Thursday, December 20, 2012

Things I Learned About Apps in 2012

Rule 1: As soon as you find an app you love, it gets “improved.”

Rule 2: Nobody ever asks if you want your app improved.

Rule 3: A really good app will be improved in a series of releases until it becomes slow, bloated and useless. (You can watch "innovator's dilemma" unfold in real time, right before your eyes.)

Rule 4:  Describing an app as “gorgeous” is like saying your blind date has personality. (Corollary: A "gorgeous" app is essentially useless, even before the first "improvement.")

Rule 5: There's no such thing as a free app. (Corollary:
Apps use you more than you use them.)  

Rule 6: Apps launched without a revenue model are especially dangerous and prone to self-destruction.

Rule 7: Apps are like diamonds; if we stopped mining them today there would be enough already in circulation for every man, woman and child for the next century.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Reverse Engineering Big Data

Want to dabble in Big Data, right from the comfort of your own keypad?  Want to know what the rest of the world is thinking using one of the world’s great algorithms?

I don’t pretend to understand Google’s Autocomplete, but I do know that it wants to try to answer my question before I even know what I want to ask.  In other words, it takes what billions of people are doing and tells us, Big Data-style, exactly what the rest of the world is thinking about.  

It’s very cool, sometimes distracting, and often very scary.

Friday, November 30, 2012

How to Spot a Digital Immigrant

Your neighbors in Palo Alto
How do you spot a spy? 

During WWII, Britain’s M-5 suggested that if an enemy spy was living next door, he would be young, fit, have a slightly odd cut to his clothing and eat strange chocolates.  Watch, too, for a scar or limp, M-5 said, since parachuting from airplanes was treacherous business in the 1940s.

How about today?  WikiHow (To Do Anything) suggests that you might have a spy next door if the person is educated, physically strong and highly intelligent (unless you live in Palo Alto, in which case that’s just your neighbor).   Also, look for an intermittent work history (unless you live in Silicon Valley, in which case that may be your next boss).

It seems spies, despite their best efforts, almost always give themselves away.

Once upon a time, digital immigrants were easy as pie to spot, like knowing that the guy with shorts and black socks, complaining that he didn't get enough ice in his drink in the Paris bistro was, well, an American.

You might recall not many years ago the person who didn't own a computer, "and I don’t see any need for one, either.  I can keep my recipes in a box, thank you.”  Today, that person is perfecting his or her shuffleboard.

There was, you might remember, the CEO who had his secretary print all of his email so he could answer each message by hand, or perhaps by dictation.  (For you Gen Xer’s, write me and I’ll explain “dictation.”  Gen Yer’s, write me and I’ll explain the concept of a “secretary.”  Those younger, write and I'll explain "email.")  This was the same person with a wall of Rolodex across his desk, the prequel to the LinkedIn LION with 10,000 close, personal associates.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving!

Here's one of the great old advertisements featured in Weathermakers to the World, a good reminder (1942-style) of how much there is to be thankful for.  (Including, but not limited to, family, friends, good work, health, and the fact that I can end a sentence in a preposition if it sounds better, or write a parenthetical fragment, when there's no editor watching.)  Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Christmas Creep

What could bring more joy to your holiday season than a visit from the Pumpkin-Headed Turkey Claus?  Check out the Historical Society Blog here.

Ho ho-gobble gobble to all!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Porcelain and a Close Shave: The Wisdom of Crowdfunding

The Battle of the Viaduct in Chicago, part of the
Great Railroad Strike of 1877
In 1894, a traveling salesman for the Crown Cork and Seal company rose to sudden fame with the publication of his book, The Human Drift.  In it, he argued that capital and labor had become irretrievably divided over the last 20 years and “hard times are here to stay.”  The 29-year-old author, like many Americans, had been rattled by a seemingly endless series of economic recessions accompanied by rising discontent in the form of violent strikes and riots.  

The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 against the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, for example, shook the country when it spread from Philadelphia to Chicago and on to San Francisco--America’s first national strike.   The Homestead Strike at Andrew Carnegie’s Pittsburgh steel plant in 1892 left seven Pinkerton detectives and nine steelworkers dead.  The Pullman strike of 1894, in response to the company cutting its workforce from 5,500 to 3,300 and wages by an average of 25%, was yet another unexpected and unsettling milestone in the rise of a strong national labor movement.  

Taken as a whole, more people were injured or killed in labor protests in the U.S. than any other nation in the twenty years after 1876. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Organization Man, 2012 Style

I had reason recently to skim William H. Whyte's The Organization Man, published in the autumn of 1956 and now considered one of the most important American sociological texts of the 20th century.

An assistant managing editor for Fortune magazine, Whyte concluded that the American corporation was purposefully and systematically eliminating individuality--and individuals were happily giving it up.  Conformity had become a central virtue in Eisenhower's America.  It was the coming of the Stepford Executives--and of particular consequence to Whyte, the Stepford Scientists who would no longer have the flexibility to free-wheel their way into true innovation.

Whyte was particularly down on the emergence of the group.  "People very rarely think in groups; they talk together, they exchange information, they adjudicate, they make compromises.  But they do not think," he concluded: "They do not create."

