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'The Men Who Built America'

November 16, 2012 - Lee Smith
If, like me, you enjoy learning about real history (very exciting, I know), you may have become frustrated with the History Channel’s turn toward ice roads, swamps, top shots, lumberjacks and other reality programming. I’m sure it reaches a core audience, but it’s not very inspiring or enlightening.

Perhaps, though, those shows have commercial appeal, which generates profits, which allows the History Channel to do something a bit more serious once in a while. Like the recently aired “The Men Who Built America,” about the American industrialists of the late 1800s who lived in an age of unfettered capitalism and took advantage, making the United States an economic superpower, fostering major technological innovations, getting filthy rich and, in the meantime, improving the lives of millions. Not that they cared so much about that aspect.

The eight-hour series focuses on Vanderbilt (railroads), Carnegie (steel), Rockefeller (oil), Morgan (banking) and Ford (autos). It examines their rises, their competitive interactions and their combined efforts. It includes ventures with men like Thomas Edison, whose direct current electric system was unsuccessfully backed by Morgan. (They lost the innovative race to Tesla and George Westinghouse, but Morgan eventually got Westinghouse’s company anyway and formed ... General Electric.)

I thought one of the more interesting aspects of the program dealt with Rockefeller, who didn’t know what to do with one product of the oil-refining process. He was making money selling kerosene to millions of Americans who needed it for their lanterns. What he couldn’t use was a more volatile product — gasoline. So it was dumped and left to pollute waterways. Ford, and others, would find a use for the fuel.

In any case, I’m sure History will repeat the series. It’s also coming out on DVD. It’s well worth a view — into the ups and downs of the era, as well as the high-flying days of larger-than-life characters doing and attempting titanic things.


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