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"Made in America" Means Ingenuity; at Least It Used To

"Made in America." It's an emotional phrase in the United States at a time when thousands of auto workers at Ford and General Motors face the loss of their jobs as foreign cars muscle ever-larger shares of the U.S. market. Emotional, too, as more and more American companies outsource customer service, product assembly, and telephone sales functions to other countries that offer cheaper labor.

But made in America has also stood for something besides patriotic pride. As a plump book by that title -- Made in America -- makes clear in almost 300 one-page stories -- the phrase has long stood for business ingenuity: finding a need and filling it creatively. And if you make a fortune doing it, well, good for you!

The predictable stories are there: two impoverished Stanford University students dreaming up what is now the worldwide, multi-billion-dollar Google Internet search service, for instance; and an Atlanta pharmacist concocting what the book calls probably the world's best-known taste -- the syrup in the Coca-Cola soft drink.

The book also describes other world-famous products that sprang from fertile American imaginations: The zipper. Kleenex facial tissues. The pinball machine. Water skis and the Hobie surfboard. Roller coasters. Traffic lights. The teddy bear. Peanut butter. The grocery cart. And more.

The Made in America book tells how each legendary product got started. They are prideful tales that pay tribute to American knowhow. But they are also rueful reminders that whatever the promise of a high-technology future, Americans don't seem to MAKE as many things as we used to.