U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio used his first speech on the Senate floor, on June 14, 2011, to evoke the American dream. The so-called maiden speech is a "big deal for a senator," said fellow Florida Sen. Bill Nelson — and Rubio went for big ideas.
"America is not perfect," said the freshman Republican, the child of Cuban immigrants. "... But since her earliest days, America has inspired people from all over the world. Inspired them with the hope that one day their own countries would be one like this one. Many others decided they could not wait. And so they came here from everywhere, to pursue their dreams and to work to leave their children better off than themselves. And the result was the American miracle."
As he held the floor for nearly 15 minutes, Rubio highlighted rags-to-riches stories that he said happen "only in America," describing the founders of Nordstrom, Mattel and eBay. When he finished, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., commended him, saying, "No one expresses American exceptionalism better than Sen. Rubio."
Rubio traced America’s role in the 20th century, from two world wars to the Cold War and the defeat of communism. Then he turned to other contributions:
While our military and foreign policy contributions helped save the world, it was our economic and cultural innovations that helped transform it.
The fruits of the American miracle can be found in the daily lives of people everywhere.
Anywhere in the world, when someone uses a mobile phone, e-mail, the Internet or GPS, they are enjoying the benefits of the American miracle.
Anywhere in the world, when a bone marrow, lung or heart transplant saves a life, they are touched by the value of the American miracle.
And on one night in July of 1969, the whole world witnessed the American miracle firsthand.
For on that night an American walked on the surface of the moon, and it was clear to the whole world that these Americans… could do anything.
We briefly considered wading into fringe conspiracy theories about whether astronauts actually walked on the moon, but got control of ourselves. We were more curious about his other technology claims. Were Americans truly the ones responsible for innovation of the mobile phone, e-mail, the Internet and the global positioning system?
We dropped a line to Rubio spokesman Alex Burgos, who provided us with links about inventors of the mobile phone, e-mail, the Internet and GPS. Indeed, stories from The Telegraph (via Huffington Post), NPR, the Internet Society, PBS and MITnews identify American origins for all four technologies. But these are complex systems that have developed over time. We wondered: Was there more to the story?
A lot fits under the umbrella "mobile phone" -- including, say, early radio technology that led to car phones by the 1940s. But Rubio’s spokesman pointed to the inventor of the first portable cellular phone, which is fine by us. (Did you think of dawn-of-the-1900s ship-to-shore communication when Rubio said "mobile phone"? We didn’t think so.)
Martin Cooper worked for Illinois company Motorola as it developed the DynaTAC phone and the cellular network behind it in the early 1970s. The lead engineer for the team that developed the phone, Martin made the first wireless call from Manhattan in 1973. The FCC approved the phone -- the world’s first commercial portable cell phone -- for regular folks in 1983.
Now, Japan and some European countries were quicker to deploy cellular networks, in the late ‘70s and very early ‘80s. But Paul Levinson, a Fordham University professor who wrote the 2004 book "Cellphone: The Story of the World's Most Mobile Medium and How It Has Transformed Everything!" says it’s the phone that matters.
"That was the breakthrough," he said "There were several different companies and scientists working on it. … But no one believed that it could be done. … So everything that came afterwards was based on that first breakthrough."
An American breakthrough. Score one for Rubio.
Internet & E-mail
We read the work from the Internet Society and PBS that Burgos sent our way, then exchanged messages with Stephen Stein, who teaches the history of technology at the University of Memphis.
Computer networks that led to the Internet we know today include Arpanet , a 1970s project of the U.S. Department of Defense, and NSFnet, created by the National Science Foundation in the 1980s. These projects, with their indisputably American roots, provided two cornerstones of the modern-day Web: the TCP/IP protocol and a major communications backbone.
But Stein pointed out that the way we interact with the Internet owes much to the work of Tim Berners-Lee, a British scientist who worked for CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory in Switzerland. It was there -- in the late ‘80s as NSFnet was being developed in the United States -- that Berners-Lee "developed the whole concept of the World Wide Web," Stein said. (There’s more on this in a PBS article related to the one Burgos sent.)
HTTP? HTML? Both Berners-Lee.
"So, yes, Americans developed the Internet, but Berners-Lee made it user-friendly," Stein said.
Meanwhile, Virginia Tech scholar Janet Abbate says in her 1999 book "Inventing the Internet," published by MIT Press, that even in the expansion of Arpanet , Americans enlisted the help of computer experts from England and France. She also points to Berners-Lee’s contributions, saying, "The history of the Internet is not … a story of a few heroic inventors; it is a tale of collaboration and conflict among a remarkable variety of players."
The origins of e-mail, as you might expect, are entwined with the Internet. Electronic mail was part of the development of Arpanet in the early ‘70s, according to Stein, Abbate and others. American programmer Ray Tomlinson gets credit (and tongue-in-cheek blame) for the first working network mail program, picked up by users of Arpanet sites.
Here's what Abbate told us when we asked her about Rubio's claim.
"I think it's an overstatement to call the Internet a purely American product. Certainly other countries were building their own computer networks (and inter-networks) in parallel with the U.S.; these other networks eventually became part of the Internet," Abbate said. "Also, the Internet itself (as opposed to the earlier Apranet) was a collaborative effort with input from computer scientists in France and elsewhere, and I argue in my book that the diversity of input made the resulting system stronger. I do think the U.S. did a remarkably good job with the Internet design and expansion, maybe better than anyone else would or could have done. But if the resulting Internet hadn't suited other countries' needs, they were perfectly capable of creating their own networks (indeed, for a while there were a number of different competing network systems before TCP/IP eventually became the standard).
"And of course, the World Wide Web was invented at CERN, not in the US or by an American. So does that mean we in the U.S. are enjoying the benefits of the "Swiss miracle" every time we use the Web?"
The satellite technology that puts some of the smart in your smart phone and informs your car’s navigation system is a system of satellites funded by taxpayers and operated by the U.S. government. So calling the global positioning system an "American miracle" is no stretch. The technology was born at Aerospace Corp., a military research contractor in El Segundo, Calif. Its founding president was New York native Ivan Getting. That isn’t to say there aren’t foreign navigation satellites. The United States cooperates with Australia, China, the European Union, India, Japan and Russia on global navigation satellite systems, sometimes referred to as GNSS. But Rubio said GPS, and the history there is fairly clear -cut.
What to make of all of this?
Rubio's basic point, that the technology behind mobile phones, e-mail, the Internet and GPS all have American roots, holds up. It’s true "in a general sense," said Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who writes on our relationship with technology. Or, as the University of Memphis professor, Stein, put it: "The statement is superficially correct, but there is (as usual) more to the story." Stein was most concerned about the non-American role in the development of the Internet, especially the substantial contribution of England's Berners-Lee.
It’s also important to note in the context of Rubio’s "only in America" rhetoric that while the United States led, it wasn’t alone in its innovation. Other nations’ researchers contributed to the early Internet; commercial mobile phone networks were available overseas before they were in America; other nations operate satellite navigation systems. But in these areas and many others, Americans can claim primacy. We rate Rubio’s statement, that "when someone uses a mobile phone, e-mail, the Internet or GPS, they are enjoying the benefits of the American miracle," Mostly True.