The moment Newt Gingrich derailed his presidential campaign was not when he said the United States should return to the moon by sponsoring prizes that would tap into American ingenuity. It was the very next minute, when he advocated passing a Northwest Ordinance for Space so we could homestead our new American moon village and then consider it for statehood. His opponents in the Republican primary had a field day. Mitt Romney branded Gingrich a grandiose kook. “If I had a business executive come to me and say they wanted to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I’d say, ‘You’re fired,’” Romney remarked.
Other than the statehood riff, though, Gingrich’s idea wasn’t science fiction. America has a grand history of prize offerings for innovations, and their recent renaissance has seen money on the table to spur moon trips, electric cars, and space elevators. Amateur pursuits and do-it-yourself movements are also on the rebound. When the economy turns sour and wheezing giant corporations stumble into the tar pits, backyard inventors get to work inventing a new future.
Almost every generation hears that the great era of American amateurism – a romantic age when loveable crackpots (often with funny hair) lost themselves in hours of single-minded obsession – is over. People are told that their own age is too hopelessly complex, the conglomerates too conglomerated, and the necessary tools too expensive. But when those obscure tools finally become obtainable, the cycle begins anew.
Prizes are often what gets the backyard inventors to push a little harder. Charles Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis launched the modern era of commercial air travel – but when Lindbergh started out, he was simply trying to win the $25,000 Raymond Orteig Prize for the first nonstop flight from New York City to Paris. He had plenty of competition, including the explorer Richard Byrd, who made an emergency water landing just off the coast of France.
Today, dozens of awards are on offer to help aspiring innovators Lindbergh their way into the future. The X Prize attempts to do for amateur space travel, among other pursuits, what the Orteig Prize did for aviation. Congress funds a variety of awards, and the Defense Department has provided millions of dollars in the Grand Challenge, a race of robot vehicles. Google announced a $30 million prize for the invention of a robot that can get to the moon. Richard Branson has offered $25 million for technologies that will remove greenhouse gases. And NASA sponsors competitions for everything from space gloves to a new lunar lander.
The same amateur impulse that might compel inventors to head to the garage has shown up on the financing end. Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, RocketHub, DonorsChoose, and Petridish have raised hundreds of millions of dollars, not by appealing to traditional high-rolling investors, but by attracting new ones – amateurs themselves.
Not long ago, an American temple to creativity underwent a multimillion-dollar restoration and was declared a national historic place. It was the garage at 367 Addison Ave. in Palo Alto, Calif., where David Packard and Bill Hewlett launched a company in 1939. The bookend to that is the death of Steve Jobs, which occasioned a peculiar moment of nationwide mourning accompanied by a best-selling biography. But the discussion of what shaped Jobs’ creative spirit was really about us. Do we still possess whatever it was that sent Jobs into his parents’ garage in the 1970s and brought him out holding a new future?
We love to read tales about the successful amateur – Horatio Alger stories, the Forbes annual issue of entrepreneurs, or George Plimpton’s forays into the worlds of professional football, boxing, and baseball. Everyone dreams of being one patent application away from becoming the next Ida Rosenthal, whose dress-shop triflings in the 1920s led to the Maidenform bra, or John Pemberton, the druggist whose attempt to make an herbal tonic resulted in Coca-Cola, or C.J. Walker, the first African American female millionaire, whose cosmetics company pioneered door-to-door sales a century ago. The stories of Tim Paterson creating MS-DOS and of Bette Nesmith Graham inventing Liquid Paper have been told so many times they’re often mistaken for urban legend.
In the late 1980s, when the Japanese economy appeared to be taking over the world, anguished cries rang out across America: We needed to straighten up, toughen school discipline, and work harder lest our Old Economy collapse before the fleet capitalists of the Pacific Rim. We learned that the Japanese were far more efficient than we were, and the lectures about the weakness of the essential American idea came from everywhere: We needed centralized planning like Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry, which decided where the private sector would focus its research and development and its money. We needed workforce efficiency and social stability. We needed to get serious.
Then we were rescued by amateurs – by dweebs in their underwear. The tech boom of the mid-1990s sent the U.S. economy soaring. Programmers began creating new companies and new ideas out of their basements, dabbling in this, pioneering at that. Plenty of them failed gloriously, as they always do. Dozens of tech firms flared into existence and just as quickly blinked into oblivion. The tech bubble burst, but its aftermath was the opening of the digital frontier. New myths emerged, such as Larry Page and Sergey Brin inventing Google in a Stanford dorm room, a story updated by Mark Zuckerberg.
The original American amateur was Benjamin Franklin. He started out as an indentured printer and went on to create American tabloid journalism. His story as an inventor lies beneath a veneer of cliché, most of it developed by the master himself, his autobiography a pre-emptive strike at future historians. It laid down the fable of Ben as a hard-working deist who wrote pearls of colonial Protestant wisdom (“A penny saved is a penny earned”), although he lived according to very few of them. Working backward from the cartoon Ben, his life as an amateur comes into focus. The truth is that he improvised his way to great success, discovering and inventing not just practical things, such as libraries and fire departments, but also the sly vernacular voice of the American writer. And just as often, he dabbled his way into eccentric irrelevance – his air baths (the nude exercises he sometimes performed publicly) and his ludicrous musical invention, the armonica (a kind of deranged harpsichord played by swiping damp fingers across the lips of spinning glass bowls) are cases in point.
There are plenty of theories about where Americans get their amateur spirit – maybe it was prompted by the unending sneers from Europe, or the fact that we are a nation of immigrants who are perpetually starting over. But there’s a Freudian argument as well: Americans are forever recapitulating Franklin’s brilliant ad-lib into the future.
The amateur spirit exists all over the globe, but there is something different about the way it happens here, in a place where people are perpetually throwing off tradition and lighting out for the territories – even if that frontier is often in their own backyard.