Sunday, December 21, 2014

One of My Wild Neighbors, "General" Solomon Lowe

General Solomon Lowe (1782-1861)
Every so often on one of my morning runs I feel energetic enough to pass by the Harmony Cemetery in our little town of Boxford.  I've known for many years that there's a certain General Solomon Lowe (1782-1861) buried there, and that he had either three wives (and a mistress, one story goes) or four wives--each of whom presumably he loved with all of his heart in life--but whom he used as kind of decorative ornamentation around his grave in death.

Today, looking for a reason not to finish my Christmas shopping, I finally stopped by to check out the General.  It turns out, back in 1901, a travel reporter for The New York Times had a similar idea.

I leave the story, 113 years old if a day, to him.

At a place known as Boxford, about ten miles from Andover, Mass. far, far from the madding crowd, there is as curious a burying ground as can be found in all New England.  As a matter of fact, Boxford is just a section of country, beautiful country at that, but there is no village or gathering of habitations which could be dignified with the name of town.  The quiet farmspeople go their peaceful ways utterly oblivious to the odd humor to be found in their old burying ground.



I might point out that there's a little city-slickerism going on here, and throughout the article.  Boxford is still today no booming metropolis, but the town had a "center" in 1645 (the same year Manhattan was just being deeded to the Dutch), a railroad stop in 1854, and by 1901 both an East and West Boxford Village.  It also had in 1901 a rather substantial match factory.  It's fair to say, however, that if Route 95 hadn't altered the town's quaint ambiance in the late 1950s we might still have only 600 residents, about the number the Times reporter found in 1901.  

He continued:

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Age of Big Entrepreneurship 2: Not All Innovations Are Created Equal

Some time ago I concluded that to understand entrepreneurs and innovation, I was finally going to have to read Joseph Schumpeter.  

Reading about Schumpeter in Thomas McCraw’s Prophet of Innovation[1]  and Richard Swedberg’s 1988 essay[2] was great fun: Here was a brilliant yet flawed thinker, foisting theories on his peers that economist Paul Samuelson said “began to smack of Pythagorean moonshine.”[3]  

Schumpeter championed mathematical economics despite himself not being very good at math; he blithely characterized the inner psyche of entrepreneurs before he’d actually met many; he was a frustrated competitor of John Maynard Keynes, whose basic theories Schumpeter may not have grasped; and he was a man nearly forgotten in the great stagflation of the 1970s.

Today, of course, Joseph Schumpeter is resurrected as the patron saint of entrepreneurs.  One German economist wondered by 1984 if we had entered the “Age of Schumpeter.”[4]

However, if reading about Schumpeter is fun, reading Schumpeter can take some concentrated effort.  It has its rewards, however.  Schumpeter’s 1947 “The Creative Response in Economic History” posited that the entrepreneur and his function were not difficult to understand: “the defining characteristic is simply the doing of new things or the doing of things that are already being done in a new way [innovation]. . .It should be observed at once that the ‘new thing’ need not be spectacular or of historical importance.  It need not be Bessemer steel or the explosion motor.  It can be the Deerfoot sausage.[5]

I don’t mind telling you I had to research that last item.  The Deerfoot sausage came to market in 1870 in Southborough, Massachusetts, and was something of a sensation.  An ad in a 1920 cookbook suggested it was made from the tenderest, leanest parts of the pig and had a “distinctive taste.”  This, then, was enough “new combination” for the patron saint of entrepreneurs: distinctive taste.

Make no mistake, when Schumpeter wrote in earnest about innovation he featured cotton textiles, railroads, steel, automobiles and electric power while emphasizing the rise of the factory, corporation and modern financial system.  He saw the growth of big business and the merger movement as among the major innovations of the 20th century.[6]  Professor McCraw concluded that “Schumpeter’s signature legacy is his insight that innovation in the form of creative destruction is the driving force not only of capitalism but of material progress in general.”[7]
Yet for Joseph Schumpeter, a sausage he might have enjoyed at the Harvard Business School commissary that morning was also enough to qualify as an innovation.  It is an odd idea for a generation of entrepreneurs seeking to make a dent in the universe.

Apple contributed to this conflation of big and small ideas.  You may recall the famous 1997 commercial, “Think Different,” which was a kind of celebration for Steve Jobs after his return to the company he founded.  “Here’s to the Crazy Ones,” Richard Dreyfus intoned, and before us flashed everyone from Albert Einstein to Bob Dylan, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. to Richard Branson.  It was, you might say, a mix of creative destruction ranging from Bessemer steel to the Deerfoot sausage.  Benjamin Anastas wrote, “If the only measure of greatness is how big an iconoclast you are, then there really is no difference between coming up with the theory of relativity, plugging in an electric guitar, leading a civil rights movement, or spending great gobs of your own money to fly a balloon across the Atlantic.”[8]

The Language of Black Olives

And therein lies the problem.  If virtually everybody innovates, and therefore everyone turns out to be an entrepreneur—no matter how powerful or trivial their idea—then how do we decide what’s valuable and what’s not?  Shouldn’t we have a series of terms for innovation in the same way we grade, say, the lowly black olive?  

