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.

At Sensitech's invitation, I presented Weathermakers--the story of Willis Carrier and the invention of modern air conditioning--to a lively group of European Life Science customers at a cocktail get-together after a fascinating day of discussions about the future of the worldwide cold chain.  (Seriously.  The technology, complexity and effort that goes into making sure the world has safe and effective vaccines and medicine is extraordinary.)  The Life Sciences industry was an early and enthusiastic adopter of modern air conditioning--in 1907 at Parke, Davis and Company in Detroit, and later in the groundbreaking manufacture of penicillin.  Even if you know nothing about pharmaceuticals, you can sense how difficult it might be to produce gel caps or grow vaccine without control over heat and humidity.  For that matter, shipping pharmaceuticals safely around the world without refrigeration is virtually impossible.  Needless to say, those kinds of topics comprised more than a little of the day's spirited discussion under the expert guidance of Sensitech's Henry Ames and cold chain industry guru Dr. Rafik Bishara.

After the presentation and dinner we walked by Basel's City Hall.
Just like the one in your town, right?
I called the cocktail presentation "Weathermakers to the World: A Look Back At Innovation."  It was designed as a bit of history and change of pace for executives who are required to spend most of their waking lives thinking about the future.  Fortunately, my audience was ready; with a good day of work behind them, wine in hand, the Rhine flowing nearby, frog-leg soup beckoning, and the roar of the Swiss franc appreciating right outside the window, well, who wouldn't be up for a little historical reflection?

I've mentioned the Weathermakers story here (when we launched at the Library of Congress) and again here (when we visited history in Brooklyn with CBS).  And, I am hoping by now it's high on your reading list here.  So, I'll spare you a long narrative.  But, after a couple of years of churning the material over in my mind, I've drawn a few conclusions that I wedged into a set of PowerPoint slides for Sensitech's guests.  So, with brief commentary, here are a few of those slides:

Lesson 1:  I wanted to call this slide "Quit Complaining" but didn't think that was the best way to begin.  Nonetheless. . .

Here's the gist: Willis Carrier was born in 1876.  That same year, America celebrated its 100th anniversary in Philadelphia at the Centennial Exhibition.  All of the very best technology was on display, the highlight being that huge Corliss Steam Engine you see, the thing that looks like a Star Wars spaceship.  (Philadelphia 1876 also featured Alexander Graham Bell and his telephone, a Remington typewriter, the bicycle, something that looked suspiciously like a light bulb, and Heinz ketchup.)

Now jump ahead to Chicago in 1893, when Willis turned 17 years old.  See the difference?  In a word: Electricity.  A city of light.  Thousands and thousands of light bulbs.  An electric grid.  In fact, Philadelphia 1876 would be the last world's fair ever to feature steam.

Think about that: Just before Carrier and his cohort (men born about the same time like Einstein, Churchill, Picasso, FDR, Alfred Sloan and Orville Wright) reached 20 years old, the fundamental power supply of the world had fundamentally changed.  It was perhaps the most transformative technology shift in history.  Of course, the automobile happened around the same time and precipitated nearly the same kind of transformation.  And the airplane.  And telephone.  And, while Carrier and friends were adjusting to those changes, they had to weather not one but two world wars and the Great Depression.  That's speed.

Now, how about some real speed: A white American male born in America in 1876 could expect to live to be about 50 years old.  So Willis Carrier's cohort could count on only about two-thirds the time to get something done as we do now.

In other words, when you read the next article on LinkedIn or TechCrunch about how fast our world is moving--and the Herculean task we have in managing it--think again.  There's nothing like a little history to cure a bad case of whining.

Lesson 2: Not only were things transforming at lightening speed in 1900, but they were hot.

More work days were lost to heat and humidity in large American cities in 1900 than to snow and ice.  The rule of thumb practiced by many shop owners and office managers: People must stay on the job until the temperature plus 20 percent of humidity equaled 100.  That arithmetic hurts, even 110 years later: at 80F and 80% humidity, folks were still expected to stay on the job.  All of which suggests what we knew all along:  Our grandparents really were tougher than us.  And maybe we do whine a little much sometimes.

Of course, once Carrier and his co-founders came up with a solution, nobody was shy about advertising or enjoying it.  In this Texas theater in the 1920s, Carrier's comfort air got top billing with the feature film.  It's one thing to be tough, but quite another to be a martyr.  Our grandparents weren't stupid.

Lesson 3: There's nothing like getting your pioneering innovation in front of every key decision maker in the land.

When modern air conditioning reached the movie theater, it became real to thousands of people.  But when it made it onto trains--which it first did in 1930 when a Carrier unit was installed on the B&O Railroad's dining car, the Martha Washington--it got in front of every important decision maker in the country.  Willis Carrier believed this was the most important market segment of all in terms of air conditioning's subsequent growth; businessmen whose product and staff suffered all day in heat and humidity boarded the train in a hot New York City, dined in air-conditioned comfort for the first time in their lives, and disembarked in (brutally) hot Washington, D.C. having gone through nothing short of a conversion experience.

Trains were the holy grail of the comfort air marketeer.  Their ready adoption of comfort air also puts the lie to Ted Levitt's Marketing Myopia (which I've written about here)--that trains didn't know they were in the "transportation business."  We should all be lucky enough to find such a market for our next innovation.