What they do,Whyte knew, was avoid risk, or any misstep that might cost a job or a career.  It was, if we take a trip to the dystopian side of the 1950s, the sale of one's soul for lifetime employment and a tidy lawn in the suburbs.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Foundation of Genius

I had the opportunity to speak before some of the senior leaders of UTC Climate Controls & Security (CCS) last night at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford.  UTC CCS is today a family of leading, billion dollar+ companies that just happened to be founded by some of the more impressive and successful entrepreneurs of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The starting point for the presentation was my 2011 research on the life and impact of Willis Carrier and modern air conditioning for Weathermakers to the World.  (Shameless promotion: Time to buy a copy?  It's on Amazon!)  Over the last few months, thanks to UTC CCS, I was able to extend this research to include Charles and Jeremiah Chubb, Robert Edwards and Walter Kidde.

Monday, October 15, 2012

My One "New Yorker" Cartoon Possibility

I was planning to send this to The New Yorker until I read how hard it is to actually have something accepted--30 gags a month, years of submissions--so decided, what the heck, put it on the blog.

We don't have all five of us home at night much anymore, but when we did, this scene was not a complete impossibility.  A nod to Lord of the Rings, and a special thanks to artist, inventor, toy designer, model helicopter pilot, and friend Ben Bowman for the artwork.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Thoughts at 55 (Besides: "Whoa, I'm Old")

Back five years ago when I was a very young man, I wrote this post. It closed by saying that if you could double your age and still see yourself alive, you were ok.  

I was ok then, mostly.  Needless to say, this is now going to take some imagination.

To my list of 29 takeaways from five years ago, I add the following bits, a few earned honestly: 
  1. Stay away from any and every procedure in a hospital with the suffix “ectomy” in it.
  2. Hope that nobody in your household decides to write a memoir that book reviewers will one day refer to as “unflinching.”
  3. No offense, but I liked your emails and texts better when there wasn’t the threat they were being composed from your bathroom.  

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Surviving Little Entrepreneurism

In the October 2012 issue of Vanity Fair, Randall Stross writes about Silicon Valley’s Y Combinator, describing events in the spring and summer of 2011 when 2,000 teams competed to become one of 64 “companies” receiving between $11,000 and $20,000 to launch their “business.”

One team highlighted by Stross was made up of three 24-year-olds, recent college grads who pitched an idea for a business that would send “past memories to your in-box.”  Encouraged to “pivot the idea”--the latest phrase for “that stinks, try again”—they then hit upon an idea to create a business that would “organize and rank your Facebook content, allowing you to easily create a printed photo book.”  Yep.  These three would-be entrepreneurs told the Y.C. partners that they “believe in the power of memory, nostalgia,” without, one presumes, having had time to accumulate much of either.  When asked how this idea will “expand” they said they’ll begin building memory books around personal calendars, Foursquare check-ins and tweets.

Now--hold onto your hats--this was one of the teams the Y.C. Partners really liked, so much so that they were willing to fund their “business” (however it came to rest on its pivot) by investing $20,000 in return for 7% of their newly formed “company.”

Welcome to the world of Little Entrepreneurism.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Criminal Entrepreneurs

In 1817 a serious robbery using false keys was carried out at the busy Portsmouth dockyard, home to the Royal Navy.  In response, the government offered a reward to anyone who could design a lock that could not be picked.  The next year a local ironmonger by the name of Jeremiah Chubb patented a mechanism that rendered a lock useless if it detected anything other than its own keys.  This encouraged Jeremiah and his brother, Charles, to found what would become one of the world’s great security companies.  It also led them to diversify into a number of other lines, including designing the world’s first burglar and fire-resistant safe, advertised in 1838 as being able to “repel the force and ingenuity of the most skillful burglar.”

This was a serious claim, because like all good entrepreneurs, crooks and criminals are quick to adopt the newest technology and the latest form of organization in pursuit of their ignoble visions.  This makes criminal entrepreneurs a moving target, just like any worthy competitor.  

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

When Time Predicts the Future

One of the most reliable predictors of the future is the changing way in which we relate to time.

We know, for example, that before the Industrial Revolution, the consensus in agrarian America was that time belonged to God.  The good Lord had created light and dark and that was about all the time-keeping most people required.  Clocks could be helpful on cloudy days when noontime was obscured--Boston had a town clock in 1638, for example—but few Americans owned clocks (perhaps one in 50 in 1700).  And, everyone knew that clocks were not time per se, but crude mechanical proxies for what was really going on in the Heavens.

By 1820 things began to change, however, and it’s no surprise it reflected the rise of the steam engine, factories and the steady move from farm to city.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Haverhill's Cool Mural

Living near Boston means living side-by-side with the new information economy and the old industrial revolution.  The first is situated in places like Cambridge, Boston, Waltham and Burlington, churning away at pharma and Big Data and start-ups of all shapes and sizes.  The second, or at least its ghost, is found in the old industrial centers of Lowell, Lawrence, and Fall River--places that were booming in the years before the Great Depression with textiles, shoes and tool-making, but struggling now with varied success in attracting the new economy.

(Cities like Waltham, in fact, have bunches of both, home to companies like Zoom, Lycos, and Liquid Machines not so far from the very start of the American Industrial Revolution.  See Steampunk in Pictures at the old Waltham Watch factory.  For other historical junkets, see Gettysburg Redux and Edison in Winter.)