For olives we have whole, pitted, halved, segmented, sliced, chopped, and broken pitted.  We have small, medium, large, extra large, jumbo, extra jumbo, giant, colossal, super colossal, mammoth and super mammoth.  Isn’t a new clothing line or distinctive tasting pork sausage something akin to a chopped small black olive, and the electric grid or Internet more like its whole, super mammoth cousin?

Now you understand Starbucks.
I have never been to a Black Olive Convention, but I am imagining there is the Super Mammoth clique with big engraved name badges hung with ribbons who drink bourbon at one end of the bar, and the Small Chopped attendees whose badges are smudged sticky notes that say “Hello My Name Is” followed by blue magic marker who dine together at the local iHop.  A black olive is not just a black olive, after all, and that’s made clear to everyone walking the convention floor.

And yet, attend any conference of entrepreneurs and everyone is an entrepreneur.  Of course, there are super-colossal celebrity Entrepreneurs, and there’s no mistaking the upper one percent whole super mammoth Disruptors, but an entrepreneur is an entrepreneur, and an innovation is an innovation is an innovation.  You might well have bitten into one at breakfast.

A Modest Proposal: Not All Innovations Are Created Equal

In prior posts, I’ve mentioned the single best thing that I read in 2013 was Benjamin Wallace-Well’s “The Blip” in New York Magazine.  It’s about the work of Northwestern economist Robert Gordon, and there’s no way to read it and not conclude that our ability to consistently raise the standard of living is the essential lever on which all civilization rests; when we stagnate, bad things happen economically, and when bad things happen economically we become less civilized.  We are always just a few GNP growth points away from barbarism, or at least the latest version of the Know-Nothings or Tea Partiers.

Given this relationship, I would suggest a simple characterization of innovation: Any new combination that raises the standard of living is classified as a capital-I Innovation.  In this regard, the electrical grid is its own industrial revolution (as Schumpeter pointed out in his writings), and the railroad, Bessemer steel, and the automobile all rate. 

One level down, and sometimes in parallel with innovation that raises the world’s standard of living, is that which improves the general quality of life.  That’s where we might place television, and perhaps some social media, making us happier but not always more productive.  This class of new combinations I would classify as small-I innovation.

So, if an innovation broadly raises the standard of living or generally improve the quality of life, it’s the product of a true entrepreneur.  These are the meaningful innovations, the innovations that keep us healthy and civilized.

And then—well then, there’s everything else.  New fashion lines and sausages.  Almost everything that comes out of a “Disrupt” conference or Y Combinator style machinery.  The last 900,000 apps written.  The last twelve “smart” bike locks, file-sharing, restaurant-booking and ride-sharing services. 

These all rise to the level of innovation in Schumpeter’s work but fail to leave much of a footprint in real life.  They are novelties. They are the shavings of a lathe that occasionally yields an Airbnb, Stripe or Dropbox.  They are the byproduct of Big Entrepreneurship, which—like the San Francisco Gold Rush—enriches those selling the picks and shovels far more than it enriches the miners.  (See TheBig Winner from Y Combinator’s Success.)

So, I beg to differ with Joseph Schumpeter on this point: These fleeting and often trivial products, while technically “new combinations,” do not denote a particularly useful kind of entrepreneurship.  I make this distinction because I believe legions of today's "wantapreneurs" make important choices along the way.  Easy, fast, convenient choices, those leveraging small ideas and underdeveloped skill sets, tend to create novelty and empty entrepreneurship—at best, the distinctive taste of a Deerfoot sausage.  Harder, more informed, more patient choices can lead to real innovation, and sometimes true Innovation.  Not everyone will or can be a Super Mammoth Entrepreneur—we are often shaped more by our opportunities than we are able to shape them--but everyone should understand that the opportunity to try might appear along the way. 

If it turns out the single greatest innovation of of the “Age of Big Entrepreneurship” is Big Entrepreneurship itself, there are going to be a lot of disappointed people who were told they could make sausage but found, looking back, that they were actually the sausage being made instead. 




