Monday, October 28, 2013

Google Ngram Puzzler I: American Innovators

I've been fiddling with the Google Ngram Viewer for the last few months, trying to understand what it means and how it might help with the historical research I'm doing.  While still under construction, the Ngram's database of 5.2 million digitized books (through 2008) is an endlessly fascinating tool.  I've provided below a search I did on America's heavyweight innovators, picking a few from each of the last three centuries.  (In so doing, I reviewed the Atlantic's recent and equally fascinating list of "The Top 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel," making sure I didn't miss an important name.)

I'd be interested in hearing your take on this.  My unscientific conclusions include the following:

1. Henry Ford is the dominant presence among American innovators, and has been for the last century.  He died in 1947, which may explain the spike in interest in the 1950s as the press and historians tried to evaluate his contributions.  Even with the ascension of GM after 1930, however, and the rise of Japanese automakers in the 1970s, Henry's star continues to shine.  Only Bill Gates made a serious run at Ford around 2000, but since then has been in decline as his interests have shifted from Microsoft to philanthropy.  Were the graph to extend to 2013, I presume Steve Jobs might be in the top 5, but as you can see, Edison, Carnegie and Rockefeller are true, long-term heavyweights.  Needless to say, America is very much a culture defined by the automobile and computer.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Since When Did My Birthday Become a Marketing Event?

I celebrated a birthday this week.  I know, because, the morning of, when I fired up Google Search, there was a birthday cake and celebratory frou-frou decorating my screen.  I thought: "Hmmm, what semi-obscure personage is Google celebrating today?  Willa Cather?  George Selden?"  I clicked and--what do you know--it said "Happy Birthday, Eric."  I was the obscure personage.

Around 10 a.m. I heard a ring on our house landline, the phone we learned long ago could only be Mitt Romney or the NRA asking for money.  It turned out to be our local car dealership singing happy birthday into the answering machine.  Another birthday greeting from our mortgage originator arrived around lunch in my email followed by one from the local sports radio station.  That afternoon in regular mail I received a birthday card from my dentist, neatly signed by all of his dental hygienists.

I know I should be flattered.  After all, they did remember.