So it was we found ourselves the other day in one of those old booming industrial centers, Haverhill, once home to ship-building, tanneries, millinery and enough shoe-making (especially women's) to earn for it the title "Queen Slipper City."   We don't have reason to visit often, so it was a pleasant surprise to find this stunning mural, a visual history of Haverhill, beautifully rendered on the side of an old brick building.


Monday, August 13, 2012

Robots Tame the Frontier, Edison Invades Mars - Sci Fi of the 19th Century

Fans of science fiction recognize that many futuristic stories say far more about our current aspirations, limits and phobias than they do about the future.

Two of the biggest movies of 1998, Armageddon and Deep Impact (which together grossed almost a billion dollars worldwide), had Bruce Willis and Robert Duvall facing-off against giant asteroids headed directly for earth.  These movies about “extinction level events” sent people running for NASA, which was bombarded with panicked questions.  

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Spotting the Big Dog

Every company has a Big Dog.  Every division.  Every department. 

How do you spot a Big Dog?  He's the one whose assistant breaks into a meeting to deliver an important, whispered message--a message that just can’t wait.  He's usually late to that same meeting, and the first to get bored, stand up during the discussion and wander around.  If it's a technology Big Dog, he's often the worst dressed, intentionally so.  He's inevitably the one to take the first muffin, send the first text while you're talking, and flip noisily through the slide deck when you're focused on slide 2.  Big Dogs have a LinkedIn account but no contacts, and they don't carry business cards. Big Dogs park near the front door in an inviolate spot and fly First Class, even when nobody else is allowed.  

At home, the Big Dog is the one who falls asleep after Thanksgiving dinner, snoring on the couch while everyone else helps the hosts clean up.  

I can’t wait.

Monday, July 23, 2012

America: Fat and Greedy--But Always Speedy

From time to time I bump into an International traveler visiting America for the first time, and I love to ask what about our country has surprised them most. Inevitably they comment on the giant portions at restaurants, probably a kind way of saying how fat we all are.  One young man last summer said, “You’re all shorter than I expected” (nothing like feeding a complex).  New York, I’m sometimes told by first-time visitors, is dirty but a blur of sound and motion.  California is sunny (even if they haven’t been there yet, and certainly not if they have been to San Francisco).  And all of them want to visit Disney World, though whether that lives up to their expectations, I’m not sure.

While not always pleasant, these critiques are certainly illuminating. Sometimes, too, they take a more serious tone.

From 1946 to 2004, Englishman Alistair Cooke delivered his Letter from America every week on BBC4.  Cooke’s first letter, written when he departed aboard the Queen Mary from a bleak London starved for heat and electricity, is here.  He found eggs and bacon and sausage and pancakes for breakfast five mornings in a row, but stomachs too shrunk from the war’s deprivations for anyone to enjoy the feast more than two consecutive days.  He arrived in a New York City that had been unable to build new hotels during the war and was now unable to accommodate its flood of visitors, taxis hobbling along with doors secured by string, and women (with their complicit husbands standing awkwardly in a second line) hoping to purchase nylons.

Arguably the most famous "international visit" to America ever was that of Frenchman Marquis de Lafayette, second only to Washington as a “rock star” in the early Republic.  Arriving in New York Harbor 122 years before Cooke, he went on a 13-month “Farewell Tour” through 24 states where he received an outpouring of affection, honors and gifts almost daily. In June 1825, before departing, he helped lay the cornerstone of the Bunker Hill Monument.  He also kept a journal, or more accurately, his private secretary, Auguste Lavasseur, did.  It said a lot of things Americans wanted to hear--Lavasseur’s major goal was in publicizing to French Liberals the success of the great American experiment--so it gets re-published regularly.

Lafayette, Dickens and Kipling: Speed

One of the defining characteristics of America, Lavasseur found in 1824, was the speed of the country.  Traveling an average of 11 miles per hour, Lavasseur wrote, “Often we passed through so many villages and so many towns on the same day that my memory could not retain all the names faithfully.” And in Lockport, New York, alongside the building of the Erie Canal, he was struck “with astonishment and admiration.  In no other place have I seen the activity and industry of man grappling with nature as in this burgeoning Town.   Short on necessities to “satisfy the prime needs of life,” he still found “a school in which the children come to be taught while their fathers build the dwelling which is to shelter them,” and “a printing press which each morning gives birth to a newspaper.”

Now skip ahead just 18 years to 1842 when the American railroad had begun to put an end to the canal age, almost before it began. Just 30 years old, renowned British author Charles Dickens visited the country for the first time, writing home to a friend about American railroads.  You walk down the main street of a large town: and, slap-dash, headlong, pell-mell, down the middle of the street; with pigs burrowing, and boys flying kites and playing marbles, and men smoking, and women talking, and children crawling, close to the very rails; there comes tearing along a mad locomotive with its train of cars, scattering a red-hot shower of sparks (from its wood fire) in all directions; screeching, hissing, yelling, and painting; and nobody one atom more concerned than if it were a hundred miles away.” 

Now, jump ahead another 57 years to a second renowned British author. Rudyard Kipling toured Chicago in 1899 and was profoundly unimpressed.   “Having seen it,” he wrote, “I urgently desire never to see it again.  It is inhabited by savages.  Its water is the water of the Hugli, and its air is dirt. . .They told me to go to the Palmer House, which is a gilded and mirrored rabbit-warren, and there I found a huge hall. . .crammed with people talking about money and spitting about everywhere. Other barbarians charged in and out of this inferno with letters and telegrams in their hands. . . there was no colour in the street and no beauty—only a maze of wire ropes overhead and dirty stone flagging underfoot.