[1] Thomas K. McCraw, Prophet of Innovation: Joseph Schumpeter and Creative Destruction, Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007.
[2] Richard Swedberg, “Introduction to the Transaction Edition,” Essays on Entrepreneurs, Innovations, Business Cycles, and the Revolution of Capitalism, Richard V. Clemence, ed., New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2000 [rpt: 1951], vii-xxxix.
[3] Thomas K. McCraw, “Schumpeter’s Business Cycles as Business History,” Business History Review 80 (Summer 2006), Boston: The President and Fellows of Harvard College, 2006, 231-261.
[4] Herbert Giersch, “The Age of Schumpeter,” The American Economic Review,” Vol. 74, No. 2, Papers and Proceedings of the Ninety-Sixth Annual Meeting of the American Economic Association, American Economic Association, May 1984, http://www.herbert-giersch-stiftung.de/Portals/0/dokumente/herbert_giersch/werk/3_Struktur-und-Wachstum/3_13_The-Age-of-Schumpeter.pdf, pp. 103-109.
[5] Joseph A. Schumpeter, “The Creative Response in Economic History,” Essays on Entrepreneurs, Innovations, Business Cycles, and the Revolution of Capitalism, Richard V. Clemence, ed., New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2000 [rpt: 1951], 223.
[6] Thomas K. McCraw, “Schumpeter’s Business Cycles as Business History,” Business History Review 80 (Summer 2006), Boston: The President and Fellows of Harvard College, 2006, 231-261.
[7] Thomas K. McCraw, Prophet of Innovation: Joseph Schumpeter and Creative Destruction, Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007, 495.
[8] Benjamin Anastas, “The Foul Reign of Self-Reliance,” The New York Times Magazine, December 4, 2011.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Age of Big Entrepreneurship 1: Confusing Personality for Impact

You may have more pressing questions in your life than to wonder if former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham is an entrepreneur or not, but just such a debate raged across my LinkedIn Pulse screen last week.  Beckham had recently been crowned UK Entrepreneur of the Year by a British magazine, and columnist Gene Marks took issue. 

“I don’t think Victoria Beckham is an entrepreneur,” he wrote.  “That’s because entrepreneurship is not just about business savvy. . .Or celebrity.  Or wealth.  Or even about financial success.  She’s got all that too.  It’s about the risk one takes to achieve those objectives.”

Marks then invoked the spirits of Sam Walton, who borrowed money to purchase a variety store, and Richard Branson who “started his record business with next to nothing in a church basement.” He also conjured up the story of a person who left her job selling wholesale clothing to pitch her own jewelry online, and another who left college and went into “their dad’s business selling electronic components to the computer industry.” Marks added, “These are the risk takers.  These are the dreamers.  These are the entrepreneurs.”

This might make for a good slogan for a weekend Tony Robbins retreat, but it’s hard to find a definition of entrepreneur that’s wandered further off the path of economic impact into the world of personality than this.  Welcome, my friends, to the 21st-century Age of Big Entrepreneurship, where the world revolves around the personal attributes of the individual.  In this case, Marks believed,  Beckham might be a successful businesswoman, but she’s no entrepreneur—just “ask any successful entrepreneur who took risks and suffered failures and they’ll tell you there is a difference.”[2]

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Mount Auburn Cemetery Redux: More Dead Entrepreneurs

I returned to the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Watertown/Cambridge last weekend, my second visit this year.  (See here for the June 2014 post, I See Dead Entrepreneurs.)  I don't generally spend this much time hanging around cemeteries, but Mount Auburn is a very special place, and one full of folks worth meeting--nearly 100,000 at last count.  The leaves also happened to be turning and--while I sound like a old, doty leaf-peeper writing that--Mount Auburn is a world class arboretum.  And sometimes it is fun to indulge my inner National Geographic photographer.

In my last visit I was collecting entrepreneurs, and I was interested this time in adding to that list.  But it's worth saying that Mount Auburn itself is also one of the most interesting social innovations of the 19th century: go visit King's Chapel graveyard in Boston and then head out to Mount Auburn.  It's hard to be more innovative than changing the way people think about death and remember their loved ones.

Below is King's Chapel on a summer day in 2009.


I won't press the point, but there might be a half dozen people per family grave (dust to dust was taken literally), all confined to a rapidly growing urban environment dependent on clean aquifers and wells.

By way of contrast, see Mount Auburn below.  It was made for strolling, for unfurling an oriental rug and laying out a picnic in your large family plot on a Saturday afternoon.  The day we were there last weekend the 170 acres were filled with visitors.



A group of us took a tour called "Not So Rich or Famous," an introduction to a number of folks who had interesting, full, sometimes very difficult lives--but who have been mostly lost to history.  Thanks to some hardworking folks at Mount Auburn, however, their stories are starting to be told.

Monday, November 3, 2014

When Fortune Accidentally Lands in Your Mailbox

I am fully capable of playing Mickey the Dunce on most any occasion, but multitasking is my forte.

A few weeks ago I tried to purchase a 1954 Saturday Evening Post on eBay.  Unfortunately, I was also answering email, booking a trip, and trying to figure out why the cat was tormenting me.  Needless to say, last week I received a Fortune magazine from 1952.  Brilliant.  Wrong magazine, wrong year.

And now that I think of it, I haven't seen the cat for a while, either.

There is a silver lining to my tale of woe, however: this particular edition of Fortune magazine turned out to be absolutely fascinating.

