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Seven Modern Wonders

Seven Modern Wonders

As much as the great structures of antiquity are to be celebrated, the modern world has its own monuments to enterprise and improvement. These deserve their own list.

Donald M. Bishop

In junior high I was a member of a very small and exclusive “in crowd.” Jeopardy wannabes before the programs ever aired, we ardently memorized lists. Our copies of the World Almanac, World Atlas, and World Book Encyclopedia were well worn. There was one list, however, that never engaged me. It featured the Great Pyramids, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Lighthouse of Alexandria, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, and The Temple of Artemis in Ephesus. Years ago, this list was enshrined as the “Seven Wonders of the World.”

A new list is long overdue. More wondrous than the great structures of antiquity is the spirit of improvement and enterprise in free societies. Let me call my new list the “Seven True Wonders of the World.”

1. The grocery store. Between items, brands, and sizes, your neighborhood grocery store may sell more than 40,000 stock keeping units within its walls. Forty thousand! Canned, bottled, boxed, fresh, bagged, frozen, or sliced at the deli. Juices from dozens of fruits—fresh, from concentrate, or sparkling. Amber waves of grain and multigrain. Coffees from four continents. The wines of a dozen nations. Dozens of beers, ales, and ciders to satisfy every taste. Fish from the seven oceans. Pots, pans, brushes, sponges, and spatulas to ease the burdens of the home cook. Whole chickens, rotisserie chickens, chicken breasts and thighs and wings and legs, chicken soup, chicken broth, chicken salad, frozen chicken tenders, pulled chicken, chicken sausages. A chicken for every pot, taste, and budget.

Also wondrous is that the products found in even a humble neighborhood supermarket come from every American region, and from every nation. The berries that come from South America travel by ship, by air, by rail, and by truck. Sales at the grocery store pay the wages of the farmers, sailors, container yard workers, railroaders, aircrew, and long- and short-haul truckers that support their families.

There's no federal Department of Groceries that organizes this amazing traffic of goods. The grocery store is the perfect symbol of something much larger—the markets and enterprise economy that responds to the hungers and tastes–and that nourishes—American diversity. It's a wonder.

2. The land-grant university. The university may be traced to eleventh-century Italy, but the venerable and celebrated universities of old Europe taught a narrow range of subjects to mostly elite students. Usually, royal patronage sustained them. But in 1862—in the midst of the Civil War—President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, which granted federal lands to states to establish and endow universities. The Act revolutionized higher education when it mandated that the new universities would “without excluding … classical studies,” teach agriculture, science, military science, and engineering. Not only did each of these subjects bring forth related faculty, departments, and schools, but the universities also developed programs for master and doctoral degrees, professionalizing the study of many “practical” disciplines.

In the 1850s, two states had funded universities with grants of state lands, endowing Michigan State and Penn State. After the Morrill Act, a few universities such as Cornell, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Yale benefited from early land-grant designation, but the larger result of the law began with Rutgers, Iowa State, and Kansas State. Amendments to the Act helped to establish many Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Subsequent laws established agriculture experiment stations and extension services. Each of the American territories now has a land-grant college, and there are also thirty-nine land-grant tribal schools.

Land-grant universities have educated millions of international students over the years. Their faculty, students, and graduates have played large roles in the international development assistance that has led to a global reduction in poverty. The next time you walk onto a land-grant university campus, you'll agree—“it's a wonder.”

3. The interstate highway system. Postmaster General Benjamin Franklin established the first rude post roads. The “National Road” (begun in 1811 with federal funds) took the Conestoga wagons from Maryland to the Ohio country; the fabled Route 1 and Route 66 were part of the thin network of U.S. routes legislated in 1916. The U.S. routes could barely support the demands of transportation in the Second World War, however. In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower signed legislation to establish the interstate highway system. The controlled-access multi-lane highways without at-grade intersections inaugurated many features of advanced road design, and one can drive from Seattle to Miami without having to stop for a single traffic light.

The 48,000 miles of interstate highways changed the nation in ways no one imagined. Where interstates crossed, “truck stops” became small towns built around gasoline stations, fast food restaurants, convenience stores, and lodging. The interstates allowed individuals to work and live far from their “home town.” Students went to universities farther away; businesses expanded their reach; trucking became an even bigger business. Some changes were unanticipated. As traffic shifted to the new interstate highways, the owner of a gas station on the old U.S. Route 25 in southeast Kentucky, Harlan Sanders, saw his business drop. His station had a sideline restaurant that served chicken made tasty by a secret blend of herbs and spices. He developed this into “Kentucky Fried Chicken.”

Driving an interstate highway, top down, music playing, sharing a bucket that's finger-lickin' good, through cities, forests, mountains, and plains—it's a wonder.

4. Copyrights and patents. Before the 15th century, innovators, authors, and inventors rarely received any benefit from their creations because they could be copied by others. Florence and Venice were the first to grant exclusive rights to profit from an invention for a fixed period of time, pioneering the patent; the principle extended to protect music and writing through the copyright. A patent law was passed in England in 1624, and a 1710 law protected copyrights. One by one the American colonies adopted similar measures, but authors had to apply for a copyright in each colony. Moreover, the legal regime of protection extended to Americans only. In 1859, Abraham Lincoln described how patents add the “fuel of interest to the fire of genius,” promoting invention and knowledge. The U.S. finally recognized international copyright in 1891.

