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.

The Kooh-i-noor diamond
in its special Chubb cage.
The Chubbs, whose careers paralleled the launch of the Industrial Revolution in England, became the world's most famous lockmakers--endorsed by Queen Victoria and the royal family--before turning their focus in the mid-20th century to fire prevention and suppression.  When the Chubbs protected the famous Kooh-i-noor diamond (106 carats) at the 1851 (first-ever) world's fair in London, Punch magazine suggested playfully that security was so good that the police could simply go home.  Chubb also offered the acclaimed Waterloo fire extinguisher, which protected Windsor Castle and the British Museum, and included a special copper body so that its spray would not stain tapestries and artwork.  Today, Chubb offers one of the most comprehensive portfolios of life safety and security solutions in the world.

Edward's patent on the
electric bell.
Robert Edwards was on the ground floor of the revolution in electricity, founding a company in 1872 in the basement of a Manhattan jewelry shop that would one day earn a patent for the electric bell--nice patent, eh?--and famously place one of these in the New York Stock Exchange at its opening in 1903. Edward's signaling equipment could also be found in the brand new Rockefeller Center, at the bottom of the world's deepest oil well, and protecting the futuristic Holland Tunnel under the Hudson River.  Today, Edwards Signaling makes a huge variety of sophisticated signaling devices-- but still rings in the trading day at the NYSE.

Rickenbacker would not
only survive, but go on
to own the Indianapolis
Speedway, and become
Chairman of Eastern
Walter Kidde's company made the rafts that saved the life of Eddie Rickenbacker out on the lonely Pacific during WWII, and also saved thousands of lives from fire on board ships and planes, leveraging Kidde's introduction of the world's first portable CO2 fire extinguisher.  Walter Kidde was a remarkable entrepreneur who had a Liberty Ship named after him by the United States Navy, a New Jersey dinosaur park named after him when thousands of tracks were found at an old Kidde quarry, and could well have become governor of the state had he not turned down requests by his friends and associates to run. Today, Kidde is the world's largest manufacturer of fire safety products.

And, I have written about Dr. Carrier before in this 110th anniversary year of modern air conditioning, and was delighted to share his story with the broader UTC group last night.  In going through my notes, I realized, too, that the world's first air conditioned babies--if they are still alive--will turn 100 years old in 2014.  If you know anyone from the Pittsburgh area who might help us track down one of the individuals in the picture below, please drop me a note!

The Carrier "baby incubator" at the Allegheny General Hospital in 1914,
long before hospitals adopted air conditioning.  I wonder: will one or
more of the world's first "air conditioned babies" turn 100 years old in 2014?
The underlying theme for the evening was one near and dear to me--that looking back historically can yield as many important lessons and insights as looking to the future.  The Chubbs were participants in the global adoption of steam power and age of the machine; Edwards, Kidde and Carrier saw the birth of everything from the electrical grid to aviation, the telephone, the automobile, mass production and mass consumption.  Willis Carrier's life stretched from the centennial of the United States through two world wars, the Great Depression and into the Baby Boom.

We think things move quickly now, but we've got nothing on these gentlemen.  And they all have important stories to tell us.

Which also reminded me (in a second shameless promotion) that historians (and liberal arts majors more generally) can make pretty good strategists (so hire them along with engineers); both have to sift through mountains of information, separate signal from noise, and tell a compelling story that resonates with an audience. In an age of Big Data, God will bless the storytellers.

I concluded by reminding the folks at UTC CCS that they have--unlike most others--the huge advantage of being inspired whether they look to the past or the future.  That's a pretty good place to be.  I was thankful to be part of it last night.

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