I wasn't alive in April 1952, but it wasn't exactly the Dark Ages, either.  We now know the American Baby Boom was in full swing, life expectancy in the US was almost 69 years, Bill Clinton and George Bush were both well out of diapers, I Love Lucy (in one memorable evening) attracted 10 million viewers, and a killer fog descended on London resulting in the first use of the term "smog."  That all feels pretty modern.

Though--and I write this with some surprise--there's nothing quite like a big, fat, colorful magazine from 1952 to remind us just how far we've really come.  David Lowenthal said famously that the past is a foreign country; with that in mind, let me take you for a quick tour of America in 1952.


First of all, where did Fortune get this picture--a 1933 Christmas Tree Shop?  Was this really the best example of the average American consumer in 1952?

Monday, October 20, 2014

Entrepreneurs, Predators, Robber Barons and Martians

I had reason the other day to re-read Malcolm Gladwell's "The Sure Thing: How Entrepreneurs Really Succeed" in the January 18, 2010 New Yorker (here).  I admire Gladwell but also have come to distrust him just a little, since his MO is to take academic papers and dumb-them-down for a general audience.  Sometimes he puts an odd twist on a topic--I assume--to create greater appeal for the masses.  It can be a twist that doesn't always seem to square with a more careful reading of the original research.

This bit of discomfit led me back to the source for his article, Michel Villette and Catherine Vuillermot's book From Predators to Icons: Exposing the Myth of the Business Hero.  Villette is a sociologist at AgroParisTech and Vuillermot a business historian at L'Universite de France Comte.  Written in 2005, the book was translated into English in 2009, presumably when Gladwell bumped into it and wrote his review.  The authors conclude that the captains of industry--and they study 32 of the richest men in the world--made their fortune neither by taking risk nor innovating, but by taking advantage of (often low-risk) market weaknesses and vulnerabilities. (In fact, the original French title was Portrait of the Businessman as Predator.)  The authors conclude that a successful businessman does whatever it takes competitively to dominate a market and then "once his fortune is made and he invests some of his profits in foundations that reflect the social values of his time, he is forgiven for everything, even if his early career was punctuated by numerous predatory acts."  Think Carnegie and libraries, Stanford and education, Gates and vaccines.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Lessons of History: A Few Takeaways

History has had its share of prolific authors, sometimes astoundingly so.

Sir Herbert Butterfield (1900-1979), the Cambridge professor and philosopher of history, published 22 books on history, the history of history, and the histories of science, religion and international relations.  Fellow knight Sir Arthur Bryant's (1899-1985) vast output included eight "lesser" books and a regular column for the Illustrated London News while he completed his three-book opus on Samuel Pepys; this was followed by 19 books between 1931 and 1944 and 13 more from 1950 to 1975.  

In this country, Allan Nevins (1890-1971) authored over 50 books including a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Grover Cleveland and an eight-volume series on the Civil War.  Men like Sir Winston Churchill, George Bancroft and Theodore Roosevelt turned out copious amounts of superb historical writing in between running countries and saving Western Civilization.  There are many other historians who are awe-inspiring in both their literary volume and its quality.

Few, however, equal the breadth and prodigious output of Will (1885-1981) and Ariel (1898-1981) Durant.  Their 11-volume Story of Civilization was researched, written and published over a period of forty years and is still the most successful historiographical series ever. (For those of you seeking a writing project, the last completed volume was The Age of Napoleon.  The Durants left behind notes for The Age of Darwin and an outline for The Age of Einstein which would bring the series up to 1945.  That would leave only The Age of Aquarius and, perhaps, The End of the Civilization As We Know It and we'd be fully caught up to 2050.)

Fortunately, Will and Ariel also left behind The Lessons of History, a 167-page summary of their magisterial series.  Lessons, which distills decades of thought and thousand of pages to their essence, can be read in an evening or two.  

Below, I've highlighted a few of the Durants' conclusions that resonated with me--though some challenging and not what we necessarily want to hear--and help to explain what we see everyday as our own history unfolds in real time.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Ground Zero of the American Industrial Revolution: Slater Mill


Last year, the Committee on the Theft of American Intellectual Property released a report that estimated annual theft of American IP at about $300 billion, an amount comparable to the current level of U.S. exports to Asia.  This unintended foreign subsidy was termed the "greatest transfer of wealth in history."

While it's perhaps only small comfort, history suggests that Americans themselves are some of the best in the world at corporate espionage and theft, and have been since the American Revolution.  (Wouldn't it be interesting to net out the purloined IP we gather in each year, just to see what our "balance of theft" looks like?)  Among the very first beneficiaries of stolen technology, and still one of the most important in American history, was the Slater Mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

Slater Mill is a kind of "ground zero" for the American edition of the Industrial Revolution, the first place where English factory technology--the latest system for mechanized textile production--was firmly planted in the New World.  Financed by William Almy and his father-in-law, Moses Brown--and just up the road a piece from the Brown family's namesake university--Slater Mill was the first successful cotton factory in the United States.

