Thursday, December 26, 2013

Recapping 2013, Resolving 2014

2013 was my sixth year of blogging, and it's still nigh impossible for me to predict which of my posts will do well and which will land with a thud.  Even writing about X-rated topics, which I tried back in 2008 (with Camouflage Marketing), didn't seem to have the je ne sais quoi to go viral.  Meanwhile, other posts, some of which were written just because the blog was looking lonely--a particularly poor reason for writing--took off.

The three best-read new posts in 2013 were The Cult of the Entrepreneur The Founding Fathers as Innovators and Surviving Little Entrepreneurism.  All three made me feel like a curmudgeon when I wrote them, but apparently there's room for a little ballast in the top-heavy hysteria of American entrepreneurism.

In the next tier down, Purchasing Worker Loyalty was very popular, and that was also one of my favorite posts to write because it dovetailed nicely with the book I'm researching.  It also got me back to my old hometown of North Dighton.  Likewise, Want Innovation?: Think Shovels!, about the Ames shovel collection at Stonehill College, was fun to research, and in a roundabout way (thanks to Greg Galer) got me to the Yankee Steam-Upwhere I got to see my first Corliss steam engine.  Very cool.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A Few Pictures from the 150th Dedication of the Gettysburg Address

The dedication ceremony this week honoring the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address featured keynote speeches from Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, and a Naturalization Ceremony conducted for 16 new citizens by Associate Justice Antonin Scalia.  Lauren Pyfer, a junior from Upper Dublin High School near Philadelphia and winner of the "In Lincoln's Footsteps" essay contest, delivered her modern interpretation of the Gettysburg Address to appreciative applause.

Of course, President Lincoln delivered 270 words, give or take.  Edward Everett was nowhere to be found--not a bad thing given the cold morning breezes.

Kudos to the National Park Service, the Gettysburg Foundation,  the Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania, and Gettysburg College for supporting such a moving event.

We walked in the footsteps of Lincoln the day before the dedication ceremony, from the Lincoln Train Depot to the Wills House to the Gettysburg National Cemetery.  This is the Soldiers National Memorial, not far from where Lincoln spoke, framed against a perfect fall sky.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Another Look at the Industrial Revolution: Visiting Lowell

A thread spool sculpture marks the entrance to the Boott Cotton
Mills Museum in Lowell.
One of the great things about researching the Industrial Revolution from a home in the Boston area is that it's hard not to simply drive smack into the Revolution on a regular basis.  My posts to this blog have included local sites like the Ames Shovel collection at Stonehill College in Easton, the Yankee Steam-Up in East Greenwich, Rhode Island (at the New England Wireless and Steam Museum, located not far from historic Slater Mill), the steampunk exhibit at the old Waltham Watch Company (now the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation), the Mount Hope Company in North Dighton, and Haverhill's very cool mural and painted boot markers.  The other day, too, I finally drove all 22 miles to the City of Lowell, in some ways the most important site of all.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Cult of the Entrepreneur: Maybe It's Too Easy to Start a Company? (2013)

In October, Disrupt Europe 2013 was held in Berlin to highlight what was described as the “burgeoning European tech startup ecosystem.”  2,000 delegates attended, “the cream of Europe’s entrepreneurs and investors.”  Fifteen semifinalists had been honed to four finalists.

What would the best of Europe’s high-tech brains be offering?  Would the finalists address clean water, climate change, food waste, urbanization, acidic oceans, tools for an aging society, or maybe pandemic control?  Perhaps they would tackle something way-out, like defenses against rogue asteroids or slowing species extinction.  Was someone finally curing cancer?  There are so many big, seemingly intractable problems. I could not wait to learn what the best and brightest was working on.
Alas.  One of the four finalists had created an app “that helps you find clothes that you like around you in the physical world.”  Another allowed its users to turn any web page into an API with just a few clicks, making “it easy for developers to pull data from the web.”  Another had developed a platform for voice-enabling consumer and enterprise apps. 

And the eventual winner?   A smart lock for bicycles.  That was the winning idea coming out of the tech ecosystem in Europe.

Meanwhile, back in the States, last month’s winner of TechCruch Disrupt San Francisco had raised $6 million to fund a “communications platform that can be added to any mobile app by adding fewer than 10 lines of code into the mix.”  This will allow users to send text, voice, and video messages across different applications.


Does it seem sometimes like we’ve made it just too easy to start a company? 

Monday, October 28, 2013

Google Ngram Puzzler I: American Innovators

I've been fiddling with the Google Ngram Viewer for the last few months, trying to understand what it means and how it might help with the historical research I'm doing.  While still under construction, the Ngram's database of 5.2 million digitized books (through 2008) is an endlessly fascinating tool.  I've provided below a search I did on America's heavyweight innovators, picking a few from each of the last three centuries.  (In so doing, I reviewed the Atlantic's recent and equally fascinating list of "The Top 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel," making sure I didn't miss an important name.)