Chicago, about 1899
When Kipling hired a cab driver “to show me the glory of the town,” the driver “conceived. . .that it was good to huddle men together in fifteen layers, one atop of the other, and to dig holes in the ground for offices.  He said that Chicago was a live town, and that all the creatures hurrying by me were engaged in business. That is to say, they were trying to make some money.  Then, he concluded, “the papers tell their readers in language fitted to their comprehension that the snarling together of telegraph wires, the heaving up of houses, and the making of money is progress.”

Kipling, of course, gave us a glimpse of America in its Gilded Age--and it wasn’t pretty.  But with “barbarians charging in and out,” and “creatures hurrying by me” engaged in making money, it certainly was speedy.

There are other visitors throughout the years, some more charitable than others.  A countryman of Lafayette and another accomplished statesman, Georges Benjamin Clemenceau, worked in New York City from 1865 to 1869 and summed up his impressions succinctly with, “America is the only nation in history which miraculously has gone directly from barbarism to degeneration without the usual interval of civilization.”

Emil Ludwig and the Future of Speed

The most fascinating visit, however, at least as it anticipated modern times, was from German author and biographer Emil Ludwig, who toured the United States in 1928 and wrote about it for The New York Times.

First, like Lafayette and Kipling, he found everything, everywhere on the move.  “Speed has become the goddess of the new era,” he wrote.  In fact, Ludwig described a scene that can only be termed an early form of "surfing": “When a young man in New York lured me into his motor car and showed me with tokens of much satisfaction how he could listen by radio, while motoring, to the latest jazz hits, and, at the same time, enjoy the details of the latest crimes supplied him in gigantic headlines by the newspapers handed to him as he drove, he seemed to me merely the most scatterbrained youth imaginable—able to appreciate in reality neither the road ahead of him, nor the music, nor the newspapers; capable merely of gliding quite blasé along a warm stream of piled—up sensations.”

Does that not sound a little bit like 2012?

Then Ludwig warned--and this will hit home with my Luddite friends (not to mention Nicholas Carr and maybe Jaron Lanier): “This is man’s memory being weakened. . .for such a person the echo of a talk, of a walk, of a glance at a starry sky, or a letter or a book is lost in the blur of a thousand fleeting images.”

Then, for those of us moderns with a “password problem,” Ludwig addressed the bane of early 20th-century America: numbers.  “For how many numbers does this modern technical age of ours imprint upon the brain of a modern human being, even as it drives out worldly wisdom and the finer feelings!  Numbers, numbers—how many numbers must he retain concerning his motor car, hat, shoes, collar—concerning streets, houses, floors—telephones, street railways, sport scores, exchange quotations. . .Small wonder that, with every brain cell packed to overflowing, he can find no place for poetry, none for aphorisms, none for the precious thoughts of philosophers—none even for God!”

Through it all, Ludwig noted, Americans appeared better adapted to such a world.  More charitably than Kipling in Chicago a generation before, he wrote, “I marveled at the calmness of people in the turmoil of the streets, the riot of numbers, the confusion of mechanized melodies and noises—everything.”  Europeans had experienced quiet for centuries, he said, whereas “Americans trained from early youth in the hard school of impressionability and strife.”

Again, reflecting a fear many of us feel now, Ludwig wrote that there would be no more legends created.   “Now that every happening becomes known. . .to the whole world within a few hours, the mystic veils behind which men in earlier days sought to make themselves better or their foes worse are rent asunder, and reality is revealed beyond fear of distortion. Gutenberg was reproached with having overcome priests and kings and made himself the first democrat in a new world; similarly, the inventors of the rapid tempo of modernity, of the wireless telephone, of the reproduction of word, tone and image, may be credited with having speeded up this development one thousandfold.”

Finally, in what can only be called a “pre-Twitter moment,” Ludwig remarked on the incredible ability of two lovers to communicate across the sea: ”Let us imagine him, during those embarrassed moments which always occur in love talks, whispering to her: ‘Speak—just speak—no matter what you say!’”

So, my fellow American: we are fat, we crave money, we multitask to the detriment of God and our neighbors, we speak without having anything to say, and we do it all at chaotic, breakneck speeds.

I think it must be true. 200 years of international visits can’t be completely wrong.

Though, maybe someday we should clue them in about doggie bags.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Weathermakers to the World 2.0 (Behind the scenes, again, sort of)

The former site of Sackett & Wilhelms, today's ISPC.
Picture the second floor circa 1902 with 60 multi-color
presses and a weekly deadline to churn out Judge magazine.
On July 16 I had the opportunity--thanks to UTC Climate, Controls and Security/Carrier, CBS This Morning, ISPC Brooklyn (and here) and CooperKatz, to tour the former Sackett & Wilhelms printing facility (circa 1900 till sometime in the 1920s) in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.  After researching the history of air conditioning for a year and launching Weathermakers to the World at the Library of Congress (and here), this really was a special treat--to visit "ground zero" where Willis Carrier's invention of modern air conditioning was first installed and operated.

