People of Progress

Article excerpt

The artist EDWARD SOREL updates for our century a classic view of Americans who changed the world

SAY YOU WANTED TO BRING UP TO DATE CHRISTIAN SCHUSSELE'S 1862 MASTERPIECE Men of Progress, a heroic four-by-six-foot scene of nineteen innovators of the age. Whom would you put in it? Who are the men of progress, or the men and women of progress, or whatever you would call them now, of the twentieth century? The administrators of Cooper Union, which owns that painting (a copy hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, in Washington), decided recently to find an answer. To do so, they commissioned one of their most illustrious graduates, the artist Edward Sorel, to paint a sequel. We unveil it here.

Schussele, an Alsatian-born academic painter, had gotten the job from a New York ironmaker named Jordan Mott, and Mott had picked his cast of characters for his work simply by choosing himself (he had invented stoves that helped popularize the use of coal), a number of his friends, and some other important American innovators and manufacturers of the time. Sorel turned to the editors of American Heritage and American Heritage of Invention & Technology to help him choose his subjects, and we advised him with the help of several outside experts.

Schussele's nineteen have become Sorel's twenty, to accommodate two Wright brothers, and the earlier artist's snapshot of a time and place--the 1850s and the industrial Northeast--has given way to a convocation of men and women from across a continent and a century, but the focus on technological pioneers remains. The notion of progress may seem as battered today as is the idea of men as progress's only progenitors, but of course the role of technological pathbreakers in society has only magnified over a century and a half.

Of Sorel's twenty Americans, half a dozen are household names, a couple are virtually unknown today, and the rest lie somewhere in between. They all have either conceived inventions that changed technology or deployed those inventions to remake our world--with the one exception of Rachel Carson, whose impact was so immense and focused so completely and effectively on technology that the gathering would have seemed incomplete without her.

Schussele's placement of Benjamin Franklin in a painting on the wall as a tutelary genius overlooking the whole assemblage has been supplanted in Sorel's work by a benevolent Thomas Edison. Edison lived and invented well into the twentieth century, but his big achievements were all in the nineteenth, and he has continued to loom as the very symbol of the heroic resourcefulness that all these men and women embody.

--The Editors

1. Philo T. Farnsworth, 1906-1971. Inventor of television. Visualized the principles of electronic TV as a thirteen-year-old farm boy; sent his first image, a single line, when he was twenty-one--after he had already applied for a patent. The patent expired before he could profit from the commercialization of his technology.

2. George Washington Carver, 1861-1943. Botanist and agricultural innovator. Born a slave; taught and experimented for forty-seven years at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Pioneer investigator into soil conservation, plant diseases, crop diversification; developed peanuts and sweet potatoes as leading crops and invented hundreds of plant-based products. He stands for all the enormous, underappreciated field of agricultural technology.

3. Jonas Salk, 1914-1995. Developer of a polio vaccine. Created his killed-virus vaccine with a team of researchers at the University of Pittsburgh; it reduced the incidence of polio in the United States 96 percent between its introduction in 1954 and 1961. Dr. Albert Sabin's live oral vaccine (Dr. Salk's was injected), introduced in the United States in 1961, became the standard thereafter.

4. Henry Ford, 1863-1947. Automotive pioneer. Built his first automobile in 1896 and had two failed efforts to start a car company before incorporating the Ford Motor Company in 1903. …