Thursday, December 6, 2012

Reverse Engineering Big Data

Want to dabble in Big Data, right from the comfort of your own keypad?  Want to know what the rest of the world is thinking using one of the world’s great algorithms?

I don’t pretend to understand Google’s Autocomplete, but I do know that it wants to try to answer my question before I even know what I want to ask.  In other words, it takes what billions of people are doing and tells us, Big Data-style, exactly what the rest of the world is thinking about.  

It’s very cool, sometimes distracting, and often very scary.

Friday, November 30, 2012

How to Spot a Digital Immigrant

Your neighbors in Palo Alto
How do you spot a spy? 

During WWII, Britain’s M-5 suggested that if an enemy spy was living next door, he would be young, fit, have a slightly odd cut to his clothing and eat strange chocolates.  Watch, too, for a scar or limp, M-5 said, since parachuting from airplanes was treacherous business in the 1940s.

How about today?  WikiHow (To Do Anything) suggests that you might have a spy next door if the person is educated, physically strong and highly intelligent (unless you live in Palo Alto, in which case that’s just your neighbor).   Also, look for an intermittent work history (unless you live in Silicon Valley, in which case that may be your next boss).

It seems spies, despite their best efforts, almost always give themselves away.

Once upon a time, digital immigrants were easy as pie to spot, like knowing that the guy with shorts and black socks, complaining that he didn't get enough ice in his drink in the Paris bistro was, well, an American.

You might recall not many years ago the person who didn't own a computer, "and I don’t see any need for one, either.  I can keep my recipes in a box, thank you.”  Today, that person is perfecting his or her shuffleboard.

There was, you might remember, the CEO who had his secretary print all of his email so he could answer each message by hand, or perhaps by dictation.  (For you Gen Xer’s, write me and I’ll explain “dictation.”  Gen Yer’s, write me and I’ll explain the concept of a “secretary.”  Those younger, write and I'll explain "email.")  This was the same person with a wall of Rolodex across his desk, the prequel to the LinkedIn LION with 10,000 close, personal associates.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Organization Man, 2012 Style

I had reason recently to skim William H. Whyte's The Organization Man, published in the autumn of 1956 and now considered one of the most important American sociological texts of the 20th century.

An assistant managing editor for Fortune magazine, Whyte concluded that the American corporation was purposefully and systematically eliminating individuality--and individuals were happily giving it up.  Conformity had become a central virtue in Eisenhower's America.  It was the coming of the Stepford Executives--and of particular consequence to Whyte, the Stepford Scientists who would no longer have the flexibility to free-wheel their way into true innovation.

Whyte was particularly down on the emergence of the group.  "People very rarely think in groups; they talk together, they exchange information, they adjudicate, they make compromises.  But they do not think," he concluded: "They do not create."

What they do,Whyte knew, was avoid risk, or any misstep that might cost a job or a career.  It was, if we take a trip to the dystopian side of the 1950s, the sale of one's soul for lifetime employment and a tidy lawn in the suburbs.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Foundation of Genius

I had the opportunity to speak before some of the senior leaders of UTC Climate Controls & Security (CCS) last night at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford.  UTC CCS is today a family of leading, billion dollar+ companies that just happened to be founded by some of the more impressive and successful entrepreneurs of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The starting point for the presentation was my 2011 research on the life and impact of Willis Carrier and modern air conditioning for Weathermakers to the World.  (Shameless promotion: Time to buy a copy?  It's on Amazon!)  Over the last few months, thanks to UTC CCS, I was able to extend this research to include Charles and Jeremiah Chubb, Robert Edwards and Walter Kidde.

Monday, October 15, 2012

My One "New Yorker" Cartoon Possibility

I was planning to send this to The New Yorker until I read how hard it is to actually have something accepted--30 gags a month, years of submissions--so decided, what the heck, put it on the blog.

We don't have all five of us home at night much anymore, but when we did, this scene was not a complete impossibility.  A nod to Lord of the Rings, and a special thanks to artist, inventor, toy designer, model helicopter pilot, and friend Ben Bowman for the artwork.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Thoughts at 55 (Besides: "Whoa, I'm Old")

Back five years ago when I was a very young man, I wrote this post. It closed by saying that if you could double your age and still see yourself alive, you were ok.  

I was ok then, mostly.  Needless to say, this is now going to take some imagination.

To my list of 29 takeaways from five years ago, I add the following bits, a few earned honestly: 
  1. Stay away from any and every procedure in a hospital with the suffix “ectomy” in it.
  2. Hope that nobody in your household decides to write a memoir that book reviewers will one day refer to as “unflinching.”
  3. No offense, but I liked your emails and texts better when there wasn’t the threat they were being composed from your bathroom.  

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Surviving Little Entrepreneurism

In the October 2012 issue of Vanity Fair, Randall Stross writes about Silicon Valley’s Y Combinator, describing events in the spring and summer of 2011 when 2,000 teams competed to become one of 64 “companies” receiving between $11,000 and $20,000 to launch their “business.”