This is the Blackstone River, which has several names as it flows from Worcester to Providence.  The yellow structure to the left is Slater Mill with the Pawtucket Falls in the foreground.  The Art Deco building (dating from 1933) in the center of the picture is the Pawtucket City Hall.  I managed a 90-minute visit to the Mill site a couple of weekends ago.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Business History, Shaken Not Stirred

There's a digital billboard that makes the rounds on LinkedIn every six months or so featuring wisdom from Henry Ford that looks something like this:



This quote goes right to the heart of Henry Ford's genius: He led the American consumer into the 20th century.  If it weren't for Ford, Americans would still be bumping along on dirt roads in horse-and-buggies.  It's the kind of disruptive innovation modern entrepreneurs dream about bringing to market.  This particular quote usually elicits 20 or so "Likes" and a couple of attaboys from appreciative LinkedIn members.

The problem with the quote, of course, is that Henry never said it.  (For a good discussion, see here.) One reason he likely never said it is that he would have known it to be wrong: Karl Benz was mass-producing automobiles by 1888 and many other Europeans and Americans had joined in by 1900--well before Ford began production--all with the idea of replacing horse-drawn transportation.  The automobile consumer existed well before Henry Ford, even if he and she could not yet afford one of the new contraptions.

Monday, September 1, 2014

When the Two Richest Americans (Ever) Met


"When Commodore Vanderbilt began the world he had nothing, and there were no steamboats or railroads."

So begins one of the seminal pieces of business journalism, Henry Demarest Lloyd's Story of a Great Monopoly, published by "The Atlantic" in 1881.  "When he died," Demarest continued, "railroads had become the greatest force in modern industry, and Vanderbilt was the richest man in Europe or America, and the largest owner of railroads in the world.  He used the finest business brain of his day and the franchise of the state to build up a kingdom within the republic."

In 2007 the New York Times published a graphic showing the thirty or so wealthiest Americans, their accumulated riches measured as a percentage of the economy.  On the Times list, Vanderbilt is shown as the second richest American ever, topped only by one John D. Rockefeller.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Why I'd Get Fired at Dunkin Donuts

Here in New England, and increasingly in other parts of the country, there's a Dunkin Donuts on every corner.  For many people a stop at Dunkin is a morning ritual.  Work at Dunkin has also become a ritual for many high school and college students, who get their first exposure to the Great American Consumer from the business side of a Dunkin counter.

Recently, I had a chance to chat with some of these young folk.  I was surprised and sometimes appalled by what they see of the Thirsty and Famished who walk through their door.  God Bless America.  I am thoroughly convinced that I would last about two shifts at a "Dunks" before my supervisor would politely ask me to go home.

And don't come back.

Here's some of what I heard, and how the "kids" would like to respond.  You'll note I've added a few embellishments of my own--the really grouchy stuff--just for cathartic purposes.

1. Spare us your guilt.  Nobody cares why you're having a donut.  Really. We don't care if it's the first time you've broken your diet in two weeks.  We don't care if you "never eat junk food."  Please, just order your donut and move along.  There's a customer right behind you who never eats donuts, either, waiting to order.

2. When you place your order, please stop talking on the phone and texting.  Speak directly to us.  Give us 10 seconds of engagement so we can get things right.  Stop being a complete and total techo-boob.  Here's the truth: If you were so important that you couldn't stop conducting business for ten seconds to order, you'd have an assistant getting your coffee.  You're not that important.  Trust us.

3. And, techo-boob, please say "thank you" when you snatch the bag from our hands.  Most customers do, so when you don't it really sticks out.  It's so incredibly rude.

4. Enough already with the "cream cheese scam."  There's a dozen ways you try this, but here's the basics: You order a bagel with butter.  After you've paid and just as we're handing you the bag you ask "Can I have some cream cheese with that?"  You know cream cheese costs about a buck and we know you're trying to get it for free.  It is the feeblest, slimiest scam going.  If our supervisor is there we have to charge you.  If not, we might give it to you, but not because the scam worked.  Not because we like you.  Because we're really busy and it's the fastest way to get a low-life out of our sight.  For a buck?  Save your pennies and order the cream cheese next time, like a real person.  Preferably somewhere else.

5. This is not a life and death experience.  Really.  Once we ran out of lemons.  That's not good, we know, but ordering lemons is way beyond our pay grade.  Most people were nice about it.  One woman, however, announced at the top of her lungs: "That sucks.  You might as well have run out of coffee!"  We smiled and said how sorry we were.

Here's what we would have liked to say: Really?  Running out of lemons is like running out of coffee?  That bad?  Maybe as bad as we're all dead from the Ebola virus?!  Here's an idea for you, Dragon Lady: There's a Stop and Shop right around the corner.  Go get your own flippin lemon. And while you're there, see if they have "a life" for sale.  Cause you need one.