To steal a phrase from Lexington and Concord, it was at Sackett & Wilhelms that "the cool, dry blast felt round the world" originated.  (By the way, if you want to see some of the things S&W printed, see here.  They were a well-known, high end NYC printer that did, among other products, Judge magazine--see here for images.  Spoiler alert: It was Judge that was giving S&W fits.)  

I was never so excited to stand next to rusty old
pipes in my entire life.  This is where the cool water from
a local well entered the building and was pumped into the
first a/c apparatus.
In other words, air conditioning started in a factory, and it was first and foremost about humidity control and only later about temperature.  In fact, it would take about 30 years for a residential market to evolve, and another 20 (thanks to Depression and War) for a/c to really escape its industrial orbit and migrate to the urban apartment and suburbs.  When it did, though, it did so with a vengeance.  The Huffington Post article here has a good summary of Weathermakers, and of this migration.  The New York Times also did a great city blog feature here.

Anyway, for a visit to the Sackett & Wilhelms site, see the CBS This Morning video segment here

And, of course, if you want to put Willis Carrier on Mt. Rushmore--on this, a 96F in Boston--click here.   

The original blueprints return to the building 110 years
later, with our CBS The Morning cameraman watching me
pretend that I know how to read them.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Two-Wheeled Singularity

Readers to this blog know that from time to time I mention the Singularity, which, if science (and science fiction) writers are correct, will descend upon humankind sometime around 2045.  It’s the moment when machines will finally be smart enough to build even smarter versions of themselves, and build themselves into us, in ways that are so complex that no human intervention is, or possibly could be, required.

Nobody quite knows what the Singularity will look like--we have a fancy term for that kind of befuddlement called an “event horizon”--or how fast it will go, or if it means good things or bad for the human race.  (The first Singularity was the move from hunting to farming, the second the Industrial Revolution. That's two wins. Feels like we might be due for a loss.) Becoming one with machines frankly doesn’t sound like that much fun; it’s a kind of evolution, but one that Charles Darwin didn’t cover in his last chapter.

Needless to say, I was interested to learn that there was something akin to the Singularity that occurred in the United States in the 1890s.  First introduced to Americans at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, the bicycle had by 1895 become a national mania all its own with bike clubs and weekend rambles convening from sea to shining sea.

We know a little bit about manias--what happened to genealogy after Roots, martial arts after Karate Kid, golf after Tiger Woods 1.0.  In fact, by the mid-1890s Americans had suffered through the first mania for golf and another for tennis shortly before the bicycle arrived on the scene.

By the 1890s, bicycle sales in the United States reached $100M annually, a most healthy industry for the times.  Everyone was riding.

In 1898, scientist and inventor William John McGee wrote about the bicycle in classic American terms; it “first aroused invention, next stimulated commerce, and then developed individuality, judgment, and prompt decision on the part of the users more rapidly and completely than any other device.”  It was not simply a hobby, McGee believed, but a technology that informed and uplifted in a uniquely American way.

My great-grandmother, Alice Conant, heading out in
style.  Note the smokestacks of the Gilded Age behind her.
Alice was born in 1870 and I won't even try to guess her
age in this picture except to say it's "circa close."
“For although,” he continued cheerily, “association with machines of all kind. . .develops character, the bicycle is the easy leader of other machines in shaping the mind of its rider, and transforming itself and its rider into a single thing.”  

Come again?  Machines develop character? The bicycle is shaping the mind of its rider, transforming the bike and rider into a single thing?  Isn’t that what happens in the Singularity, when human and machine become one?

Of course, we laugh.  How quaint.  But remember the first time you rode a bike, probably as a child?  It was an incredibly empowering experience, one step short of flying.  Imagine a nation of 60 million people being exposed to that phenomenon, nearly simultaneously.

It would have been nothing short of mystical, just as future generations will (laugh at us and) try to understand our reaction to the iPhone, which not so long ago was referred to by some as the “Jesus Phone.”  In other words, maybe we’re no less immune to mystical experiences with our technology now than we were in 1895.

The last time I felt like I was truly one with a machine--and the machine was in control--was when I was speeding down a very steep, ice-covered hill on one of those crazy flying saucers. People were shouting, "Steer by leaning! Steer by leaning!"


Anyway, that was my last brush with the Singularity, and, while it didn’t put me in the hospital,  it didn’t make me very happy, either.  Moreover, I have a wee bit of anxiety that when the real Singularity arrives and a Google goggle sprouts spontaneously from my cornea, the good folks in Silicon Valley are going to advise that my best option is to “Steer by leaning.”

What the Bicycle Did

Not only did the bicycle take our great-grandparents on a mystical adventure, but it did a couple of other important things for the country.  Bicycle ads were the first, for example, where women were depicted outside the home in non-domestic settings.   The bicycle club--like today’s Starbucks in certain countries--was a safe and acceptable place for members of the opposite sex to associate.

Riding a bike in a skirt?  But then
I remembered, when I was in
high school, the girls' basketball
team still wore skirts.  Fortunately,
we evolve.
 The bicycle was also an important family member of the primary mechanic trades, which descended from firearms to sewing machines to bicycles to the automobile.  Many talented mechanics participated in two or three of those trades during their lifetimes, shepherding knowledge across the decades and industries.  In American Tool Making and Interchangeable Manufacturing, Joseph Woodworth argues that the manufacture of the bicycle highlighted the capabilities of the American mechanic like nothing else—”in the design and manufacture of special machinery, tools, fixtures, and the installation of the interchangeable system of manufacturing in a thousand and one shops, once thought to be impractical.”  