One team highlighted by Stross was made up of three 24-year-olds, recent college grads who pitched an idea for a business that would send “past memories to your in-box.”  Encouraged to “pivot the idea”--the latest phrase for “that stinks, try again”—they then hit upon an idea to create a business that would “organize and rank your Facebook content, allowing you to easily create a printed photo book.”  Yep.  These three would-be entrepreneurs told the Y.C. partners that they “believe in the power of memory, nostalgia,” without, one presumes, having had time to accumulate much of either.  When asked how this idea will “expand” they said they’ll begin building memory books around personal calendars, Foursquare check-ins and tweets.

Now--hold onto your hats--this was one of the teams the Y.C. Partners really liked, so much so that they were willing to fund their “business” (however it came to rest on its pivot) by investing $20,000 in return for 7% of their newly formed “company.”

Welcome to the world of Little Entrepreneurism.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Criminal Entrepreneurs

In 1817 a serious robbery using false keys was carried out at the busy Portsmouth dockyard, home to the Royal Navy.  In response, the government offered a reward to anyone who could design a lock that could not be picked.  The next year a local ironmonger by the name of Jeremiah Chubb patented a mechanism that rendered a lock useless if it detected anything other than its own keys.  This encouraged Jeremiah and his brother, Charles, to found what would become one of the world’s great security companies.  It also led them to diversify into a number of other lines, including designing the world’s first burglar and fire-resistant safe, advertised in 1838 as being able to “repel the force and ingenuity of the most skillful burglar.”

This was a serious claim, because like all good entrepreneurs, crooks and criminals are quick to adopt the newest technology and the latest form of organization in pursuit of their ignoble visions.  This makes criminal entrepreneurs a moving target, just like any worthy competitor.  

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

When Time Predicts the Future

One of the most reliable predictors of the future is the changing way in which we relate to time.

We know, for example, that before the Industrial Revolution, the consensus in agrarian America was that time belonged to God.  The good Lord had created light and dark and that was about all the time-keeping most people required.  Clocks could be helpful on cloudy days when noontime was obscured--Boston had a town clock in 1638, for example—but few Americans owned clocks (perhaps one in 50 in 1700).  And, everyone knew that clocks were not time per se, but crude mechanical proxies for what was really going on in the Heavens.

By 1820 things began to change, however, and it’s no surprise it reflected the rise of the steam engine, factories and the steady move from farm to city.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Haverhill's Cool Mural

Living near Boston means living side-by-side with the new information economy and the old industrial revolution.  The first is situated in places like Cambridge, Boston, Waltham and Burlington, churning away at pharma and Big Data and start-ups of all shapes and sizes.  The second, or at least its ghost, is found in the old industrial centers of Lowell, Lawrence, and Fall River--places that were booming in the years before the Great Depression with textiles, shoes and tool-making, but struggling now with varied success in attracting the new economy.

(Cities like Waltham, in fact, have bunches of both, home to companies like Zoom, Lycos, and Liquid Machines not so far from the very start of the American Industrial Revolution.  See Steampunk in Pictures at the old Waltham Watch factory.  For other historical junkets, see Gettysburg Redux and Edison in Winter.)

So it was we found ourselves the other day in one of those old booming industrial centers, Haverhill, once home to ship-building, tanneries, millinery and enough shoe-making (especially women's) to earn for it the title "Queen Slipper City."   We don't have reason to visit often, so it was a pleasant surprise to find this stunning mural, a visual history of Haverhill, beautifully rendered on the side of an old brick building.


Monday, August 13, 2012

Robots Tame the Frontier, Edison Invades Mars - Sci Fi of the 19th Century

Fans of science fiction recognize that many futuristic stories say far more about our current aspirations, limits and phobias than they do about the future.

Two of the biggest movies of 1998, Armageddon and Deep Impact (which together grossed almost a billion dollars worldwide), had Bruce Willis and Robert Duvall facing-off against giant asteroids headed directly for earth.  These movies about “extinction level events” sent people running for NASA, which was bombarded with panicked questions.  

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Spotting the Big Dog

Every organization has a Big Dog.  Every division.  Every department. 

How do you spot a Big Dog?  He's the one whose assistant breaks into a meeting to deliver an important, whispered message--a message that just can’t wait.  He's usually late to that same meeting, and the first to get bored, stand up during the discussion and wander around.  If it's a technology Big Dog, he's often the worst dressed, or at least without socks.  He's inevitably the one to send the first text while you're talking, the one to flip noisily through the slide deck when you're focused on slide 2.  Big Dogs have a LinkedIn account but no contacts, and they don't carry business cards. Big Dogs park near the front door in an inviolate spot and fly First Class, even when nobody else is allowed.  

At home, the Big Dog is the one who falls asleep after Thanksgiving dinner, snoring on the couch while everyone else helps the hosts clean up.  

I can’t wait.

Monday, July 23, 2012

America: Fat and Greedy--But Always Speedy

From time to time I bump into an International traveler visiting America for the first time, and I love to ask what about our country has surprised them most. Inevitably they comment on the giant portions at restaurants, probably a kind way of saying how fat we all are.  One young man last summer said, “You’re all shorter than I expected” (nothing like feeding a complex).  New York, I’m sometimes told by first-time visitors, is dirty but a blur of sound and motion.  California is sunny (even if they haven’t been there yet, and certainly not if they have been to San Francisco).  And all of them want to visit Disney World, though whether that lives up to their expectations, I’m not sure.