I'd be interested in hearing your take on this.  My unscientific conclusions include the following:

1. Henry Ford is the dominant presence among American innovators, and has been for the last century.  He died in 1947, which may explain the spike in interest in the 1950s as the press and historians tried to evaluate his contributions.  Even with the ascension of GM after 1930, however, and the rise of Japanese automakers in the 1970s, Henry's star continues to shine.  Only Bill Gates made a serious run at Ford around 2000, but since then has been in decline as his interests have shifted from Microsoft to philanthropy.  Were the graph to extend to 2013, I presume Steve Jobs might be in the top 5, but as you can see, Edison, Carnegie and Rockefeller are true, long-term heavyweights.  Needless to say, America is very much a culture defined by the automobile and computer.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Since When Did My Birthday Become a Marketing Event?

I celebrated a birthday this week.  I know, because, the morning of, when I fired up Google Search, there was a birthday cake and celebratory frou-frou decorating my screen.  I thought: "Hmmm, what semi-obscure personage is Google celebrating today?  Willa Cather?  George Selden?"  I clicked and--what do you know--it said "Happy Birthday, Eric."  I was the obscure personage.

Around 10 a.m. I heard a ring on our house landline, the phone we learned long ago could only be Mitt Romney or the NRA asking for money.  It turned out to be our local car dealership singing happy birthday into the answering machine.  Another birthday greeting from our mortgage originator arrived around lunch in my email followed by one from the local sports radio station.  That afternoon in regular mail I received a birthday card from my dentist, neatly signed by all of his dental hygienists.

I know I should be flattered.  After all, they did remember.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Missing The "Innovation Thing" (Redux)

In 1883, Henry Ford was tinkering with a neighbor’s watch and claimed later to realize that it could be manufactured for as little as thirty cents.  He never bothered to pursue his idea, however, because he concluded that “watches were not universal necessities, and therefore people would generally not buy them.”

Ford was a brilliant entrepreneur but missed “the watch thing.”

IBM was the second most profitable company in the world and probably the smartest technology company when it missed “the desktop thing.”  DEC and Wang were brilliant upstarts that missed the “the personal computer thing.”

Microsoft completely whiffed on "the search thing, “the cloud thing," and, as Steve Ballmer most recently disclosed, the "phone thing."

Eric Schmidt admitted that he and Google had missed on “the friend thing.”

Really smart people and organizations miss really big opportunities, even when those organizations have their eyes wide open and antenna fully extended.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Few Pictures From the Yankee Steam-Up

If you read about the Industrial Revolution, you can't avoid steam.  Newcomen.  Watt.  Corliss.  The good old external combustion engine.

However, if you live in the modern world and just happen to be enrolled in that esteemed class of proletariat known as the "Knowledge Worker," the only steam that you're apt to encounter is that which fogs up the mirror in the bathroom of the hotel on your last business trip.

It's nice, then, when the modern world gets a glimpse of steam in its classic, 19th-century state.  That's what happened this weekend in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, at the New England Wireless and Steam Museum.  It's called the Yankee Steam-Up and it's an annual gathering of engineers, hobbyists, historians, know-nothings and steam engines, large and small.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Founding Fathers as Innovators: Republic 1.0

The Founding Fathers play a critically important, sometimes even bizarre role in modern America.  “We want to know what Thomas Jefferson would think of affirmative action,” Gordon Wood writes in his superb Revolutionary Characters, “or George Washington of the invasion of Iraq.”

In many ways this obsession with seeking the blessings of our founders is unique.  We don’t worry, for example, if Henry Ford would endorse our newest manufacturing processes, what Babe Ruth thinks of the designated hitter rule or if Louis Armstrong cares for rap.  Likewise, the French don’t wonder what Charlemagne would say about their current immigration policy just as the British, Wood points out, feel no need to check in periodically with either of the two William Pitts.

WWTJD? Exactly.

So, it’s interesting to reflect on the fact that the Founding Fathers’ greatest accomplishment—beyond their individual achievements with electricity, writing declarations, and winning wars—was constructing their grand experiment in self-government: Republic 1.0.  As political entrepreneurs, Washington and company launched a radical innovation in the global market, ran it for a while, and then handed it over to the next generation of management.

What did they think of the nation they had created?   Were they pleased?  Did Republic 1.0 measure up to their expectations?  Did each die content in his achievement, or, like Victor Frankenstein, aghast at the unintended consequences of the monster they had fashioned?

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Did The Last Singularity Confuse Us Completely About American History?

