Wednesday, February 25, 2009

National Self-Image

Obama is a truly international leader:

As for our auto industry, everyone recognizes that years of bad decision-making and a global recession have pushed our automakers to the brink. We should not, and will not, protect them from their own bad practices. But we are committed to the goal of a re-tooled, re-imagined auto industry that can compete and win. Millions of jobs depend on it. Scores of communities depend on it. And I believe the nation that invented the automobile cannot walk away from it.

So go forth and reimagine the auto industry, people of Germany!

Karl Benz invented the economically viable gasoline automobile in 1889; Daimler and Maybach designed one independently about the same time. (There were prior models; in fact, both Daimler and Benz had done it before, but a few things still had yet to be worked out.) What counts as first depends on exactly what you mean by 'automobile' and what you mean by 'economically viable', although Benz is usually given the credit because he had the first patent. In either case they were very certainly German, not American. Americans did take the idea and run with it, first with Raymond Olds creating the Oldsmobile brand in 1901, and then with Henry Ford designing assembly line production to produce the Model T in 1908. So we can say that, at least in a very limited sense, we invented the auto industry (a lovely invention that's turned out to be!) but we certainly didn't invent the automobile.

I think this is probably what it looks like -- just a failure to fact-check because it looked like it was obviously true, with the result that it is amusing when recognized to be obviously false. We Americans have the bad habit of assuming we invented everything we use. But it's one of those things that grate whenever I come across it, since American politicians do this a lot, and I can never hear it without thinking of the talk in 1984 about how the Party rewrites the textbooks so that all the great inventions were invented by the Party. It's a harsh association for what is usually just an entirely human mistake; but because my mind makes it I can't help but think that politicians really should be careful on this point. Otherwise our excessively rosy self-image is showing.

[UPDATE: Reworked to indicate Benz's probable priority over Daimler and to fix a date and a few typos.]

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