Indeed, bicycle manufacture helped to develop sheet metal stamping and electric resistance welding techniques that Henry Ford would credit as important contributors to his assembly line.
On top of it all, the bicycle boom of the 1890s helped the nation weather the depression of 1893.

Pretty impressive, the America bicycle.  Of course, if you want to experience that same sense of two-wheeled Singularity now you have to cough up $5K for a titanium frame and wear a get-up that would fit well at auditions of the Big Apple Circus.  And then you can ride 35 sweaty miles on a Sunday morning with a dozen others from your local cycling club, show up at my local breakfast diner, take over all the tables so real customers can’t be served, stink up the place with your sweat and banana pancakes while you pour on the fake syrup and sneak outside for cigarettes and pretend you’re actually being healthy by cycling and then leave crummy tips for the wait-staff and the seat of every chair sticky from syrup and damp from your derrieres.

Oops. . . 

Didn’t mean for that to all come out, my serious cycling friends.  

But I must say, given the current version of the two-wheeled Singularity, a Google goggle in the cornea suddenly doesn’t seem so awfully bad.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Weathermakers to the World - Behind the Scenes (Slightly)

The Mechanical Weather Man, a fixture
of Carrier advertising in the 1920s, let
manufacturers know that they finally
had control over their interior climate--
great news for candy, pharmaceutical,
textile and nearly 200 other industries.
copyright © 2012 Carrier Corporation · a UTC company
Throughout much of 2011 I labored away on a history of Carrier Corporation at the kind invitation of the good folks at Carrier, now part of UTC Climate, Controls and Security.  The mission, which involved a small team of really talented people at the company (see here for the official website) and equally talented folks at the Pinckney-Hugo Group in Syracuse (who designed the book), was to deliver a coffee-table history of the company focused on its founder, Willis Carrier, and its century-plus record of leadership, innovation and sustainability.

Carrier had acquired Sensitech in 2006 so I'd gotten to know our parent company a little bit. I also had a rusty but honorable degree in History and a history book on Amazon--so, from my point of view, this could not have been a more attractive project.

(It might be worth saying here--just to put an exceedingly fine point on it--that this blog entry is my own and in no way represents the opinions of Carrier, UTC or UTC CCS, or Pinckney-Hugo.  It’s just me ruminating.)

Our book team was specifically trying to avoid the corporate history tome, full of mind-numbing 6-point font and a 450-page throw-weight.  In fact, we were kind of thinking “cool museum,” where you might see an artifact that you like and decide it’s worth reading about.  Whenever I forgot this point--and it happened from time to time because, yes, I do sometimes become enchanted with my own breathtaking prose--my friends at Carrier would keep me in line with the gentle reminder of  “less text, more pictures, Eric.”

Launching at the Library of Congress
Earlier this month we launched the final product of our labors, Weathermakers to the World, at the Library of Congress on a suitably subtropic 99F day in Washington, D.C.  

Monday, June 11, 2012

Will Steve Jobs Be Forgotten?

Malcolm Gladwell was back in Toronto recently and said about Bill Gates, "I firmly believe that 50 years from now, he will be remembered for his charitable work.  No one will even remember what Microsoft is.”  

“And of the great entrepreneurs of this era,” Gladwell added, “people will have forgotten Steve Jobs. Who's Steve Jobs again? There will be statues of Gates across the Third World."

My first thought was: When famous women are between movies or albums and need to up their celebrity, they can pose naked and pregnant on the cover of Vanity Fair.  However, male authors caught in the drought between books, lacking such considerable advantage, have only outrageous statements at their disposal.

But then I got to thinking. . .

As blasphemous as these opinions sound, Mr. Gladwell may have hit on a very interesting point.

Word Association

Let’s play a word association game.  When I say, “Andrew Carnegie,” what do you think?  Carnegie Hall?  The Carnegie Endowment?  Carnegie-Mellon?

Me, I think “libraries.”  As Carnegie was building one of the greatest business empires in the history of the world, he was also building libraries.   2,500 Carnegie libraries were constructed between 1883 and 1929, and I had the privilege of using one when I was young--probably the first time I ever heard the Carnegie name.

That to me is Carnegie’s modern legacy--one of the world’s greatest philanthropists.

So, thinking about the legacy of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, it would be interesting to understand how Andrew Carnegie’s contemporaries sized him up during his lifetime.  What was his “brand” when he was alive and in his business prime—and how much did it change after he died?

I think I know.

One of the most fascinating business autobiographies of the 19th century is that of Arthur B. Farquhar, a York, Pennsylvania, businessman who lived the Industrial Revolution almost from its beginning right through WWI, built a successful farm machinery business, and seemed to know virtually every famous or important man in America--and more than a few around the world. 