Laws protecting intellectual property frame how inventions are licensed and shared. Closely examine a high school textbook, and you’ll notice how every reproduction of an artwork is credited to the rights holder. At the end of every movie, every piece of music in the soundtrack is credited.

Visit a law school bookstore and feel the heft of just the introductory textbooks on copyrights, patents, trademarks, and trade secrets—what we call “intellectual property.” Everything in those textbooks—principles, cases, laws, regulations, and rulings—rests on twenty-seven words found in Article Eight of the U.S. Constitution, granting Congress the power “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” It's a wonder.

5. The fast food restaurant. The Founder, starring Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, is primarily a study of character, but it nicely captures the rise of “fast food” in the United States. The genius of the original McDonalds restaurants in California was in homespun time-and-motion studies that gave the small chain efficiencies built around a limited, standardized menu, and delivered to the customer within minutes. The concept filled America with Burger King, Jack in the Box, Wendy's, Taco Bell, Popeye's, Chick Fil-A, and other chains too numerous to mention. The basic American concept has spread throughout the world, with entrepreneurs establishing their own chains featuring dishes tailored to local tastes.

The restaurants not only provide livelihoods but also innocent family time enjoying fries together. A New York Post columnist wrote that the McDonald's McDouble Cheeseburger is arguably “the cheapest, most nutritious and bountiful food that has ever existed in human history.” (I say “arguably” because the claim has been challenged, but I think that families under time pressure and many low-income workers agree.) Fast food, wherever and whenever you want it—it's a wonder.

6. Insurance. Every breadwinner in the world has the same worry—how to provide for their family if they die or become disabled. Every shipper fears the loss or theft of goods. Every homeowner or business knows a fire could devastate them.

Historians have documented precursors of insurance in the ancient Middle East. Guilds, commercial agreements, and mercantile chambers offered some protections against risk during the Middle Ages in Europe. Marine insurance was first offered in Portugal in the late 1200s. Over the centuries, insurers have come to offer policies for property, business, life, burial, fire, auto, homes, crops, accident, travel, medical, dental, vision, and liability. They offer annuities. Competition among insurance companies is now intense, with Flo, the ostrich, Lady Liberty, and the Rock of Gibraltar among their famous symbols. Whole life, term life, exclusions, deductible, premium, and co-payment are only a few of the insurance terms now part of everyday life.

Forms of insurance once unknown in less developed economies—or in socialist states—are now available thanks to the efforts of insurers from developed nations. Today, for instance, there are Chinese widows and orphans whose life goes on in spite of the loss of the family's insured provider.

In the United States, insurance carriers, agencies, brokerages, and related businesses employ nearly 2.8 million people. In 2019, the net premiums for property/casualty and life/annuity insurance came to 1.3 trillion dollars.

Insurance is a mature industry, and now that governments provide various forms of social insurance there are often political debates about its particulars. An insurance salesman once told me, though, that when a first-time customer signs up for a policy that protects his or her family, there's a common reaction—an audible sigh of relief. It's a wonder.

7. Religious liberty. Not far from my home in Virginia are a dozen Protestant churches of many denominations, three Catholic churches, two Orthodox churches and an Orthodox mission station, a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, two synagogues, two mosques, two Sikh Gurudwaras, and two Hindu temples. There are Christian, Catholic, and Jewish schools, and an Islamic school is not distant.

Members of these diverse faiths may gather on their day of worship and teach their children different religious doctrines, but otherwise they are citizens, residents, consumers, co-workers, and neighbors. A Baptist does not inquire whether the young person cutting his lawn is a Catholic or a Mormon. The only questions employers ask prospective members of their Information Technology staff are “what certificates do you have?” and “can you code?”

None can deny that there has been religious bigotry. Even in 1782, however, French immigrant Hector St. Jean de Crevecoeur observed that a neighbor

may be a good honest plodding German Lutheran, who addresses himself to the same God, the God of all, agreeably to the modes he has been educated in, and believes in consubstantiation; by so doing he scandalises nobody; he also works in his fields, embellishes the earth, clears swamps, etc. What has the world to do with his Lutheran principles?

And in 1943, Will Durant, imagining a group of men leaving a chapel, asked:

what is the finest thing about them, next to their undiscourageable life? It is that they do not demand that others should worship as they do, or even that others should worship at all. In that waving valley are some who have not come to this service. It is not held against them; mutely these worshipers understand that faith takes many forms...

The first of the freedoms listed in the First Amendment guarantees religious liberty in the United States, barring both any government “establishment of religion” and any government prohibition of “free exercise.” There are religious frictions in American society, and the boundaries between “church” and “state” are debated. Conflicts are resolved in legislatures and courts. In the past few decades, religious participation has declined in the United States, but it still the most religious industrialized nation.

I shudder when I read of Hindu-Muslim communal violence in India, Buddhist suppression of Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar, kidnapping of Christian girls in northern Nigeria, Egyptian gangs rampaging through Coptic villages, the forceful shaving of men's beards in Xinjiang, those who preach hate against Jews, jailing and death sentences for “blasphemy,” and many other instances of religious bigotry. This is how I know that a society that enjoys religious liberty is a blessing and a wonder.

To behold these Seven True Wonders of the World, no passports or airline tickets are necessary. If you want to see them, Americans, look around you.

Donald M. Bishop is a retired Foreign Service officer. A distinguished fellow in the Krulak Center at Marine Corps University, he is teaching history for a semester at the Air Force Academy.

United States