While not always pleasant, these critiques are certainly illuminating. Sometimes, too, they take a more serious tone.

From 1946 to 2004, Englishman Alistair Cooke delivered his Letter from America every week on BBC4.  Cooke’s first letter, written when he departed aboard the Queen Mary from a bleak London starved for heat and electricity, is here.  He found eggs and bacon and sausage and pancakes for breakfast five mornings in a row, but stomachs too shrunk from the war’s deprivations for anyone to enjoy the feast more than two consecutive days.  He arrived in a New York City that had been unable to build new hotels during the war and was now unable to accommodate its flood of visitors, taxis hobbling along with doors secured by string, and women (with their complicit husbands standing awkwardly in a second line) hoping to purchase nylons.

Arguably the most famous "international visit" to America ever was that of Frenchman Marquis de Lafayette, second only to Washington as a “rock star” in the early Republic.  Arriving in New York Harbor 122 years before Cooke, he went on a 13-month “Farewell Tour” through 24 states where he received an outpouring of affection, honors and gifts almost daily. In June 1825, before departing, he helped lay the cornerstone of the Bunker Hill Monument.  He also kept a journal, or more accurately, his private secretary, Auguste Lavasseur, did.  It said a lot of things Americans wanted to hear--Lavasseur’s major goal was in publicizing to French Liberals the success of the great American experiment--so it gets re-published regularly.

Lafayette, Dickens and Kipling: Speed

One of the defining characteristics of America, Lavasseur found in 1824, was the speed of the country.  Traveling an average of 11 miles per hour, Lavasseur wrote, “Often we passed through so many villages and so many towns on the same day that my memory could not retain all the names faithfully.” And in Lockport, New York, alongside the building of the Erie Canal, he was struck “with astonishment and admiration.  In no other place have I seen the activity and industry of man grappling with nature as in this burgeoning Town.   Short on necessities to “satisfy the prime needs of life,” he still found “a school in which the children come to be taught while their fathers build the dwelling which is to shelter them,” and “a printing press which each morning gives birth to a newspaper.”

Now skip ahead just 18 years to 1842 when the American railroad had begun to put an end to the canal age, almost before it began. Just 30 years old, renowned British author Charles Dickens visited the country for the first time, writing home to a friend about American railroads.  You walk down the main street of a large town: and, slap-dash, headlong, pell-mell, down the middle of the street; with pigs burrowing, and boys flying kites and playing marbles, and men smoking, and women talking, and children crawling, close to the very rails; there comes tearing along a mad locomotive with its train of cars, scattering a red-hot shower of sparks (from its wood fire) in all directions; screeching, hissing, yelling, and painting; and nobody one atom more concerned than if it were a hundred miles away.” 

Now, jump ahead another 57 years to a second renowned British author. Rudyard Kipling toured Chicago in 1899 and was profoundly unimpressed.   “Having seen it,” he wrote, “I urgently desire never to see it again.  It is inhabited by savages.  Its water is the water of the Hugli, and its air is dirt. . .They told me to go to the Palmer House, which is a gilded and mirrored rabbit-warren, and there I found a huge hall. . .crammed with people talking about money and spitting about everywhere. Other barbarians charged in and out of this inferno with letters and telegrams in their hands. . . there was no colour in the street and no beauty—only a maze of wire ropes overhead and dirty stone flagging underfoot.

Chicago, about 1899
When Kipling hired a cab driver “to show me the glory of the town,” the driver “conceived. . .that it was good to huddle men together in fifteen layers, one atop of the other, and to dig holes in the ground for offices.  He said that Chicago was a live town, and that all the creatures hurrying by me were engaged in business. That is to say, they were trying to make some money.  Then, he concluded, “the papers tell their readers in language fitted to their comprehension that the snarling together of telegraph wires, the heaving up of houses, and the making of money is progress.”

Kipling, of course, gave us a glimpse of America in its Gilded Age--and it wasn’t pretty.  But with “barbarians charging in and out,” and “creatures hurrying by me” engaged in making money, it certainly was speedy.

There are other visitors throughout the years, some more charitable than others.  A countryman of Lafayette and another accomplished statesman, Georges Benjamin Clemenceau, worked in New York City from 1865 to 1869 and summed up his impressions succinctly with, “America is the only nation in history which miraculously has gone directly from barbarism to degeneration without the usual interval of civilization.”

Emil Ludwig and the Future of Speed

The most fascinating visit, however, at least as it anticipated modern times, was from German author and biographer Emil Ludwig, who toured the United States in 1928 and wrote about it for The New York Times.