Are you ready for the coming Singularity?
Defined by Vernor Vinge in 1993, the next Singularity will be the “moment” when technology will become capable of creating machines with intelligence greater than human beings.  The result will likely be superhuman intelligence, either in human-computer interfaces, or perhaps in superhuman networks—a massive evolutionary leap forward.  Ray Kurzweil, the most visible exponent of the Singularity, predicts it for around 2045 and believes it will allow humans to control their fates and become immortal.
It’s pretty heady stuff and has its share of fans and critics.  There is now even a Singularity University in Silicon Valley, underwritten in part by Google.
One thing most proponents agree on is that the coming Singularity will be “capable of rupturing the fabric of human history” and, therefore, so profound that human beings standing on either side will barely recognize one another.
Like all forecasts, History informs the timing and shape of the coming Singularity.  Advocates predict its arrival by pointing to at least three Singularities thus far on earth: when human brains evolved, when farming communities appeared, and the Industrial Revolution.   (Some lists include fire, language, reading, and mathematics.  Some might include the Big Bang.  Taken together—and you need your logarithmic graph paper for this--the consensus forecast for the next Singularity is 2075.) 
The rise of farming communities and the Industrial Revolution are especially interesting because they are recent, and subject to some degree of measurement.  In two million years, for example, the human population grew glacially from about 10,000 proto-humans to four million modern humans.  When some of these humans decided to live as farmers about 10,000 years ago—a consensus Singularity—the world’s population began to double at the spectacular rate of every 900 years or so.
Likewise, before 1750 (the start of the “first” Industrial Revolution of steam and telegraph), it took 350 years for a family in England to double its standard of living.  By the 1950s (after the second Industrial Revolution of electricity and the internal combustion engine), an American family could expect to double its standard of living in a single generation
All of which leads—if you buy the logic--to the fascinating observation that the entire history of the United States has been lockstep with one of the great, singular events in human history.  
Never has the accumulation of wealth been so easy, or growth in the standard of living so steep, as during the great "American experiment.”  For the first time in the history of humankind, economic conditions supported and even accelerated the sort of culture that, according to Hezekiah Niles’ famous observation, featured “the almost universal ambition to get forward.” 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

What Makes For Success? (Hint: It's Not the Bathrooms)

If I’ve seen it once I’ve seen it a dozen times—the article about the genius stroke Steve Jobs had in locating the bathrooms at Pixar.  He “insisted there be only two bathrooms in the entire Pixar studios, and that these would be in the central space. And of course this is very inconvenient. No one wants to have to walk 15 minutes to go to the bathroom. And yet Steve insisted that this is the one place everyone has to go every day.”

The moral of the story is that Jobs “wanted there to be mixing. He knew that the human friction makes the sparks, and that when you're talking about a creative endeavor that requires people from different cultures to come together, you have to force them to mix. . . And so his design was to force people to come together even if it was just going to be in the bathroom."

Now I ask you, does this really make sense?  

Do you really believe, had there been four or six or eight bathrooms spread throughout Pixar, that somehow Toy Story would have suffered?  

Do you really believe that a healthy company needs to force its employees to attend mixers near the toilet bowls?  (For that matter, do you really think, except for maybe the Pentagon and a NASA facility here or there, anyone actually has to walk 15 minutes in any office to find a bathroom?  That would certainly limit my Diet Cokes.)

By this theory, incidentally, the smokers in a company should all be wildly creative because they gather together in a little smelly place about a dozen times a day.

I would propose to you that this story is a function of 1) Steve Jobs’ halo effect, and 2) the fact that when a company is successful we back-attribute everything they did to that success.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Not for the Squeamish: Eli Whitney’s Greatest Innovation

Whitney's Cotton Gin
(just in case one lands in your driveway)
There are few entrepreneurs in American history more controversial than Eli Whitney.

We all know he invented the cotton gin, even if we wouldn’t recognize a cotton gin were one to land in the middle of our driveway.  Whitney, we are told, made Cotton “King,” extended the institution of slavery and started the Civil War. 

Or not.  There’s that nagging story about his friend, Catharine Green, really inventing the gin.  And there are all those “saw gins” manufactured by other mechanics that worked better than Whitney's original gin, and all those patent cases he lost in court.

Even if all that seems controversial, at least we can be sure that Whitney was the Father of Mass Production for his use of interchangeable parts in the musket locks he made for the US government.  In fact, in one of the great product demos of all time--presented to President Adams and future President Jefferson--Eli Whitney allowed the founding fathers to miss and match parts, building must locks in any combination they liked.

It was a tour de force.  One biographer concluded, “For the initiation of the mass production that has given the United States the highest material standard of living of any country in the world, the nation is indebted to the genius of Eli Whitney.”

Or not.  Around 1960 a clever technology historian disassembled a batch of Whitney’s musket locks and discovered them to be hand-filed, irregular, and marked for specific guns—in other words, not interchangeable at all.  His product demo was a scam.  And even Jefferson fell for it.  

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Paradigms and Serial Entrepreneurs: The Language of Business

There are certain words and phrases that creep into the business lexicon.  At first they’re clear, useful, and appropriate, but, squeezed beyond their means, become burdensome and hackneyed.