Farquhar was born in Maryland, 18 miles from Washington, D.C., and among his earliest memories was hearing the military salute given President William Henry Harrison when he died just 32 days into his term in 1841.   Farquhar went to school with Robert E. Lee’s son and was able to save York during the Civil War by riding into Confederate lines and negotiating with his friends, the Generals.  He was present at Pickett’s Charge (“I saw the men rushing forward and dropping, wave after wave”) and later at the Gettysburg Address (“the President looked very, very weary”—“the audience did not really know what they had heard”).  He knew every president personally from Abraham Lincoln (“after having met many of the leading men in most of the countries of the world during the past half century, I believe he was one of the few supermen”) to James Garfield (whom Farquhar visited after he had been shot and lay dying) to Chester Arthur (“very polite and attractive”) to Grover Cleveland (“a fine bulwark against the economic lunacy of the times”) to McKinley (the third president assassinated in the lifetime of Farquhar, who attended his funeral) to Roosevelt (“one of the best informed men I ever knew”) to Herbert Hoover (before becoming president, "one of the greatest men living in the world today...he has Lincoln's idea that we are in the world to do good"), Warren Harding (“he has gathered around him an exceptionally strong cabinet, and I prophesy a successful administration) and every chief executive in between--providing advice to many. 

Forrest Gump of the 19th Century

Farquhar had a grand perspective, enough to compare the country’s build-up to the Civil War (“neither side really believed that there was going to be a fight”) with the build-up to World War I, and contrast the Panic of 1873 (“the Christmas of 1873 was about as cheerless a festival as has ever been intoned”) with the depressions of 1884 (“people simply got tired of rising prices and quit buying, thereby to my mind showing common sense”) and the Panic of 1907 (when J.P. Morgan “called the most powerful financial interests of the country to his library and cut off a rising young panic at the very outset of its career”).

Farquhar even saw the rise of golf in America in 1885: “When I first saw the game I regarded the idea of rational men leaving their business and walking over a field to hit a ball with a stick as being quite absurd, but Mr. [Grier] Hersh invited me to try a round with him.  Within ten minutes after we commenced I was infatuated with it.”

When Farquhar was 20 years old in 1858 he read an article in Harper’s magazine about the richest men in New York, hopped a train and simply walked into the offices of a half-dozen of them to ask how to make a million dollars. This included the single richest man in America at the time, William B. Astor who--busy collecting the rents on the property his father, John Jacob, had accumulated in Manhattan--told Farquhar, ““I do not have enough fun.  I am too afraid that people will cheat me and, in spite of everything, they do cheat me.”

Farquhar spoke on the telephone when it was first introduced to the public in 1876 at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, and later had dinner with Alexander Graham Bell (the majority of those present believing the phone “would be only a toy to amuse people”).  He was trading with South Africa in 1866, Uruguay in 1870 and before the turn of the century with Japan, Russia and Turkey.  He helped coordinate Pennsylvania’s activities at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  He knew Daniel Webster (“scrupulous about paying his gambling debts but he did not bother with little bills”), Harlow Higinbotham (one of the geniuses behind Marshall Field with “an almost uncanny ability to estimate the character of men”), Lloyd George (his head being “the strongest, most leonine that I ever saw” next to Daniel Webster, of course), Johns Hopkins (“a hard, austere sort of man” and "one of the most peculiar figures of all time"), Mexican President Diaz (“he reminded me a good deal of Colonel Roosevelt”), Wu Ting-Fang (the Chinese minister to the US, “a remarkable man”) and Queen Eleonora of Bulgaria (“a beautiful character”).

And, of course, this Forrest Gump of the 19th century knew, and well, Andrew Carnegie.

Carnegie the Entrepreneur

One of my former bosses had a recipe for the successful career: Spend the decade of your twenties working for the best people you can find, learning about business and leadership.  Spend the decade of your thirties striking out on your own, being entrepreneurial.  Then, once you are 40, you are ready to decide what it is you really like to do--and you possess all the tools to do it.

Andrew Carnegie must have been listening.  Before he was 30 he had worked in the three great industries of the times: textiles, telegraphy, and the railroad. He then dabbled in investments--railroads, sleeping cars, bridges, bonds--amassing a small fortune before he decided he wanted to do something permanent--which is when he invested in steel.  By the 1890s the Carnegie Steel Company was the largest and most profitable industrial enterprise in the world. Carnegie sold it in 1901 for $480 million to J.P. Morgan, who created U.S. Steel.

“It may surprise many to know,” Farquhar wrote, “that this young man was first a telegraph messenger, then an expert telegraph operator, then an expert railroad man who would probably have been president of one of our biggest systems if he had not desired to get into business for himself, and who was already a power in iron before he was thirty,” adding, “by the time the other boys had finished playing, Carnegie had almost finished working and was ready to play.”

Andrew Carnegie was a true entrepreneur, a business genius and far ahead of his time.  “He was among the first to apply scientific brains to business,” Farquhar wrote, “to know that results are not to be gained merely by luck.”  He employed “experimental chemists and experts and thereby accumulated overhead that we could not at that time have comprehended”--the first R&D labs.  He turned business thinking on its head because he understood “the possibilities of economies to be gained by increasing the overhead.”

Carnegie saw the future when he invested in iron and steel.  He was, Farquhar said, “as keen a business man as ever lived, and he was keen in the large way—he saw not merely to-morrow but the day after.”

Among other innovations, Carnegie was among the first to vertically integrate his operations.  While others hid during the Panic of 1873 he invested, taking advantage of low costs to build capacity.  He led the industry in moving to cheap and efficient mass production of steel by adopting and adapting the Bessemer process for steelmaking.   In one particularly important initiative, Carnegie supplied the steel for the landmark Eads Bridge project across the Mississippi River at St. Louis, Missouri, completed in 1874. This project was a critical proof-of-concept for steel technology and marked the opening of new steel markets.  By 1889, the U.S. output of steel exceeded that of the UK, and Carnegie was responsible for most of it.