First, like Lafayette and Kipling, he found everything, everywhere on the move.  “Speed has become the goddess of the new era,” he wrote.  In fact, Ludwig described a scene that can only be termed an early form of "surfing": “When a young man in New York lured me into his motor car and showed me with tokens of much satisfaction how he could listen by radio, while motoring, to the latest jazz hits, and, at the same time, enjoy the details of the latest crimes supplied him in gigantic headlines by the newspapers handed to him as he drove, he seemed to me merely the most scatterbrained youth imaginable—able to appreciate in reality neither the road ahead of him, nor the music, nor the newspapers; capable merely of gliding quite blasé along a warm stream of piled—up sensations.”

Does that not sound a little bit like 2012?

Then Ludwig warned--and this will hit home with my Luddite friends (not to mention Nicholas Carr and maybe Jaron Lanier): “This is man’s memory being weakened. . .for such a person the echo of a talk, of a walk, of a glance at a starry sky, or a letter or a book is lost in the blur of a thousand fleeting images.”

Then, for those of us moderns with a “password problem,” Ludwig addressed the bane of early 20th-century America: numbers.  “For how many numbers does this modern technical age of ours imprint upon the brain of a modern human being, even as it drives out worldly wisdom and the finer feelings!  Numbers, numbers—how many numbers must he retain concerning his motor car, hat, shoes, collar—concerning streets, houses, floors—telephones, street railways, sport scores, exchange quotations. . .Small wonder that, with every brain cell packed to overflowing, he can find no place for poetry, none for aphorisms, none for the precious thoughts of philosophers—none even for God!”

Through it all, Ludwig noted, Americans appeared better adapted to such a world.  More charitably than Kipling in Chicago a generation before, he wrote, “I marveled at the calmness of people in the turmoil of the streets, the riot of numbers, the confusion of mechanized melodies and noises—everything.”  Europeans had experienced quiet for centuries, he said, whereas “Americans trained from early youth in the hard school of impressionability and strife.”

Again, reflecting a fear many of us feel now, Ludwig wrote that there would be no more legends created.   “Now that every happening becomes known. . .to the whole world within a few hours, the mystic veils behind which men in earlier days sought to make themselves better or their foes worse are rent asunder, and reality is revealed beyond fear of distortion. Gutenberg was reproached with having overcome priests and kings and made himself the first democrat in a new world; similarly, the inventors of the rapid tempo of modernity, of the wireless telephone, of the reproduction of word, tone and image, may be credited with having speeded up this development one thousandfold.”

Finally, in what can only be called a “pre-Twitter moment,” Ludwig remarked on the incredible ability of two lovers to communicate across the sea: ”Let us imagine him, during those embarrassed moments which always occur in love talks, whispering to her: ‘Speak—just speak—no matter what you say!’”

So, my fellow American: we are fat, we crave money, we multitask to the detriment of God and our neighbors, we speak without having anything to say, and we do it all at chaotic, breakneck speeds.

I think it must be true. 200 years of international visits can’t be completely wrong.

Though, maybe someday we should clue them in about doggie bags.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Weathermakers to the World 2.0 (Behind the scenes, again, sort of)

The former site of Sackett & Wilhelms, today's ISPC.
Picture the second floor circa 1902 with 60 multi-color
presses and a weekly deadline to churn out Judge magazine.
On July 16 I had the opportunity--thanks to UTC Climate, Controls and Security/Carrier, CBS This Morning, ISPC Brooklyn (and here) and CooperKatz, to tour the former Sackett & Wilhelms printing facility (circa 1900 till sometime in the 1920s) in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.  After researching the history of air conditioning for a year and launching Weathermakers to the World at the Library of Congress (and here), this really was a special treat--to visit "ground zero" where Willis Carrier's invention of modern air conditioning was first installed and operated.

To steal a phrase from Lexington and Concord, it was at Sackett & Wilhelms that "the cool, dry blast felt round the world" originated.  (By the way, if you want to see some of the things S&W printed, see here.  They were a well-known, high end NYC printer that did, among other products, Judge magazine--see here for images.  Spoiler alert: It was Judge that was giving S&W fits.)  

I was never so excited to stand next to rusty old
pipes in my entire life.  This is where the cool water from
a local well entered the building and was pumped into the
first a/c apparatus.
In other words, air conditioning started in a factory, and it was first and foremost about humidity control and only later about temperature.  In fact, it would take about 30 years for a residential market to evolve, and another 20 (thanks to Depression and War) for a/c to really escape its industrial orbit and migrate to the urban apartment and suburbs.  When it did, though, it did so with a vengeance.  The Huffington Post article here has a good summary of Weathermakers, and of this migration.  The New York Times also did a great city blog feature here.

Anyway, for a visit to the Sackett & Wilhelms site, see the CBS This Morning video segment here

And, of course, if you want to put Willis Carrier on Mt. Rushmore--on this, a 96F in Boston--click here.   

The original blueprints return to the building 110 years
later, with our CBS The Morning cameraman watching me
pretend that I know how to read them.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Weathermakers to the World - Behind the Scenes

The Mechanical Weather Man, a fixture
of Carrier advertising in the 1920s.
copyright © 2012 Carrier Corporation · a UTC company
Throughout much of 2011 I labored away on a history of Carrier Corporation at the kind invitation of the good folks at Carrier, now part of UTC Climate, Controls and Security.  The mission, which involved a small team of talented people at the company (see here for the official website) and equally talented folks at the Pinckney-Hugo Group in Syracuse (who designed the book), was to deliver a coffee-table history of the company focused on its founder, Willis Carrier, and its century-plus record of leadership, innovation, and sustainability.