Paradigm is a word like that, and more especially, paradigm shift.  When I first heard it in 1980 or so it was like hearing “weltanschauung” for the first time in high school:  It was so cool we tried to fit it into every conversation (as in "that new Three Dog Night song upended my weltanschauung").  So, too, with paradigm shift.  Pretty soon, every time someone launched a new product, reorganized a department, or entered a new market, they were shifting paradigms.  It got to be silly.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Gettysburg: July 4th, 150 Years Ago

Two kinds of monuments were on display a Gettysburg battlefield this week.
I had an opportunity to visit Gettysburg this week to again walk the battlefield, as I did five years ago, and to admire the extraordinary work being done by the National Park Service and the Gettysburg Foundation to rehabilitate, preserve, protect and interpret this sacred ground.

The three-day battle (Wed-/July 1 to Fri/July 3) ended 150 years ago yesterday with Pickett's Charge, and as Lee's defeated army withdrew, the scene on July 4 was horrific.  We know a great deal about events today (for current reports see here and here and for a great new film by Jake Boritt, see here), but the July 4, 1863 New York Times was still trying to make sense of the battle by presenting news and telegrams (in a kind of Twitter stream) received from various locations.  The headline read like this:
THE GREAT BATTLES.; Our Special Telegrams from the Battle Field to 10 A.M. Yesterday. Full Details of the Battle of Wednesday. No Fighting on Thursday Until Four and a Half, P.M. A Terrible Battle Then Commenced, Lasting Until Dark. The Enemy Repulsed at All Points. The Third Battle Commenced. Yesterday Morning at Daylight. THE REBELS THE ATTACKING PARTY. No Impression Made on Our Lines. The Death of Longstreet,and Barksdale of Mississippi. Other Prominent Rebel Officers Killed or Wounded. A LARGE NUMBER OF PRISONERS. Gen. Sickles' Right Leg Shot Off. OTHER GENERAL OFFICERS WOUNDED. OFFICIAL DISPATCHES FROM GEN. MEADE. THE BATTLE OF WEDNESDAY. REPORTS FROM PHILADELPHIA. THE BATTIE OF THURSDAY. YESTERDAY'S BATTLE. Our Special Telegrams from the Battle Field. NEWS RECEIVED IN WASHINGTON. NEWS RECEIVED IN PHILADELPHIA. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS DISPATCHES. REPORTS FROM HARRISBURGH. REPORTS FROM COLUMBIA, PENN. REPORTS FROM BALTIMORE. THE GREAT BATTLE. COL. CROSS, OF NEW-HAMPSHIRE, KILLED.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Like Sugar, Cotton and Oil, Software Solves Everything

In 1965, the world’s best-selling science fiction novel, Dune, introduced us to a future interstellar world at war over a “spice” called melange.  Found only on the desert planet of Arrakis, melange was the most sought-after substance in the universe, capable of providing human beings a better and longer life, and unlocking “prescience,” which made interstellar travel possible.

Melange, you might say, was a product advantaged beyond all others for its time and place.

Occasionally, there are commodities here on earth that have more than a passing similarity to Frank Herbert’s melange.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Want Innovation?--Think (Ames) Shovels

Nicole has choreographed the angle on this
particular shot, though has not yet placed
a "Kodak moment" sign at the location.
My thanks to friends and associates Greg Galer, Henry Ames, Bill Ames and Nicole Tourangeau Casper, Director of Archives and Historical Collections at Stonehill College, for their combined efforts in aiding me in today's visit to the Arnold B. Tofias Industrial Archives--the Ames Shovel Collection.

It's a gem located on the Stonehill campus in Easton, Massachusetts, not far from Oliver Ames's (1779-1863) famed Shovel Works, and tells the story of one of America's oldest enterprises--and the Industrial Revolution's great successes.

Were you to walk across America in first half of the 19th century, you would have found Ames shovels at work on every farm, foundation, country road, turnpike, canal and railroad in the early Republic.  Cumberland Road?  Ames shovels.  Erie Canal? Ames shovels.  Union Pacific Railroad? Ames shovels.  Transportation Revolution?  Ames shovels.  By 1879, the firm launched by Oliver Ames produced 3/5's of the world's shovels.  (For comparison, Android tablets hit 60% market share this quarter, and 60% of your body is water.)

I'm saving "the rest of the Oliver Ames story" for my Nation of Entrepreneurs book, but wanted to share just a few pictures from today's visit.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Getting Things Done, Old Style

Joseph Paxton's famous "Emperor
Fountain" at Chatsworth
We live in the worlds of Big Business, Big Labor, Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Data and, in the last decade or two, Big Productivity.

There’s an entire industry that’s emerged to promote productivity in the form of Getting Things Done (“stress-free” productivity!), First Things First, Franklin Covey, 7 Habits, the 4-Hour Work Week, a hundred apps, a thousand courses, and a steady barrage of articles all instructing us on how to use our time more wisely.

I am certain, for example, to stumble upon a dozen articles this year with advice on how to clear my email inbox.

