There are no self-made men.
In a time of grotesque inequality in our nation, when three or four billionaires lay claim to more wealth than the poorest half – over 150 million people – of all Americans, perhaps it is time to look at history. When our very democracy and civil society are being torn to shreds by an unimaginably wealthy class of oligarchs and plutocrats, perhaps it is time to assess the roots of “the self-made man.”
The investment – and the enablement – began 3.6 million years ago in Tanzania when two early humans stood upright and left the “Laetoli Footprints” in the wet volcanic ash. We do not know what these humans knew, but they had mastered enough of their environment to survive, because we are here today. We owe them a great debt.
A million years passed. Hammerstones and sharp stone cutting flakes were in use. Another million years passed and hand axes arrived. Hearths appeared 790,000 years ago. Humans had learned to control fire. Two hundred thousand years ago innovation in stone technology accelerated. Points were hafted to shafts to make spears. Stone awls were used to perforate animal hides, scrapers were used to shape wood. Investments were being made. We are deeply indebted to these people.
The first pottery arrived 30,000 years ago. At a site known as Dolni Vestonice in the Czech Republic, figurines made of clay mixed with crushed mammoth bone were found. It is the first known synthetic material. Twenty thousand years ago the Ishango Bone appeared in the Congo. It was a counting tool using numbers and the beginning of mathematics. Ten thousand years went by and a monumental event occurred. In 3500 BC, a human melted tin and copper together and the Bronze Age – and the science of metallurgy – were born. At about the same time one of the greatest innovations in all human history took place. The wheel was invented. The roots of the locomotive and the automobile were forming. In 1400 BC, the Hittites used the first iron and the Iron Age arrived. The molten beginnings of the Mesabi Iron Range, the Great Lakes ore freighters, Pittsburgh and Detroit were being poured. The investment in – the contribution to – the future of humanity was enormous, the debt owed the same.
In 350 BC, the Greek philosopher Archimedes stated the mathematical principles of the lever and the concept of simple machines was born. The rudiments of gantry cranes, bulldozers and robotic arms were being formed. Centuries passed. In 1514 AD, Copernicus proposed the center of the universe was not Earth, but that our planet revolved around the sun. In 1633, Galileo, father of the modern telescope, was placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life for furthering the ideas of Copernicus and advocating a heliocentric universe. Sputnik, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the international space station and Space X were being fledged. The investment in the future was incalculable, the debt immeasurable.
The magnetic compass appeared in China around 1050 BC. But its mysterious force would remain unknown until 1600, when the English scientist William Gilbert made a careful study of electricity and magnetism, distinguishing the lodestone effect from static electricity produced by rubbing amber. He coined the Latin word electricus from the Greek word for amber. The bedrock of 500-megawatt coal fired power generation plants, the computer and the internet was being laid. In 1687, Isaac Newton published “Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematic” or “the Principia,” the most influential work on physics of all time. Newton’s work with prisms began the study of light waves and the electromagnetic spectrum. The seeds of radio, television and cellphones were being planted. The investment in humanity surpassed description, the debt is unrepayable.
In 1669, phosphorous became the first element chemically isolated. Cobalt came in 1732, platinum in 1735. In 1869, Mendeleev arranged the 64 elements known at that time into the first modern periodic table and correctly predicted several others. Marie Currie and her husband Pierre discovered polonium and radium in 1898. Marie would be awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1903 and the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1911. She died in 1934 of aplastic anemia, a form of bone marrow damage caused by radiation. It was not until the 1940s that the last of the naturally occurring chemical elements were isolated. Man had discovered the building blocks of the universe. It would take the accumulated history of celestial navigation, Prince Henry the Navigator, the clock, the square rigged ship, Captain James Cook, the steam engine, well drilling, oil refining, gasoline, the internal combustion engine, hydraulics, pneumatics, generators, alternators, electrical power transmission, steam turbines, electric furnaces, the Bessemer process, the processing of aluminum, glass, rubber, synthetic tires, Portland cement, asphalt, geometry, calculus, Einstein, the Wright brothers, World Wars I and II, Pearl Harbor, the Enola Gay, the atomic bomb and the needless death of 150,000 Japanese children, women and men to continue the synthesis of radioactive elements beyond those found in nature. The investment in mankind was beyond comprehension, the debt owed beyond imagination.
In 1947, the gifts, the investments, the lives of millions upon millions of human beings who had gone before, led to the greatest invention of the 20th century. The transistor was born at the Bell Industrial Laboratories. The enormity of its impact could never have been foreseen. Without the transistor, its offspring integrated and printed circuitry, and the even more advanced electronics in common use today, there would be no personal computers, no cellphones, no iPads. There would be no internet, no Facebook, no Twitter. There would be no Microsoft, no Apple, no Intel. There would be no Amazon, no eBay, no Craigslist. There would be no high-speed computer trading by hedge funds and Wall Street banks. There would be no robotics, no industrial automation, no 3D printing. There would be no satellites orbiting the Earth, no cruise missiles, no killer drones flying over Afghanistan. There would be little of life as we know it.
The investments had been made, the enablement was complete. The “self-made” billionaire could declare – he did it all himself, he owed nothing to anyone. The world’s greatest corporations could become the world’s greatest tax dodgers. They owed nothing to anyone. They did it all themselves. Corporate CEOs, Wall Street bank presidents, hedge fund managers, could become billionaires overnight. They could not be fairly taxed – they did it all themselves. Robotics and industrial automation could not serve humanity. Technology is “owned” by the “investors.” They did it all themselves. They owe nothing to anyone. The unemployed, the impoverished masses, deserve what they get. No one owes anything to anyone.
Knowledge was earned by all humanity. Its benefits belong to all humanity. There are no self-made men.
Dave Svetlik of Kronenwetter
Editor’s note: Wausau Pilot & Review gladly publishes commentary from readers, residents and candidates for local offices. The views of readers and columnists are independent of this newspaper and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wausau Pilot & Review. To submit, email firstname.lastname@example.org or mail to 500 N. Third St., Suite 208-8, Wausau, Wis. 54403.