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.