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.