We are challenged with “contexts” in our daily tasks, selective ignorance, interruption prevention and avoiding open loops.  Special red files store our life goals, which must not be mixed with the light blue files containing this Friday’s tasks.  Even our GPS reminds us to pick up toothpaste when we pass the CVS so as not to have to make a second trip.

So, it comes as something of a surprise when we discover someone from the past who, not having been blessed with all of this productivity advice, could get anything done at all.  But get it done they did, and many (whom we rarely hear about) lived extraordinary lives filled with an endless series of accomplishments.  I've had chance meetings with some of these folks in my research over the last few weeks and, for no other reason than I like their stories, share them with you here.

Monday, May 27, 2013

A Memorial Day Post: Some Memes of American History

I took this picture of hand rock in 1991.  It is the perfect
likeness of a human hand, somehow inscribed in the rock.
There are some stories in America that just have legs.

Take, for example, the tale of the Thompson Long Gun.

At the time of Middleborough’s incorporation in 1669 by English from nearby Plymouth, the local Nemasket and their ancestors had been living in the area for perhaps 12,000 years.  When conflict broke out between the colonists and Native Americans in the summer of 1675, Middleboro’s 75 English retreated to a fort built on the Nemasket River.

In early June 1675 a group of Nemasket appeared near a rock on a hillside on the opposite shore of the river.  For several days, the story goes, the Natives flung insults at the fort until Isaac Howland, famous for his marksmanship, was selected to fire an especially long gun brought by the commander of the fort, John Thompson.  As the distance between the fort and rock was about a half mile, requiring a trajectory more like artillery than a gun, nobody expected anything more than a startled reaction from the Nemasket and perhaps some peace and quiet.  

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Living in Fear of Google Glasses

I’m a gadget guy.  I loved my first Palm Pilot so much I bought it four times: once new, and each of the three times I accidentally left it in the seat pocket of my last flight. Those of you who go back a few years with this blog know of my adoration for the HP-12C, and the Tassimo.  I also had a fleeting affair with the Kindle, which I left for a younger iPad.  And I sleep with my smart phone on my bedside table, despite dire warnings to resist.

But I say all this as preamble to my profound fear and loathing of Google Glass.

My fear comes from the sure knowledge that once placed on the bridge of my nose they will never come off.  In other words, after I've experienced augmented-reality then I'm afraid reality will seem lacking.  That is a terribly depressing thought, since I have gotten to mostly understand and kind of like reality.  I am able, after all, to find a head of lettuce in a grocery store without little red arrows and coupons appearing before my eyes--just like I could once find my way with a paper map.   Yet I know, if the GPS isn’t on (even between home and work) it feels like a black hole in the middle of my dashboard.  Google glasses will place that black hole in the middle of my reality.

The nice thing about Google glasses is
they also make us beautiful.  No extra charge.

My loathing comes from the price of Google glasses.  Not that price--I’m sure they’ll be affordable, probably even free.  It’s the price of having my brain and emotions placed in the feeding trough of global advertisers.  Did I look at the Colgate and then the Crest?  For how long?  Which did I choose?  They can fix that.  

Just imagine Google and P&G and the Chinese military crawling around inside your head all day.  Just imagine your life last May 28th from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. being subpoenaed for a court case. All I can picture is Malcolm McDowell with toothpicks propping his eyes open and being made to feel nauseous whenever Beethoven plays.  I do not want that happening to me or my droogs.  

I have never, ever understood people who go without TVs, computers, or smart phones.  I have never had much sympathy for Luddites.  But that may change.  As long as technology was rummaging around in my bookshelves, music collection and kitchen cabinets, I was ok; once it gets into my frontal lobe, it might be time to resist.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Why History Students Should Love Big Data

It's Spring 1976, Wilson Hall, Brown University.  Professor William McLoughlin has just informed his 85 students in “American Social and Intellectual History” that they are to write their first paper. All he has given us is the title: “The Age of Jefferson and Adams.” We groan. Then he adds: “Keep it to three pages or less. Double-spaced.” We smile. Three pages? How hard can that be?

“If you make the margins too narrow,” McLoughlin adds, “I’ll mark you down a grade.”

Needless to say, nobody got an A on that paper. There may have been a B or two, the good professor informed us.  Not me. It was all I could do to contain my flowery opening paragraph to a single page. Some of us recovered slightly on paper two, in which we committed “The Age of Lincoln and Calhoun” to three, double-spaced pages. Some retreated to organic chemistry and other more reasonable challenges.

Little did I know, but I had just been introduced to Big Data—though it would take another generation to earn that name. Take an endless, insurmountable, seemingly disconnected pile of information, separate the grain from the chaff (or, as my engineering friends might say, signal from noise), and tell a concise, compelling story about what it all means. 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Today I Broke the Four-Minute Mile

This morning I ran four miles, part of my training for a June half-marathon.  It was very cold and very windy, typical March weather for my town.

