths, team leaders, cooks, bakers, doctors engineers, and 500 head of cattle to feed this army creeping inexorably towards the setting sun.

The CP had a unique problem with immigrant workers. Most of the white men they brought to California, Irish or not, to build their railroad through the granite Sierra Nevada mountains would barely stay on the job for a day before the call of the gold mines was too much for them to bear. These men had not come to California to earn $3 a day, they came to strike it rich. But California was flooded with Chinese immigrants who had lived in San Francisco as long as that city had existed. They were treated terribly by the government, laws were interpreted against them, extraordinary taxes were levied against their every effort, American society was geared around oppressing them, forcing them into second class citizenship. Discrimination is too soft a word for how the Chinese immigrants were treated, and there were around 60,000 of them in California which meant they were a perfect and untapped labor pool for the CP. Soon, the CP was being built almost exclusively by Chinese workers who proved to be outstanding workers. They were inventive, faithful, dedicated, skilled, indefatigable, and blessed with a latent sense of teamwork. Their experience with black powder gave them the skills to blast tunnels through the mountainous barriers that stood in their way.

Eventually, as they reached Utah, both companies hired Mormons. Salt Lake City was the only white settlement between Sacramento and Omaha. They had been led to this land by Brigham Young twenty years before and had built an independent community as isolated as any on Earth, but even Young saw the potential benefits from having a railroad linking his island of believers to the outside world. The Mormons were a new source of labor for both the CP and the UP right in the middle of the proposed railroad line. They worked hard, complained little, stayed sober, and didn't kill one another, and followed orders from Brigham Young like fanatics.

It is acceptable, even today, to think of certain people groups as dangerous newcomers to the United States, as usurpers, as people who will change our culture for the worse. You have always found this curious as any open minded reading of history teaches us that it is precisely the people who have been the most oppressed and the most reviled who have made this country great. Fresh, regular waves of new immigrants were the fuel that made this country what it is. The sweat of their brows and the iron in their spines literally made the nation we call the United States. The men who built the transcontinental railroad are a perfect example of that.

The construction of this railroad (especially the UP) constituted a glimpse into the future of manufacturing, the assembly line. Each man had a specific job and a tight schedule in which to accomplish it. Every man was part of a larger machine, each depending on the others to allow them to do their jobs with the greatest speed and accuracy. It all came down to math. So many men per foot of line, so many ties per yard, so many sledgehammer strikes per spike, so many locomotives with so many tons of supplies riding right to the edge of the line at just the right time. Eventually they got to where they could average laying one mile of track in a day and some days they did more. The record was set by the CP who laid the final ten miles of the transcontinental railroad track in one day! All by hand. Today, such exhausting tedium is done by robots in clean rooms, in the 1860's it was done by young men in the middle of the untamed wilderness.

Native Americans made the job even harder for the UP than the dangers posed by weather the land and the black powder used to tame it. Indian territory in the continent's interior was larger than the settled areas of the US. As the railroad progressed across their lands, the Sioux, Arapaho, and Cheyenne tribes saw their doom. Trainloads of white settlers followed the advance of the line and claimed plots of land once reserved for the original Americans to use for hunting and foraging. In response, the Indians raided supply lines to deny the workers of their livestock and equipment, they killed advanced parties of surveyors, they attacked work teams both to claim scalps and to slow the advance of the iron roads. They even derailed multiple locomotives and then ambushed the trains sent to help the wounded. The vicious and unpredictable actions of the Indians against the UP convinced generals Sherman and Grant (heroes of the Union) that all out war would soon need to be declared to rid the Plains of this insurgent enemy. The massacre at Wounded Knee would occur just 30 years after the completion of the transcontinental railroad.

While the UP advanced, the army of men it brought with it settled each night into temporary towns which moved westward with the sun. These villages were named "Hell on Wheels" by an astute observer whose name is now lost to history. Hell on Wheels provided all the entertainment young war veterans with money in their pockets could ask for... hot food, whores, music, gambling, and lots of whiskey. The name was well earned. The men were all well armed and familiar with violence. The murder rate in Hell on Wheels averaged about one every day (not among the Chinese or Mormons though). The firearms the workers wielded to protect themselves from the native tribes proved deadlier than any fearsome painted savages.

As the snows thawed in the Spring of 1869 it became clear that, despite all the difficulties, the two roads would meet that year. The US Congress chose the meeting spot to be Promontory Summit, just north of the Great Salt Lake. Even before the two railroads were linked though, immigrants were already taking the Union Pacific trains westward, stopping wherever the tracks ended and hiring stagecoaches to take them to the head of the Central Pacific tracks and riding the second train all the way to California. The great railroad hadn't even been completed yet and already people were crossing the continent in less than a week and for much less money than ever before (not to mention more safely). The US Army's Twelfth Infantry Regiment followed the path of these immigrants in March of 1869, making it the largest military unit in the history of the world to move so far so fast with such ease.

On May 10th, 1869, the last spike was driven (it was a golden at that) and the transcontinental railroad was connected. As the railroad had been built, workers had raised a telegraph line alongside the tracks, now making cross continental communication instantaneous. This revolutionized and modernized America as a world power. No other people in the world could communicate with one another or traverse their own countryside so quickly or effortlessly. America had showed the world what the future looked like.

Scandals ensued when it became clear just how rampant the corruption was in both of the companies that built the road. But the fact that anyone even cared that the men who had achieved such a gargantuan undertaking had done so in a dishonest fashion was a testament to the freedom of the press. It just served as one more example of American greatness. In other countries, even today, such corruption would have been ignored as a regrettable part of the process.

"Nothing Like it in the World" was not your favorite Ambrose book. The first one hundred pages got lost in the weeds of financial jargon and stultifying corporate intrigues. Ambrose uses the word "Chinaman" far too liberally, and his view of the events has such an overly patriotic framing that it becomes distracting. But the book did remind you of several memorable lessons. We are a nation of immigrants and the people groups who we tend to fear and oppress throughout our history are often the very people who build the framework that makes our nation stand out as exceptional in the world. The book also reminded you that lofty idealism is the only way we can hope to advance to become a greater nation, but gritty pragmatism is how we actually get there. When Americans set their goals unreasonably high and work harder than anyone else thinks is possible, they tend to achieve mighty things. Almost exactly one hundred years after the transcontinental railroad was completed Americans achieved something else no one thought possible, something that inspired generations and firmly established American greatness. In 1969, Americans put men on the moon.

In a very real way, Neil Armstrong's "first step" began with America's giant leap across their own continent.

On to the next book!

P.S. There is a Louie CK joke where he asserts, as only he can, that as awful as slavery is it might be the only way humans have ever gotten anything amazing accomplished. The pyramids at Giza. The Great Wall of China. Space flight (Werner Von Braun used slave labor in his rocket tests under the Nazi regime before he became head of the US space program). Louie observes that throwing as much human suffering at a problem is the only way we have ever really achieved anything great.

Sadly he's not that wrong. The transcontinental railroad however, is a glaring exception to that premise. Yes, the working conditions were abysmal and the body count was obscenely high. Yes it sparked a genocidal war against the Native Americans. And yes the Chinese and Irish laborers were largely available because of how oppressed new immigrants were in this country. But the men who built the transcontinental railroad were there by their own choice and they were paid for the sweat of their brows. Sorry Louie, but it was an army of free men who built this wonder of the modern world.