Our book team wanted to avoid the typical corporate history tome, full of mind-numbing 6-point font and a 450-page throw-weight.  In fact, we were kind of thinking “cool museum,” where you might see an artifact that you like and decide it’s worth reading about.  Whenever I forgot this point I would hear the gentle reminder from my teammates, “less text, more pictures, Eric.”

Launching at the Library of Congress
Earlier this month we launched the final product of our labors, Weathermakers to the World, at the Library of Congress on a suitably tropic 99F day in Washington, D.C.  

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Two-Wheeled Singularity

Readers to this blog know that from time to time I mention the Singularity, which, if science (and science fiction) writers are correct, will descend upon humankind sometime around 2045.  It’s the moment when machines will finally be smart enough to build even smarter versions of themselves, and build themselves into us, in ways that are so complex that no human intervention is, or possibly could be, required.

Nobody quite knows what the Singularity will look like--we have a fancy term for that kind of befuddlement called an “event horizon”--or how fast it will go, or if it means good things or bad for the human race.  (The first Singularity was the move from hunting to farming, the second the Industrial Revolution. That's two wins. Feels like we might be due for a loss.) Becoming one with machines frankly doesn’t sound like that much fun; it’s a kind of evolution, but one that Charles Darwin didn’t cover in his last chapter.

Needless to say, I was interested to learn that there was something akin to the Singularity that occurred in the United States in the 1890s.  First introduced to Americans at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, the bicycle had by 1895 become a national mania all its own with bike clubs and weekend rambles convening from sea to shining sea.

We know a little bit about manias--what happened to genealogy after Roots, martial arts after Karate Kid, golf after Tiger Woods 1.0.  In fact, by the mid-1890s Americans had suffered through the first mania for golf and another for tennis shortly before the bicycle arrived on the scene.

By the 1890s, bicycle sales in the United States reached $100M annually, a most healthy industry for the times.  Everyone was riding.

In 1898, scientist and inventor William John McGee wrote about the bicycle in classic American terms; it “first aroused invention, next stimulated commerce, and then developed individuality, judgment, and prompt decision on the part of the users more rapidly and completely than any other device.”  It was not simply a hobby, McGee believed, but a technology that informed and uplifted in a uniquely American way.

My great-grandmother, Alice Conant, heading out in
style.  Note the smokestacks of the Gilded Age behind her.
Alice was born in 1870 and I won't even try to guess her
age in this picture except to say it's "circa close."
“For although,” he continued cheerily, “association with machines of all kind. . .develops character, the bicycle is the easy leader of other machines in shaping the mind of its rider, and transforming itself and its rider into a single thing.”  

Come again?  Machines develop character? The bicycle is shaping the mind of its rider, transforming the bike and rider into a single thing?  Isn’t that what happens in the Singularity, when human and machine become one?

Of course, we laugh.  How quaint.  But remember the first time you rode a bike, probably as a child?  It was an incredibly empowering experience, one step short of flying.  Imagine a nation of 60 million people being exposed to that phenomenon, nearly simultaneously.

It would have been nothing short of mystical, just as future generations will (laugh at us and) try to understand our reaction to the iPhone, which not so long ago was referred to by some as the “Jesus Phone.”  In other words, maybe we’re no less immune to mystical experiences with our technology now than we were in 1895.

The last time I felt like I was truly one with a machine--and the machine was in control--was when I was speeding down a very steep, ice-covered hill on one of those crazy flying saucers. People were shouting, "Steer by leaning! Steer by leaning!"


Anyway, that was my last brush with the Singularity, and, while it didn’t put me in the hospital,  it didn’t make me very happy, either.  Moreover, I have a wee bit of anxiety that when the real Singularity arrives and a Google goggle sprouts spontaneously from my cornea, the good folks in Silicon Valley are going to advise that my best option is to “Steer by leaning.”

What the Bicycle Did

Not only did the bicycle take our great-grandparents on a mystical adventure, but it did a couple of other important things for the country.  Bicycle ads were the first, for example, where women were depicted outside the home in non-domestic settings.   The bicycle club--like today’s Starbucks in certain countries--was a safe and acceptable place for members of the opposite sex to associate.

Riding a bike in a skirt?  But then
I remembered, when I was in
high school, the girls' basketball
team still wore skirts.  Fortunately,
we evolve.
 The bicycle was also an important family member of the primary mechanic trades, which descended from firearms to sewing machines to bicycles to the automobile.  Many talented mechanics participated in two or three of those trades during their lifetimes, shepherding knowledge across the decades and industries.  In American Tool Making and Interchangeable Manufacturing, Joseph Woodworth argues that the manufacture of the bicycle highlighted the capabilities of the American mechanic like nothing else—”in the design and manufacture of special machinery, tools, fixtures, and the installation of the interchangeable system of manufacturing in a thousand and one shops, once thought to be impractical.”  