Anyway,  I pushed the “start” button on my trusty Runkeeper app and discovered it could not find the GPS satellite.  This is not uncommon; my car's GPS often shows me driving through my neighbor’s bedroom and across the pond near our house.  Usually if I wait a minute or two I’m OK and my app is happy.

For those of you who don’t use a running app, I recommend Runkeeper.  It does a fantastic job keeping time and distance, except for the mean lady who keeps whispering in my ear telling me how slow I’m running.  

This morning, though, I fell in love with that lady.  Here’s why.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Wisdom of Crowds Meets School Closings

We are suffering yet another blast of snow in the Boston area this morning, just as we were beginning to see the first signs of lawn and patio.  Schools are cancelled up and down the eastern part of the state.  Last night, as I watched our youngest daughter work the Web, I was reminded again just how much things have changed in the last generation.

When I was in high school and a winter storm approached, the radio was our best and sometimes only source for no-school news.  We would stay glued to WBZ where an announcer started with the "As" and worked his way to the "Zs."  If we were listening for, say, Dighton-Rehoboth, and happened to tune in at "Eastham" or "Easton," we were done for 10 or 15 minutes until the list recycled.  Some schools might call in at 5 a.m., some at 5:30 a.m. and yours at 6 a.m., which meant real vigilance in being present for each recycle of the "D" schools.  TV would sometimes help but it seems like there was less local news back in the day.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

White if By Land, Black if By Sea?

I pity all of those reporters at the Vatican, having to wait in the rain with nothing to report for interminable periods of time.  The newspeople connected to stations here in Boston have resorted to describing in magnificent detail the color of the smoke rising from the temporary chimney, the smoke designed to signal whether a new pope has been elected (white) or not (black). 
In 2012's Weathermakers to the World, we describe another environmental phenomenon associated with the Sistine Chapel, one put in place almost exactly 20 years ago.  It was a good reminder as I researched the book that, while “air conditioning” is almost always discussed in terms of human comfort, the modern art of “conditioning air” plays a critical role in historic preservation.  

Friday, March 8, 2013

Stressed Much? You're in Good Company

Earlier this month, the American Psychological Association released a study called Stress in Americaconcluding that Millennials, 18 to 33-year-old Americans, along with Gen Xers (34-47), are the most stressed generations in America.  On a scale of 1-10, the average American defines a healthy level of stress as 3.6 but feels a level of 4.9.  Millennials and Gen Xers are at 5.4, a level the study concludes is “far higher than Boomers’ average stress level of 4.7 and Matures’ [67 and over] of 3.7.”

Thirty-nine percent of Millennials say their stress has increased in the last year, while 52 percent report having lain awake at night in the past month due to stress. “Millennials and Gen Xers are most likely to say that they are stressed by work, money and job stability, while Boomers and Matures are more likely to be concerned with health issues affecting their families and themselves,” the study concluded.

All of which left me wondering: Is this degree of stress in America something new?  A recent epidemic?  A product of fast times and too much fast food?  Or perhaps a cultural peculiarity, a kind of national trait—maybe even an irksome downside to achieving progress or byproduct of what time-management guru David Allen would call “getting things done.”

One of my very favorite 19th-century books, both for its passion and unintended humor, was written by Dr. George Miller Beard, a fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine.  Beard was known for having defined “neurasthenia,” a medical condition that arose in the 19th century and produced fatigue, anxiety, and depression, which he attributed to nothing less than American civilization.  His 1881 American Nervousness: Its Causes and Consequences concluded that steam-power, the periodical press, the telegraph, the sciences, and (perhaps Beard’s reaction to suffrage?) the mental activity of women were the primary contributors.

The signs of American nervousness, Beard said, were everywhere: susceptibility to narcotics and drugs, rapid decay of the teeth, premature baldness, the unprecedented beauty of American women (indeed, at some point we might need Dr. Freud to fully understand Dr. Beard), the strain of puberty and change of life; American oratory, speech, and language; and the greater intensity of animal life on this continent.  Fortunately, Beard remained optimistic, saying that wealth and invention could bring calm.  After all, he concluded (in a classic line we might better attribute to a Monty Python sketch), “The Greeks were certainly civilized, but they were not nervous.”

Another poignant reminder of American anxiety came in Henry Adams’s brilliant The Education of Henry Adams, published at his death in 1918 (and a Pulitzer Prize-winner the following year). Henry’s dilemma clearly resonated with Americans when he wrote that “the old universe was thrown into the ash-heap” and a new one created by the crush of technology--the opening of the Boston and Albany Railroad, the appearance of the first Cunard steamers in the bay, and the telegraphic messages which carried from Baltimore to Washington the news that Henry Clay and James K. Polk were nominated for the Presidency. Later in Adams’ life, of course, came electricity, the telephone and the automobile. He remembered the time of “the flint-and-steel with which his grandfather [John Quincy] Adams used to light his own fires in the early morning”; now the world had bathrooms, water, lighting and modern heat—“the whole array of domestic comforts.”