6. Finally, never, ever, ever order "a donut, a coffee, and a smile."  It's not funny.  It's not cute.  It's obnoxious.  We're generally pretty happy, and happy to smile.  But not on demand.  So here's the deal: Get back into your car, look in the rear view mirror, and smile.  Happy now?  And, pal, there's no charge for that.

I know with this kind of lousy attitude I'd only last a shift or two at Dunkin.  But--here's a scary thought--how long do you think I'd last as a barista at Starbucks, where the truly self-absorbed, massively entitled, triple-venti-soy-no-foam-latte-at-120-degrees Americans drink?  The ones wearing Google Glass?

An hour?  And I'd take the under on that.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Picture Tour of the Saugus Iron Works

Dozens of these b&w signs were placed along
Massachusetts roads in 1930.  Many have since
disappeared, though some remain.  There's a
great photo collection here and a book about the
project here.  This one is preserved in the
museum of the Saugus Iron Works.
Last November when I visited the Lowell Mills I noted how special it was for someone interested in the history of technology to live in New England, the epicenter of the American Industrial Revolution.  In fact, I probably haven't taken advantage of location the way I should; in particular, I still need to head west to the Springfield Armory, south to the Slater Mill Museum and the American Clock and Watch Museum, the north to the American Precision Museum, just to name a few.  But last weekend I was able to sneak over to the Saugus Iron Works, a full 18 minutes (not including the 25 years I've lived here) from home to spend a couple of hours visiting the first successful, integrated iron works in the New World.

From 1646 to 1668, "Hammersmith" (as it was called) produced cast and wrought iron products for the American colonies in a state-of-the-art facility along the Saugus River.  When the company disbanded, the site was abandoned and eventually buried by time and the river.

Hammersmith was rescued in 1946 by a grass-roots organization called the First Iron Works Association.  With funding from the American Iron and Steel Institute, the Association hired archaeologist Roland Robbins (also known as the man who found Thoreau's cabin at Walden and who excavated Shadwell, the birthplace of Thomas Jefferson) to investigate and reconstruct the site.   His work is fascinating; this 15 minute video, worthy of dimming the lights and a bowl of popcorn, shows Robbins in action.  You'll be able to compare what he accomplished (at the end of the video) with what's happened to the site since then in the pictures below.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A Barnyard of Entrepreneurs 9: Where's Our Vision?

The hens were all gathered in the coop for the evening.  Rooster was checking ESPN scores on his smartphone.

Brown Hen leaned over.  "Rooster, do you have a Vision for the barnyard?"  She scratched.  "Every management Svengali says you need to have a Vision for your organization."

Rooster looked up.  "Well, Hen," he started.  "I guess my vision is to make sure the marinated corn feed crumble arrives three times a day."  And then he thought, "And that Black Rat and his friends don't eat it all before we do."

Brown Hen sighed.  "That's your Vision?"  She sighed again.  "A Vision is supposed to provide guidance and inspiration.  It's supposed to create an attractive future destination, one we're all marching toward.  Together."

Rooster leaned into his smartphone.  The Sox were up by 1 run in the ninth with two down.  Man on third.

"Crumble three times a day," clucked Speckled Hen.  "Sounds like a formal summary of aims and values."  She scratched the dirt.  "That's a Mission Statement, if you ask me."

Rooster looked up, thinking to himself, "Is there still a lefty they can bring in from the bullpen?"

"You're both wrong."  Red Hen rose from her nest.  "What we've got here is a Purpose Statement.  Three good meals a day--that's my purpose."  Then she chuckled.  "Vision Statements are just so 20th century.  They went out with the hula-hoop."

Monday, July 7, 2014

A Barnyard of Entrepreneurs 8: Just Like Magic

Rooster glanced across the barnyard.  Brown Hen was jumping up and down, a huge cloud of dust all around her.  She didn't look happy.

"Are you ok?" Rooster asked, trying to avoid the dust as he strutted over.

"Does it look like I'm ok?" Hen answered.  She stomped the ground as hard as she could.  Rooster saw the problem.  Hen was stomping on her smartphone.

"What's wrong with your phone, Hen?" Rooster asked.

"What's right with my phone?" she shot back.  "For the first month it worked perfectly, just like magic."

