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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

March 01, 1992|Alex Raksin

MADE IN U. S. A: The Secret Histories of the Things That Made America by Phil Patton (Grove/Weidenfeld: $24.95). For those whizzing down America's new highways in the late 1930s, listening to Buck Rogers let the Mongol hordes have it on the radio, surely there was no better spot to fuel up than this space-age gas station, designed by Walter Dorwin Teague in 1936. While the station reassured motorists with porcelain-enameled panels similar to those found on home appliances, its sleek, icy-cool design suggested the scientific era toward which the country hoped to be headed.

The station is but one of many examples offered in these lively and inspired pages of how "American design has always sought to enable the individual to distinguish and improve himself." Esquire columnist Phil Patton's history of American innovations runs from Thomas Jefferson's portable folding desk ("It abbreviated his world," Patton writes, thus enabling him to "assert his control over it") to the personal computer, a "fantasy amplifier" that can "do for our mental categories what simple machines do for physical power."

Patton's history is not simply bathed in the warm glow of dreams realized, however, for the bold ambitions of America's brash inventors often conflicted with one another. Jefferson championed the steam engine, for instance, until he realized that it might corrupt his ideal of a bucolic, agrarian America, while Texaco, upbraided by Lady Bird Johnson for blighting the highway with huge modular-lettered signs, began favoring a less assuming kind of architecture in the 1960s.

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