Adams’s anxiety was caused by the fact, despite a life-long education like few in America would ever experience, that he was completely unprepared for the world of the 20th century. “At the rate of progress since 1800,” Adams wrote, “every American who lived into the year 2000 would know how to control unlimited power.”

(I wonder if he was referring to my iPhone?)

Need further proof, or perhaps a wider lens?  In her superb Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000) Joyce Appleby discusses a book called Peter Rugg, The Missing Man.  Written by William Austin (1778-1841) and published in 1824, it was the most popular story of the early Republic.  It reads like a bad, confusing dream, a kind of 19th-century “Charlie on the MTA.”  Peter sets out by carriage from Concord to Boston in a thunderstorm in 1770 and simple rides forever.  He stops repeatedly to ask directions and finds there is no more King; the old road has become a turnpike; the city has grown beyond anything he could imagine. Indeed, Appleby points out, Austin and his generation would see Boston triple in size and New York grow to six times its size from 1776 to 1820; it was an unprecedented “destruction of their elders world.”

Just ask Rip Van Winkle, Peter Rugg’s contemporary.

By all accounts, stress in America is real, uncomfortable, potentially destructive, and something we need to work to control. But a little history indicates we’re not setting any precedents. Just ask John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937), the country’s first billionaire and, adjusted for time, considered the richest American ever. Rockefeller once confided “how often I had not an unbroken night’s sleep, worrying about how it was all coming out.”

Well, things didn’t turn out so badly for Mr. Rockefeller. American history suggests that, shoulders to the wheel and a little optimism, and the Millennials and Gen Xers will be alright, too.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Purchasing Worker Loyalty: Mount Hope Finishing, North Dighton, MA

The Mount Hope Finishing Company and village
of North Dighton, Massachusetts, in 1924.  Some
believed it was just one big, integrated factory.  
This is a story about employee benefits, lots of benefits.  More benefits than Google’s free transportation and gourmet lunches, Evernote’s housecleaning services, or Genentech’s last-minute babysitters.  But it’s also a story about what an employer might expect in return for all those benefits.

It starts in the little Massachusetts village of North Dighton in 1901 when 26-year-old Joseph Knowles Milliken, “J.K.” to his associates, examined an old abandoned mill beside the flowing waters of the Three Mile River, 15 miles upstream from Mount Hope Bay.  The village surrounding the mill seemed as sad and dilapidated as the rundown facility itself.  Seizing opportunity, however, J.K. established within six short months a cloth finishing mill to support the booming textile trade in nearby Fall River, New Bedford and Rhode Island.  Mount Hope Finishing was profitable from day one and its estimated initial need for 175 employees would eventually balloon to 1,400.

To remain successful, J.K. Milliken required copious and sure amounts of two essential raw materials, water and skilled labor.  At capacity, the mill required ten million gallons of clean water every day, and the young entrepreneur was successful in securing water rights for some 25 miles upstream.  It was in the securing of labor, however, that J.K. Milliken would leave his mark.

Extending along Summer Street, the Three Mile River flowing behind it, the Mount Hope
Finishing Company would become the largest cloth bleachery under one roof in America.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

After This, Nothing Will Be the Same

Remember Dick Fosbury?  In 1967 he was ranked the 61st best high-jumper in the world.  At the Olympics in Mexico City the following year he cleared the bar at 7 feet 4.25 inches and won the gold medal.  He did it with a style so different from the traditional “western straddle” that it came to be called the Fosbury Flop.  People laughed.  Even some of his coaches watched in disbelief.  One newspaper described it as going over the bar “like a guy being pushed out of a 30-story window.”

Today, you cannot find a world-class high jumper who doesn’t do the Fosbury Flop.  One moment it was one thing; the next, it would never be the same.

I was pondering these kinds of events as I wrote my post on Henry Leland (The Prophet of Quality)--how suppliers and competitors could not believe what he was able to do with quality and interchangeable parts in 1908 on that British test track, but afterwards, if they did not do it as well, they could not compete.

Here’s a small one with big implications:  In 1970 or 80 or 90, if someone stood up on an airplane and started causing trouble, most of us put our head down in our books and let the flight attendants handle things.  Now, after 9/11—one of the silver linings, I suppose—if someone stands up on a plane and starts causing trouble, the entire plane stands up and duct tapes him or her to a seat.   There’s no hesitation.  We’ve learned the hard way that there’s no protection like self-protection.  One day changed everything.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

In Memory of David Rossi, 1957-2003

Dave with our baby, who is now 17.
It was ten years ago today we lost David Rossi. Only the good die young.