Speckled Hen happened to be wandering by and overheard the conversation.  "Arthur C. Clarke said any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."  She beamed, feeling very wise.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Culture to Die For

One hundred years ago today Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo.  Nobody much cared for the arrogant Archduke, whose funeral was small and poorly attended.  Assassination was a gruesome if regular part of political life in the Balkans: Empress Elizabeth had been stabbed to death in 1898, the governor of Galicia shot in 1908, the governor of Croatia killed in 1912, and the vicar-general of Transylvania also assassinated in 1914.  Americans themselves had suffered the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901.  British magazine Punch published a cartoon with one anarchist asking another, “What time is it by your bomb?” 
Hungry for territory, the old, rotted Hapsburg Empire fiddled for a month and then declared war on Serbia.  Five days later Germany made its declaration of war on France.  The guns of August had erupted. 
We still scratch our heads over the start of WWI: A very small number of very small men, disconnected from their people and out to prove their machismo by territorial expansion, plunged the world into catastrophe.  The aggressors believed they could win a swift war but, as George Orwell wrote, the only way to have a swift war in the 20th century was to lose it.
Culture in Battle
One acknowledged chestnut from WWI is that the technology of firepower had outstripped communications and mobility.  Wireless was available but undependable, railroads inadequate, and countless broken-down automobiles were abandoned on the sides of impassable roads.  Generals were left wielding million-man armies by dispatching riders on horseback.  By the end of 1914, this mismatch of fierce 20th-century firepower with Dark Age communications and mobility resulted in a return to that most basic of all technologies, the shovel, and the rise of trench warfare.
The other powerful lesson learned in the first year of WWI is that new ways of killing demanded that the very culture of battle needed to change, swiftly and radically. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

I See Dead Entrepreneurs: A Visit to the Mount Auburn Cemetery

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I had the opportunity this past weekend to visit the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge/ Watertown, about a mile and a half outside Harvard Square.  Authorized on this day in 1831 by the Massachusetts legislature, Mount Auburn was America's first landscaped cemetery and the first large-scale green space open to the public in North America.  For nearly two centuries, visitors from all over the world have come to experience one of the finest examples of what is known today as America's rural cemetery movement.

Other famous rural cemeteries include Mount Hope Cemetery in Bangor (Maine), Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore, Albany Rural Cemetery in Menands (New York), Elmwood Cemetery in Detroit and Holly-Wood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.

Mount Auburn Cemetery covers 175 acres, 98,000 burials, 60,000 monuments, and 9,400 trees and shrubs representing over 1,250 taxa--part living memorial (with 600 burials a year), part history and part renowned arboretum and botanical garden.  "Rather than depicting the horror of death," Mount Auburn's literature says, the cemetery's "picturesque landscape. . .was designed to provide solace and comfort to the bereaved and public alike."

The horror of death (and source of an unhealthy local water supply) could be found aplenty in the typical 17th/18th-century urban churchyard cemetery, full of carved skulls and graves dug nearly on top of one another.  Here are a few pictures I took in 2009 on a pass-through the King's Chapel Burying Ground on Tremont Street in Boston--precisely the ghoulish congestion Mount Auburn hoped to improve upon.




By comparison, this is what Mount Auburn looked like in its opening decades.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

A Barnyard of Entrepreneurs 7: Hit With the Rich Stick

Big Pig was tweeting again, and it had the entire barnyard talking.

Nobody doubted that Big Pig Ventures was a success.  It sprayed start-up money in every direction like a giant pinwheel.

And nobody doubted Big Pig was famous, especially among the impressionable pullets.  He had recently backed the Duck's ethanol plant, which was the talk of the barnyard.

But on Twitter, Big Pig seemed to have an opinion about everything.

"RATS SHOULD HAVE UNFETTERED ACCESS TO FERMENTED CORN FEED CRUMBLE" Pig had tweeted that morning.  Brown Hen was incensed.  "What does Pig know about fermented corn feed crumble?" she demanded of Rooster.  "Or rats?"

"He did fund the ethanol plant," Rooster responded, trying to soothe her.  "That uses corn."

"And I stepped in my water dish this morning," Hen answered.  "I'm not tweeting about synchronized swimming, am I?"

Red Hen strutted over.  "But Big Pig has a degree in Computer Science.  And he is really rich," she said.  "Really rich people who can write software are really smart about everything."

"Until Twitter," Speckled Hen added, "we just didn't know it!"

Monday, June 9, 2014

A Barnyard of Entrepreneurs 6: Failure is Success

Rooster was surfing the Web when he stumbled upon a picture of Black Rat.  Rooster clicked, clicked again, and suddenly froze.  "Black Rat is an entry in Wikipedia?!"  

Brown Hen walked over to peer at the screen.  "Well, he did found two start-ups," Hen suggested.

"But neither was ever funded," said Rooster.  "They both failed."

"He was an Evangelist for Nosehole, too."  Hen grimaced.  That wasn't going so well, either.

Rooster responded, "That's it?  Is that enough accomplishment to be listed in the world's online encyclopedia?"  He read on.  It turns out Rat had also done a famous TED Talk.  "Once You're Unlucky, Twice You're Serial: The Immutable Laws of Failure," he read aloud.  "He gave a lecture about failure?" Rooster asked.

"Failure is good," Hen smiled.  "Fail fast, fail often," added Speckled Hen.  "I read that all the time on LinkedIn."  White Hen perked up.  "I think of my failures as a gift!  That was in the Harvard Business Review so it must be right!" she added.