Indeed, bicycle manufacture helped to develop sheet metal stamping and electric resistance welding techniques that Henry Ford would credit as important contributors to his assembly line.
On top of it all, the bicycle boom of the 1890s helped the nation weather the depression of 1893.

Pretty impressive, the America bicycle.  Of course, if you want to experience that same sense of two-wheeled Singularity now you have to cough up $5K for a titanium frame and wear a get-up that would fit well at auditions of the Big Apple Circus.  And then you can ride 35 sweaty miles on a Sunday morning with a dozen others from your local cycling club, show up at my local breakfast diner, take over all the tables so real customers can’t be served, stink up the place with your sweat and banana pancakes while you pour on the fake syrup and sneak outside for cigarettes and pretend you’re actually being healthy by cycling and then leave crummy tips for the wait-staff and the seat of every chair sticky from syrup and damp from your derrieres.

Oops. . . 

Didn’t mean for that to all come out, my serious cycling friends.  

But I must say, given the current version of the two-wheeled Singularity, a Google goggle in the cornea suddenly doesn’t seem so awfully bad.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Sell Out and Become a Regular Man (or, The One Quality Every Entrepreneur Must Possess)

Frederic Tudor was born in Boston the day the peace treaty was signed in 1783 ending the American Revolution.  He rode the  earliest wave of American entrepreneurial activity, becoming one of the country’s first millionaires.  Tudor possessed all of the qualities we have come to treasure in our entrepreneurs, being described as “defiant. . .sometimes reckless in spirit. . .imperious, vain, contemptuous of competitors, and implacable to enemies.  While energetic in competition, he preferred legalized monopoly.”

(Wait—weren’t we all just given that biography for Christmas?)

What made Tudor successful, however, was his incredible, implausible, ungodly persistence.  Tenacity.  Resilience.  Obsession.

It’s a great reminder of what Peter Worrell told us in 2010:  Of all the qualities that a successful entrepreneur must possess, persistence is number one--and number two is so far behind it’s almost an afterthought.

(Pete actually used the term grit, which he defined as perseverance and passion for long-term goals, working strenuously toward challenges, and maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress.)

Consider the classic entrepreneurial qualities.  Ethics are powerful, but there are plenty of famously unethical, famously rich entrepreneurs.  Brains are good, yet obtuse, successful entrepreneurs are not particularly hard to find.  Charming and amiable entrepreneurs who build happy teams are common, but so too are ogres and misfits and social buffoons who make those around them miserable.  We can find entrepreneurs who are wildly creative and others who steal ideas and have trouble inventing their own lunch.

But it is simply impossible to find a successful entrepreneur who quit.

At a time when Americans joked that New England had just two crops, ice and granite, Frederic Turner took the former and turned it into a multimillion dollar industry, creating a precious luxury item in markets from New Orleans to Havana to Calcutta.  He saw a market that was simply invisible to his fellow merchants, and he built that market by teaching people how to carry, store and use ice to preserve foods, cool drinks and make ice cream.  

We know Tudor was an entrepreneur because his fellow Boston merchants--who were happy to speculate in everything from coffee to mahogany to umbrellas--thought he was just plain nuts.  When he invested $10,000 in 1806 and filled the good ship Favorite with huge blocks of ice hacked from Fresh Pond in Cambridge, the Boston Gazette wrote, “No joke.  A vessel with a cargo of 80 tons of Ice has cleared out from this port for Martinique.  We hope this will not prove to be a slippery speculation.” 

Much to the delight of his skeptics, this first trip turned out to be a financial disaster.  While much of the ice miraculously made it to Martinique, Tudor lacked infrastructure (namely, an ice house) and consumer education (how to use something that had never before been seen), so that the ice melted away in six weeks and he lost $4000.  (The solution to insulation would prove to be sawdust, creating an important aftermarket for New England sawmills.)

Frustrated?  Of course.  Daunted?  Never.  For the next 15 years, Frederic Tudor shipped ice to ports from Charleston to Havana to New Orleans, building the trade, taking endless risk, suffering yellow fever, a mental breakdown, employee theft and government corruption, the Jefferson embargo, the War of 1812, the Panic of 1819, finding himself perpetually undercapitalized and, not once, but twice tasting the humiliation of debtors’ prison. 

Throughout his career--too much and too extraordinary to cover here--Tudor cajoled, implored, begged and borrowed  from every member of his family, and from his family’s impeccable network, including Revolutionary War heroes, Boston’s Brahmin community, and most of the East Coast merchant class.  (Frederic’s father had worked with John Adams, his brother with John Quincy Adams.)  Tudor took advantage of every tie offered him and every connection he could forge himself.

By 1833 Frederic Tudor had become the dominant player in the global ice trade, the nation's Ice King.  His crowning glory came that year when he sent the Tuscany with 180 tons of ice to Calcutta, crossing the equator twice and preserving its cargo for four months across 16,000 miles.  Indeed, the British in India knew what to do with ice, welcoming it with a celebration and immediately subscribing funds to construct a palatial ice house.

