They made America rich and powerful? Who are they? Harold Evans, the well-known Anglo American journalist in his book with the above title gives profiles of 55 men and women whose personal achievements made the United States what it is now, the richest and most powerful nation in the world.
The profiles testify to the fact that the success of a nation depends on the success of its individual citizens. It is not the State that makes people great; it is the people who make the State great.
Who will make Africa rich and powerful? What sort of people will those be? We intend to write a series of articles on some of these American achievers by way of illustrating what Africans should do or if they want to make Africa the great and rich continent that it potentially is.
The time for fighting for independence is gone. We have the independence; now let us make the most of it as individuals and groups. Many spokespersons of Africa give a lot of time and space to castigating the former colonial masters for what they did in their African colonies. The time for laying the faults on other people past and present must give way to self-help: What we can do for ourselves to make Africa a better continent to live in.
The profiles show the role of individualism. We must cast off blaming the State for all the poverty that prevails in the country. Evan’s book shows that it was the individuals who created the wealth of America.
Let us begin with what Edison achieved that gave America the world new industries, new jobs and sources of incomes.
Thomas Alva (1847-1931) was an American of Dutch descent. His mother took him out of school at the age of eight because the teacher had lost interest in him as too dull to learn anything. But his mother a Presbyterian school teacher, discerned in her last born child latent genius, Edson was not dull around. He just had no inclination to learn the subjects which his teachers were giving him. He was more interested in science subjects especially their application. Mrs. Edison gave her son intensive education at home, buying for him books he longed to read.
In a second hand bookshop he bought Experimental Researches in Electricity, three volumes of exploration by the self taught English genius, Michael Faraday. He repeated Faraday’s experiments and adopted his habit of keeping a diary.
At the age of 31, he set himself up as a professionally inventor and innovator in a factory at Menlo Park in Newark. He travelled to the Cooper Union, Manhattan to take a course in chemistry. Here we see that while dropping school before High School need not be a handicap, those who achieve a lot despite inadequate formal education engage in extensive self-education. Nothing can come out of ignorance, but knowledge can be acquired outside the classroom, and the most knowledgeable people have generally been self-taught.
At Menlo Park, he surrounded himself with scientists, chemists, engineers and mathematicians. He was an extremely hard working man and he demanded the same diligence from his team. He would work 24 hours a day with only tiny snaps. He once said: “I speak without exaggeration when I say that I have constructed 3 000 different theories in connection with electric light each of them reasonable and, apparently, likely to be true, yet in two cases only did my experiments prove the truth of my theory.”
According to some writer such as Napoleon Hill, famous for his book Think and Grow Rich, Edison made 10 000 experiments before he succeeded with his best invention, the incandescent lamp. Are we to be surprised that when he was told he was a genius he answered “Genius is made up of one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”
His other inventions were the phonograph and the movie camera, but he patented 1 093 improvements on inventions already in operation. He was willing to learn from the advances made by others. For example, it was only after meeting the French physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey at the Paris Exposition in 1889 that Edison brought together the three essential elements that led to the movie camera.
One of the young scientists he employed in his laboratory was a German called Siemen who later returned to his country and launched the industry that bears his name.
Genius some people have said cannot be explained except in connection with ambition backed by extra hard work, persistence and concentration. Africa must breed its own Edison if it is to be in the forefront of wealth and power.