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From Divided States, A 'United' Nation — Thanks To These Men

The United States is not just a phrase. The country stretches across six time zones, from the Atlantic well into the Pacific. The British settled some regions; the Dutch, Spanish and French settled some others. And we once fought a bloody Civil War, North against South, over the issue of slavery.

And yet for more than a century, most regional rivalries in the United States have been over football games or who makes the best pizza. Americans can be born in New Jersey, move to California, then wind up in Florida or the other way around — all the while retaining regional accents and tastes, but still living in one nation.

British author Simon Winchester explores how this national unity came about in his new book, The Men Who United The States: America's Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics, and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible. In it, he depicts some of the men, the inventions and the enterprises — from the transcontinental railroad to Morse code, from the Erie Canal to the Internet — that helped make the United States whole.

Winchester talks to NPR's Scott Simon about the uniting influence of canals, roads and (our favorite) radio.

Interview Highlights

On how his perspective as an Englishman allows him to appreciate the United States' unity

I think our experience in Europe shows how very difficult it is for a polyglot peoples to be welded into one. ... It is, to me, quite remarkable that a nation full of as many peoples and ethnic varieties and languages and religious affiliations can nonetheless call itself united.

On the Chicago Sanitary District Canal, a unifying solution to a very messy problem

Chicago is beguilingly close to the Mississippi River, so why not link the two? And there was an additional problem ... all Chicago's sewage — and I don't want to put people off their breakfasts here — but all the sewage would sweep through central Chicago out into the lake. And of course, on a hot day, the effluent, it was a ghastly smell. And so there were numerous pleas from the citizens of Chicago, saying, "Let's get the sewage out and send it to the West and to where people don't care about it."

So, they did build first of all the Illinois and Michigan Canal ... and then finally they took it upon themselves — this engineer called Isham Randolph — to build an almighty canal to serve the dual purpose of sending the sewage out to the West, but also to allow ocean-going ships.

A longtime journalist with <em>The Guardian</em>, Simon Winchester is also the author of <em>The Professor and the Madman</em>.
Setsuko Winchester / Courtesy of Harper
Courtesy of Harper
A longtime journalist with The Guardian, Simon Winchester is also the author of The Professor and the Madman.

On the "wire rope express," a name for the early telegraph

That was the name given by Native Americans to this peculiar phenomenon of a copper or metal wire suspended between poles. ... Samuel Morse's telegraph that allowed the transmission of information from one corner of America to the other in seconds changed everything. And, of course, it led the way to the telephone and radio and television and, of course, to the Internet. So Samuel Morse: hugely important figure.

On two American presidents and one massive road system

This remarkable, curmudgeonly man Thomas MacDonald — who was the chief of the Bureau of Roads — was called into the Oval Office by FDR, who unrolled an enormous map and drew, with a chinagraph pencil, three lines east and west, five lines north and south and said to MacDonald, "Build me a road system along those lines."

But it was actually Eisenhower who, long before that, had the first idea of the system, and that was in 1919. Just after the first world war, the American National War College was somewhat afraid that ... the United States might be attacked by an "Asiatic enemy," and by that presumably they meant the Japanese. How do we get troops as rapidly as possible across the country by such roads or railways as exist?

So they assembled a convoy 3 miles long, and they trundled off westward as fast as they could. But of course west of Omaha there were no roads and bridges kept breaking, and it was a complete disaster. It took 58 days for them to reach San Francisco at an average speed of 5 1/2 miles an hour. Clearly, if there had been an invasion, it would have succeeded by then. And the conclusion that Eisenhower came to at the end was that America really needs a high-speed road system. To be united this country needs miles and miles of concrete.

On radio's role in bringing the country together

Hugely important role. First of all it was Morse, then it was voice transmissions. The first radio station was above a record store, which still exists in Pasadena in Southern California. People loved it. The first proper radio station was in Madison, Wis., and then the rest is history. The national conversation really got going.

On the regional differences that never really go away

I've been somewhat involved in this remarkable dictionary produced in Madison, Wis.: The Dictionary of American Regional English, which shows very firmly how the language is very different all over the country.

And the food is different. The different types of pie in America are — it's quite extraordinary. So it might look as if — because there's a Walgreen's and a McDonald's at every interstate highway system interchange in the country — it seems the country is all the same, but you get off the interstate and it isn't. It's very, very different, so regionalism survives in a big way in this country.

On government — big, small and shutdown

There's an irony I want to mention ... I write about the bringing of electricity to rural America and the role that the government played in the 1930s with the Rural Electrification Administration and very moving stories of farmers who never had electricity finally getting it. The first place in America to get electricity courtesy of FDR was out in the sticks, in Western Ohio — the 8th Congressional District, which is the district today represented by John Boehner. John Boehner — I don't want to get into a political fight here — is an archetype of "against big government," and yet the district he represents benefited hugely from big and wise government in the 1930s.

So today, it's monstrous to me that the national parks are closed [because of the shutdown]. The national park: another great unifying feature of this country. Hayden, [the] geologist who discovered effectively Yellowstone, [and] Powell, who effectively discovered the Grand Canyon: They would be spinning in their graves if they thought that America was being deprived access to these parks because of a somewhat trivial, political row in Washington, D.C.

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NPR Staff