By 1849 Tudor had become wealthy.  In many cities ice was an essential part of living, the ice box a common feature.  A bachelor for most of his working life, Tudor married and fathered six children after the age of fifty, living until age 80 in 1864, a wealthy man with a country estate in present-day Nahant. 

Occasionally, though, he must have thought back to Dec 1817, sitting in a cold, foul-smelling prison cell wondering how he might finagle funds for his release from friends and family.  It was then that Fredric Tudor wrote a brilliant discourse on the plight of the struggling entrepreneur, one that still resonates today:
Had you not better entirely abandon this ice business?  It is a subject which wears out body and mind while it prevents you from having the standing among your fellow men which you deserve.  It occupies all your attention and appears at best subject to great hazard.   
In the course of twelve years pursuit you have arrived at little certainty. . .You stand at best a well-intentioned schemer and projector when you might, with a more regular application to common mercantile business, become a more useful and respected member of society.  It is not too late, you are not yet 36 years old and you may yet get back into the old road. 
Sell out in the best way you can and become a regular man.    
Answer: The suggestions of doubt are too late. . .My reputation is now so far pledged that I must advance. . .I, therefore, throw away every discouraging thought and determine to push on with as much exertion as I can command and endeavor to deserve success.”

If you are a committed entrepreneur, you have just one plotline--one that involves grit and persistence and obsession. Let's hope you will never choose to become a regular man or woman.


Nicholas, Tom and Sandra Nicholas. "The Ice King." 9-808-094. Boston: President and Fellows of Harvard College, 8 February 2011.  Paterson, Carl Seaburg and Stanley. The Ice King: Frederic Tudor and His Circle. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society and Mystic Seaport, 2003.  Pearson, Henry Greenleaf. "Frederic Tudor, Ice King." Proceedings from the Massachusetts Historical Society 65 (Oct 1932-May 1936): 169-215. Weightman, Gavin. The Frozen-Water Trade. New York: Hyperion, 2003.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Tombstones and Donuts On Old Route 1

Every Monday morning I hop in the car and head south on Route 1, a highway that stretches from the Canadian border to Key West, Florida.  It parallels and was largely superseded by Interstate 95 beginning in the late 1950s.  To promote tourism and trade, Route 1 has become, in Libba Bray’s words, a great and terrible beauty.  For example, our particular stretch of road from the North Shore into Boston features, among other high- and lowlights, a giant orange dinosaur, the Hilltop Steakhouse (whose life-size plastic cows are regularly pilfered by local students) and the Golden Banana which, if you have to ask, you’re too young.

Route 1 on a busy morning
We also have a Dunkin Donuts every few miles and one, in particular, that I frequent on my Monday commutes.  This palace of pink and creamsicle, which recently relocated a few doors north, had managed to tuck in a drive-through round back, past the dumpster and in between the muffler shop.What struck me was not Dunkin’s ingenuity in getting town permission for what was more an obstacle course than a drive-through, but one lonely little grave that sat in the back corner of their parking lot.

I could not read the memorial, but I could tell by the flags it was a veteran, whom I began to refer to as Private Cruller.  Everytime I drove through I checked up on the Private just to be sure he was resting easy. Indeed, Dunkin Donuts did a great job maintaining the site.  Nevertheless, it always looked out-of-place back there next to the dumpster.

Last week I was passing by and decided, with Dunkin now officially departed the location, to take a closer look.

The monument is back and right.
A little closer
This turns out to be the gravesite of George Washington Flint.  A quick check on the Web revealed that George had been born in Peabody, Massachusetts, on 31 October 1846 to Sophronia Lamson Leadbetter (1831-) and Warren Augustus Flint (1822-1884), the second oldest in a family that would one day include eight siblings.  

Warren made his living as a cordwainer, or shoemaker.  I also learned that George, single and himself a shoemaker, had died 20/23 March 1873 of “congestion of brain” and was buried in “Watertown, Massachusetts then to Lynnfield.”  He had served in the Civil War, his headstone inscribed: "George W. Flint, Private, Co. C, Reg. 17" on 25 November 1884.

With Dunkin Donuts gone only a short time, things aren't looking so great.

Before I tell you how 24-year-old George Washington Flint, Civil War veteran (at the age of 16), came to rest in the rear parking lot of a Dunkin Donuts not far from a strip club and an orange dinosaur just off one of the busiest roads in Massachusetts, I want to tell you about a superb essay I read recently by Michael J. Lewis, Professor of Art at Williams College, and given by him at Hillsdale College in March 2012.  

Lewis’s essay is entitled The Decline of American Monuments and Memorials and starts by saying that this has been an extraordinary year for American monuments--Ground Zero opened last September in New York, the Martin Luther King Memorial opening in October in Washington, and on tap is the memorial to President Eisenhower.  All have been controversial.  

The King Memorial, for example, engaged a sculptor from Communist China, used Chinese instead of American granite, misquoted King by using a hypothetical statement, and pictured the civil rights leader not in a great speaking pose (as we might remember him) but looking aloof and, well, despotic, not unlike a Leninist-Maoist memorial. 
The new Martin Luther King Memorial

The proposed Eisenhower Monument will be of a 30-foot, dreamy country boy gazing out upon images of the Kansas prairie.  As Lewis says, this is rather unconventional “given that there were millions of dreamy country boys and only one Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe in World War Two.”