Dave studied Chemistry at PITT, and I had the great good misfortune of living with him just after graduation, right around the time PITT won the national championship, the Pirates won the World Series and the Steelers won the Super Bowl.  We roomed together for a couple of years in Brooklyn Heights when we both worked for the Chase, and in our first year at HBS.  Dave introduced me to the HP-12C, to Isaac Payton Sweat, and to the advice from his summer of reading (nothing but) Louis L'Amour that you shouldn't carry a knife unless you're prepared to use it.  Dave convinced me one night over beers that Harry Truman was the only person in history who ever could have really ruled the world, right after WWII when he had the Bomb and the Army and the wartime economy.  (If I ever go back to get my PhD in History, that'll be my thesis.)  He also shared with me his irrefutable theory of dating by the numbers, which I wrote about in 2007.

In the time I knew Dave, though, all he ever really wanted to do was Space.  He would have been an astronaut except for his eyesight.  Between Spacehab and Orbital Sciences, he got close.

Here's how to describe Dave best: At his funeral in Washington ten years ago, there were maybe six of us who were asked to speak.  As we talked beforehand, I realized we all believed the same thing: David Rossi was our best friend.  Six best friends.

I believe we were all correct.  Unless, of course, you count Sandy; then there was really only one.

Rest well, good friend.  I'm turning up "All This Ol' Wailin'" now so you can two-step in those damn-fool boots.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Prophet of Quality

Henry Martyn Leland was quality before quality was cool. Born near Barton, Vermont, in 1843, this mechanically-gifted farm boy soon fled the fields and proceeded to assemble a stellar “mechanic’s resume,” roughly equivalent today to someone having worked for IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Apple and Google.   Starting as a machinist in a company that manufactured power looms for America’s booming textile industry, he was employed during the Civil War at the cutting-edge United States Armory at Springfield, Massachusetts, moved to the world-renowned Colt Revolver Factory in Hartford, Connecticut, and spent time with Brown and Sharpe Manufacturing Company in Providence, one of the finest toolmakers in the world.  By the time he arrived in the automobile industry at the turn of the twentieth century, and specifically as general manager of an upstart brand called Cadillac, he had emphatic views on what made for manufacturing quality.

Leland must have cut quite a figure, more like a Biblical prophet than entrepreneur and mechanic.  He was full-bearded, slim and angular, cantankerous and autocratic--a God-fearing boss who opposed drinking and smoking, and held regular prayer meetings in his factories.  I don’t know if he ate locust, but he strikes me as John the Baptist with a set of calipers tucked in his hairshirt.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Taking "Weathermakers" to Basel: Some Lessons

A view of Basel and the Rhine from our conference room window.
It's hard work, but somebody has to do it.
It's been two years since I first waded into the Carrier Corporation archives to research and write Weathermakers to the World.  This is long enough, especially with my faulty memory, to begin to get fuzzy on some of the important details.  So when an opportunity came along to present the book, especially in a grand hotel on the Rhine in Basel, Switzerland, it also turned out to be a good time to study-up on the story and even reflect on a few of its larger lessons.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Little Advice From Monty Python

Like the Bible, Alice in Wonderland and your mother, Monty Python can be an endless source of inspiration and good advice throughout your career.

Over on Ascent Venture Partners' "Investing Edge" blog, Matt Fates and I have posted "Everything I Know About Pitching VCs I Learned From Monty Python."  Enjoy.

Know what I mean?  Nudge nudge.

Say no more.

Monday, January 7, 2013

In Praise of the Introverted Entrepreneur

Arguably the single most successful entrepreneur of the twentieth century was Alfred Pritchard Sloan (1875-1966). In 1920 he joined an unwieldy and nearly bankrupt collection of business entities called General Motors, scratching out just 12 percent market share against the 55 percent of Henry Ford’s indomitable Model T. 

In 1956 when Sloan retired as chairman of GM, the company boasted a 52 percent market share, a matchless reputation for innovation, quality and reliability, and some of the strongest consumer brands in the world.  Over a 36-year career, Alfred Sloan orchestrated the creation of the largest, best run, and most valuable company on the planet. 

Those readers who know the American auto industry only through the lens of poor quality, hidebound management, bankruptcies and bailouts might be interested to learn that it began as one of the most fluid and hypercompetitive markets in history.  In 1903 alone, 57 automobile companies were founded in the United States (and another 27 went bankrupt). Consumers could choose from 1,500 distinct models produced by seemingly as many companies.  Sloan described Detroit’s entrepreneurial community like we might today’s Silicon Valley: “The field was open to all; technical knowledge flows from a common storehouse of scientific progress. . .The market is world-wide, and there are no favorites except those chosen by the customers.”  And, not unlike today’s smartphone, Sloan wrote of the automobile, “Humanity never had wanted any machine as much as it desired this one.”

Alfred Sloan was blessed with extraordinary focus, great energy, an ability to attract and foster amazing talent, and an intellect that grasped modern consumerism better than most anyone in the world.  His innovations ranged from four-wheel brakes and ethyl gasoline to safety glass and the concept of “annual models.” He has been hailed as the father of the modern corporation, a master of consumer mass marketing, and the most effective CEO ever.

He was also an introvert--a flat-out, socially uncomfortable, avoid-the-party, go-home-to-his-wife-at-night introvert.