"Failure is practically a cottage industry at TED," Speckled Hen pointed out.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

A Barnyard of Entrepreneurs 5: A Lesson in Business History

Rooster glanced at his phone. 10 a.m.  He looked up from the pit. 80 pullets were sitting expectantly in the classroom.  This was nerve-wracking.  He should never have agreed to guest-teach at his old business school.

Rooster took a deep breath.  At least he'd prepared an icebreaker.

"I want to take a little poll." This got the pullets' immediate attention.  Thanks to social media, they were good at taking polls. "Who do you think was the greatest business leader of all time?" Rooster asked.

A speckled pullet in the front row announced without hesitation, "That's easy.  Mark Zuckerberg."  Affirmation rippled through the class.  Three pullets in the back began chanting "Zuck, Zuck, Zuck."

A wing shot up to the right.  "Yes?"  Rooster acknowledged.  "If you mean all time ever," another pullet announced, "that has to be Steve Jobs."  She smiled.  "He was the God of Leaders."  The three pullets in back who had been chanting "Zuck" suddenly stopped and began chirping "Jobs, Jobs, Jobs."

Rooster looked around.  He could see mental gears turning.  Zuck or Jobs?  Jobs or Zuck?  It was obviously a profound question for this class.  "Anyone else have an opinion?"  Silence.

Monday, June 2, 2014

A Barnyard of Entrepreneurs 4: The Chief Evangelist

Rooster looked across the barnyard and saw Black Rat standing by the chicken coop.  He had a small audience, never a good sign.  Rooster strutted over to see what was going on.

"I'm an evangelist," he heard Rat saying.  As Rooster drew closer, he could see that Rat had a strange plastic cone over his nose held in place by an elastic band stretched behind his ears.  He looked a little bit like a clown, but the disquieting kind that make balloon animals at children's birthday parties.

"What's that?" asked Brown Hen.  "What's an evangelist?"

Rat smiled.  "That's someone with passion."  Then he pointed to the strange cone on his nose.  "And I'm passionate about this!"

The hens fluttered.  Brown Hen was unmoved.  She scratched the dirt.  "Are you marketing something?"  Rooster drew in closer.  He wasn't sure he liked where this was going.

Rat was appalled.  "Marketing is so 20th century," he exclaimed.  "Old rats did marketing.  Dead rats did marketing.  I am a Chief Evangelist!"

Rooster chuckled.  A few months ago Rat had been a Serial Entrepreneur.  It was hard sometimes to keep up with titles.  He stuck his head up.  "What are you evangelizing, Rat?"

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A Barnyard of Entrepreneurs 3: Think It and Be It!

Rooster sat hunched over the computer screen deep in thought.  Just then Brown Hen strutted in from the sunny barnyard, a cloud of dust settling behind her.  "Whatcha doing?" she asked.

Rooster sighed.  "Trying to freshen up my LinkedIn profile.  It's not easy."

Hen clucked.  "Not easy?!" She fluttered.  Not easy??  Why, you can be anyone you want on LinkedIn!"  Then she laughed.  "Remember Red Hen?"

Rooster grimaced.  Red Hen was a pullet who had upset the whole barnyard with her antics.  She had been a menace to the workplace.

Brown Hen beamed.  "She's a Life Coach now!"

Rooster sat up, clearly disturbed. "A Life Coach?  What's that?"

"Oh, they're big," Hen gushed.  "Thousands of them."  Rooster had a sudden flashback to his old nightmare of being stuck in a Tony Robbins seminar over a long Memorial Day weekend.

"Check out her LinkedIn profile," Brown Hen added.  "And her blog.  Red Hen is guiding other hens to fulfillment and happiness.  She's helping them find their true passion.  She's even written two books!"

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

A Barnyard of Entrepreneurs 2: Passionate Disruption

The animals were atwitter.  The final night of Disrupt! Barnyard was about to start.  
Rooster was nervous.  He had been asked to judge but felt out of place.  Last year's winner of the business plan contest had been an app that reminded cows to chew their cuds.  Rooster knew more than he cared to about cows, but he was pretty sure he couldn't have dreamed up that business in a million years.
Fortunately, Horse and Big Pig were also judges.  Horse had written a thousand articles about tech and knew his stuff.  Pig had made his name last year investing with two ducks in an ethanol plant.  ("Corn wants to eat the world" had become an important investment thesis at Big Pig's firm.)  Maybe Rooster would luck out and one of the final plans would involve corn.
Black Rat was up first. The crowd settled back, ready to be dazzled. "Hello everyone."  Rat looked nervous.  The crowd cheered, even the crows in back who could be counted on for a heckle or two as the night went on.  "I am a serial entrepreneur and tonight..."
Rooster stopped listening.  "Serial entrepreneur?" he whispered to Horse and Big Pig.  It didn't seem that long ago he had been chasing Rat out of the shed with the fermented corn feed crumble.