Lewis also laments that fact that, in FDR’s memorial, his most effective visual prop--the ubiquitous cigarette holder--was removed by pressure from anti-smoking groups, while the thing he tried hardest to hide in public appearances, his wheelchair, is present.  “So the element he flaunted was eliminated,” Lewis says, and “the element he concealed was stressed.”

Professor Lewis reminds us that a monument is supposed to be a “single powerful idea in a single emphatic form, in colossal scale and in permanent materials, made to serve public life.”  Open-ended conversations in which various groups bring various interpretations to various forms, Lewis adds, are called schools or museums.  He suggests the spontaneous rise of roadside memorials to tragic accidents, a new form of folk art, rely on simple and traditional forms--crosses, handwritten signs, stuffed animals--to tell a powerful story.  This is a lesson our modern monument-makers should take to heart:  The creators of these roadside memorials “look for widely understood symbols, and they yearn for resolution and closure; they certainly do not aspire to an open-ended process.”

Professor Lewis closes by saying, “For more than a century and a half, we built monuments with spectacular success.  We have only been building them badly for a generation.  I look at these recent designs, which are perhaps an honest reflection of our divided and uncertain culture, and can’t help but think we can do better once more.”

George Flint left the army in 1865, suffering from poor health.  It's possible he was imprisoned at Andersonville in Georgia, and either there or elsewhere suffered sunstroke in the spring or summer of 1864.  This left him with chronic dizzy spells.  When he died in Watertown in 1873 he was moved to his parents’ farm in West Peabody along what would have been the Newburyport Turnpike (or present-day Route 1).  We might presume that the site of the Dunkin Donuts dumpster was once a quiet wooded setting behind the Flint’s farmhouse, perhaps even the start of a family graveyard. We now know that it was at least nine years, 1884, before George had a proper and fitting memorial--at least in the eyes of his fellow veterans.

Early 20th century Newburyport Turnpike photo--just to get traffic, donuts and dinosaurs out of your mind
In any event, when Sophronia sold the homestead to a 73-year-old farmer from Maine named J.B. Turner, she also promised to have her son’s remains moved.  She was never able to afford this.  The Turners  apparently allowed veterans to decorate Flint’s grave from time to time, but created a scandal in 1893 when--for whatever reason--Mrs. Turner refused to allow Grand Army of the Republic veterans on her land.  The report in the local press described the grave as “rank with weeds and unmarked by stone.”  Veterans were angry at “such an outrage on the honored dead, who had suffered the torments of Andersonville and died that his country might live.”

In 1996, with a century of commerce having turned the Newburyport Turnpike into Route 1 and the Flint's farm into a Dunkin Donuts, George Flint's gravesite was again at risk. Four years previously a snowplow had upended the gravestone and some believed it had been deposited in a nearby dumpster.

In October 1996, a group of about fifty people rededicated Flint’s final resting place, a result of the efforts of the Peabody Historic Graveyard Coalition (PHGC) and the support of local businesses.  “In a ceremony marked by military honor guards and musket volleys, the sound of a solitary trumpet playing  'Taps'  and a  rendition of a hymn, Flint’s new marble headstone was unveiled.”  Dressed in nineteenth century Union uniforms, members of the Lawrence Light Infantry Honor Guard participated, as well as members of local veterans organizations and the PHGC. Viewing the colorful assemblage of flags and witnessing the ceremony to honor one of his ancestors, was Frank Flint, formerly of Beverly and now residing in Dracut.   Dunkin Donuts provided the landscaping for the grave and made a commitment to maintain the site.”  A brass plaque was also mounted near the stone.

So what happens now, I wonder?  It’s hard enough for many cities and towns to keep their graveyards maintained, much less a forgotten single stone in the wrong place with scattered family.  It would be nice to see it moved to a more appropriate location. It would be easy to see it forgotten.  We can only assume that George Washington Flint--like all of us, Professor Lewis says, when we create spontaneous roadside memorials--must “yearn for resolution and closure, and not an open-ended process.”

We decided in 1884, 1893 and again in 1996 that the site was worth preserving.  What Professor Lewis said in 2012 about our grand monuments should hold no less true for our smaller memorials: "I can’t help but think we can do better once more."

A Few More Sources

Even if you learned nothing else, you now know that Dunkin Donuts' colors are pink(ie) and creamsicle here.

You may remember that we originally tackled the topic of good and bad statues in 2009 here.

More than you could want to know about Route 1 is here.  

Some good history of the Newburyport Turnpike here.

Professor Lewis’s entire lecture, and worth reading, is here.  

PIctures of some of the monuments Professor Lewis mentions are here.

The only web source I could find on the George Flint story was here.  Further research would no doubt yield more information.

2016 Update: The Hilltop has closed and is gone, the ground along Route 1 awaiting its next venture. I stopped and took these pictures in June 2015.