Perhaps equally impressive, Andrew Carnegie understood delegation and practiced a kind of management that would not become acceptable until well into the second half of the 20th century.  When Farquhar mentioned that he typically worked ten hours a day, Carnegie replied, “You must be a very lazy man if it takes you ten hours to do a day’s work.  What I do is to get good men, and I never give them orders.  My directions seldom go beyond suggestions.  Here in the morning I get reports from them.  Within an hour I have disposed of everything, sent out all of my suggestions, the day’s work is done, and I am ready to go out and enjoy myself.”

It’s as if Carnegie had thrown one of the huge switches of the Managerial Revolution, moving from a world described by Farquhar as “the old expert owner who was always there and always insisted upon knowing all about everything that was done” to one of delegation and personal autonomy.  In turn, "no business head had ever commanded more loyalty from his managers and men,” Farquhar wrote.  In fact, “Carnegie conspicuously differed from the other big figures of his day in being a manager of men rather than an expert on his own account.  Many men knew more about iron and steel but none knew so much about iron and steel and men and business.

Needless to say, this sounds an awful lot like Carnegie pioneered the modern CEO.

Farquhar summarized his opinion of Carnegie by saying, “He conducted the largest business of his time, made the best product, sold it at the lowest price, and paid the highest wages, making America the iron and steel centre of the world.”
Andrew Carnegie wasn’t Steve Jobs; he was Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and Henry Ford and Warren Buffett and a few exceptional people I can't think of all rolled into one. 

What Happened to Carnegie and "Steel"?

And yet--

Why isn’t he remembered for his pioneering work in strategy and leadership, or his entrepreneurial success in a global industry?  (Why doesn't word association instantly conjure "steel"?)  Could it be because what Carnegie did is now, to us, antiquated, old hat--taught and practiced in every business school in the country?  Run-of-the-mill Management 101. Everybody learns it, everybody does it.  Been there, done that.

Now, if you will, jump forward 50 years as Gladwell suggests.  The iPad and entire “poke the glass with your finger” era is museum stuff-- just another way-station to much, much better products.  Steve Jobs is a bright light, but only one in a string of bright lights.   Our great-great grandchildren might take their 8th grade History of Technology test, focused on the relatively slow era of innovation from 1990 to 2010.  A question appears:

Steve Jobs was a technology entrepreneur who introduced the world to:

A. the Walkman
B. the Palm Pilot
C. the Google "search engine" (an antiquated way of accessing data)
D. the Linux “operating system” (an antiquated way of controlling a “computer”)
E. Gangsta rap
F. Red Bull (an antiquated way of staying awake)
G.  the iPhone
H. All of the above

This seems like an unlikely possibility when Jobs’ brilliance is right on top of us, and we, his legion, are so in awe.  But did Arthur Farquhar ever think there would come a day when the average person would not instantly associate Andrew Carnegie—possibly the single greatest leader in American business history--with steel?

So, Malcolm Gladwell may be correct when he says Steve Jobs won’t be especially memorable.  Products fade--even genius, which has a way of becoming the commonplace.   And we also know that good works have legs: if Bill Gates gets vaccines to Third World countries and saves generations of children, he may well have statues erected to him.  

And you’ll still be able to read about him in one of Andrew Carnegie’s libraries.

Maybe the moral of our story, of Farquhar and Carnegie, Jobs and Gates, is this:  Do well and you’ll be famous with your contemporaries.  Do good and you might be famous forever.

A Few Notes

One of Arthur Farquhar’s final adventures was getting caught in Europe at the start of WWI.  He finally (and barely) made it home after a tortuous route through Constantinople and Rome.  His trunk made it home seven years later, still intact.  (Could he have flown American?)

The only president he didn’t like was Andrew Johnson.  His best comment on Lincoln: “The world seems a lonesome place since he has gone.”  Astute readers will note that Harding's administration fell into the Teapot Dome scandal about two years after Farquhar's praise and went on to be remembered as one of the most corrupt in American history.

Arthur Farqhars’s autobiography, The First Million the Hardest (1922), was ghostwritten by Samuel Crowells--who also worked extensively with Henry Ford--and is free online at Google books.  Thank you, Google, for helping preserve this gem.  See here.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Toronto remarks are here.
  His website is here.

Information about the Gates Foundation, which really does do incredible work, is here

If you are still skeptical about how monumental business genius fades rapidly into obscurity, try this.   The following nine men are all among the twenty wealthiest Americans of all time.   Do you know how each made his money and impacted the world?  John D. Rockefeller, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, John Jacob Astor, Stephen Girard, A.T. Stewart, James G. Fair, William Weightman, Moses Taylor, Russell Sage.   (Hint: mining and real estate, puts and calls, pharmaceuticals, banking, furs, oil, steamboats and railroads, shipping, department stores.)  For help see the great graphic here from The New York Times.  (OK, I'll make the test more recent and easier this time. . .Harold Geneen, John Paul Getty, Alfred P. Sloan, Thomas J. Watson, Lee Iacocca, Jack Welch. . .yes?  No??  You remember Jack Welch, yes??  No??  Eric Schmidt?  Yes?  Yes!  Good--now we're making progress!)