(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘commerce

“How dare you try to hog all the continent!”*…

The ceremony for the driving of the “Last Spike” at Promontory Summit, Utah, May 10, 1869 (source)

Historian Richard White on the greed, ineptitude, and economic cost behind the transcontinental railroads of the 19th century, and what that says about the development of infrastructure today…

Politicians love a good historical analogy. That’s why Joe Biden has compared his infrastructure law to the construction of the interstate highway system and the transcontinental railroad. The president, of course, means such comparisons in a flattering light. For those who have studied these revolutionary policy choices, however, the consequences are not so unblemished.

Ten years ago, historian Richard White catalogued the greed and ineptitude of railroad executives and the policymakers who blindly enabled their schemes. In Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, he explored the history of corporations that have gone down in American myth as corrupt but ultimately productive and necessary.

White argues that the transcontinental railroad companies were not necessary for stitching the young country together; they were simply an example of “dumb growth” that hurt more than it helped. Sped along by state subsidy and paid-for politicians, these corporations built in places where there were no markets. They never made money. The entire enterprise was a vast Ponzi scheme, and its periodic turmoil threw the nation into repeated economic crisis. Their selfish flailing scourged wildlife, oppressed Native Americans, and spread new settlements to areas where they could not be sustained (and after long suffering were not).

Instead of an all-powerful “octopus” engulfing the country, he saw the railroad men as a collection of myopic and unintelligent executives who could not have survived year to year without government subsidy. Instead of a monstrous kraken, he suggested a better analogy would be “a group of fat men in an Octopus suit fighting over the controls” of a train going off the rails…

Governing (@GOVERNING) talks with White about lessons for today’s infrastructure programs: “Breaking the Myth About America’s ‘Great’ Railroad Expansion.”

See also: “Years of Delays, Billions in Overruns: The Dismal History of Big Infrastructure” “These days, the bigger the company, the less you can figure out what it does.”

* Collis Huntington (lead investor in the Central Pacific Railroad) to “Doc” Durant (V.P., and operating head of the Union Pacific Railroad) in 1862

###

As we learn from our mistakes, we might recall that it was on this date in 1845 that President James K. Polk, citing “Manifest Destiny” in a State of the Union message, proposed that the United States should aggressively expand into the West.

It was the 22nd anniversary of President James Monroe‘s declaration of the New World as a sphere of influence off-limits to intervention by Old World (colonial) powers, and suggesting that any such incursion would be deemed an act of aggression against the U.S. From 1850, this policy has been known as “the Monroe Doctrine.”

American Progress (1872) by John Gast is an allegorical representation of the modernization of the new west. (source)

“Fortune sides with him who dares”*…

View of Genoa by Christoforo de Grassi (after a drawing of 1481)

Understanding the origin of the modern concept of risk…

Lately, we have all become risk assessment and risk management experts, thinking, talking and Tweeting about the chances we take when we engage in once-mundane activities. It’s hard to imagine doing without risk: the analytical instrument we use to calculate the advisability of undertakings that can result in gain or loss. Yet when the word risk entered the languages of western Europe during the 12th century (at roughly the same time as other words used to jigger the scales of Fortune: hazard and chance), it took some time to catch on. Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) and Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540) – the two great writers of the Italian 15th and 16th centuries who wrote about contingency and power while everything was collapsing around them – did not use the Italian rischio in the works for which they are best remembered, even though the Italians were early adopters of the word and the speculative behaviours it names.

The first known usage of the Latin word resicum – cognate and distant ancestor of the English risk – occurs in a notary contract recorded in Genoa on 26 April 1156. The captain of a ship contracts with an investor to travel to Valencia with the sum invested. The contract allocates the ‘resicum’ to the investor. In a typical arrangement, the captain received 25 per cent of the profit at the end of the journey. The investor or investors pocketed the resicum payout: the remaining 75 per cent. This contract also reminds us that the medieval Italian ship’s crew was an egalitarian society. It specifies that the voyage would be extended from Valencia to trade at Alexandria before returning to Genoa, but only if a majority of the men on board agreed.

Resicum worked a kind of practical magic in these early contracts. Canon law forbade the payment of interest on loans in medieval Europe (as Islamic law did in the eastern and southern Mediterranean). By inventing a bonus paid to the investor in the event of the successful completion of a journey, the resicum provided a workaround for venture capitalists and for the captain seeking capital. It also gave those who could not journey an opportunity to earn investment income. A small but significant proportion of the investors in these maritime contracts were retired seamen or women. Finally, it parcelled out the risk assumed by those who undertook the trans-Mediterranean journey…

The fascinating story in full: “How 12th-century Genoese merchants invented the idea of risk,” from Karla Mallette (@karlamallette) in @aeonmag.

See also: “Genoa: The Cog in the New Medieval Economy” source of the image above.

* Virgil (reminding us that a sense of contingent peril and prospect predated the Middle Ages)

###

As we roll the dice, we might recall that risk came in a variety of forms in Medieval times: it was on this date in 1307 that Wilhelm Tell (or we tend to know him, William Tell) shot an apple off his son’s head.

Tell, originally from Bürglen, was a resident of the Canton of Uri (in what is now Switzerland), well known as an expert marksman with the crossbow. At the time, the Habsburg emperors of Austria were seeking to dominate Uri.  Hermann Gessler, the newly appointed Austrian Vogt (the Holy Roman Empire’s title for “overlord”) of Altdorf, raised a pole in the village’s central square, hung his hat on top of it, and demanded that all the local townsfolk bow before the hat.  When Tell passed by the hat without bowing, he was arrested; his punishment was being forced to shoot an apple off the head of his son, Walter– or else both would be executed. Tell was promised freedom if he succeeded.

As lore has it, Tell split the fruit with a single bolt from his crossbow.  When Gessler queried him about the purpose of a second bolt in his quiver, Tell answered that if he had killed his son, he would have turned the crossbow on Gessler himself.  Gessler became enraged at that comment, and had Tell bound and brought to his ship to be taken to his castle at Küssnacht.  But when a storm broke on Lake Lucerne, Tell managed to escape.  On land, he went to Küssnacht, and when Gessler arrived, Tell shot him with his crossbow.

Tell’s defiance of Gessler sparked a rebellion, in which Tell himself played a major part, leading to the formation of the Swiss Confederation.

Tell and his son (source)

“Pam, this is from corporate. How many times have I told you that there is a special filing cabinet for things from corporate? Called the waste paper basket!”*…

The subject of this essay emerged by chance. I was researching the history of the U.S. passport, and had spent weeks at the National Archives, struggling through thousands of reels of unindexed microfilm records of 19th-century diplomatic correspondence; then I arrived at the records for 1906. That year, the State Department adopted a numerical filing system. Suddenly, every American diplomatic office began using the same number for passport correspondence, with decimal numbers subdividing issues and cases. Rather than scrolling through microfilm images of bound pages organized chronologically, I could go straight to passport-relevant information that had been gathered in one place.

I soon discovered that I had Elihu Root to thank for making my research easier. A lawyer whose clients included Andrew Carnegie, Root became secretary of state in 1905. But not long after he arrived, the prominent corporate lawyer described himself as “a man trying to conduct the business of a large metropolitan law-firm in the office of a village squire.” The department’s record-keeping practices contributed to his frustration. As was then common in American offices, clerks used press books or copybooks to store incoming and outgoing correspondence in chronologically ordered bound volumes with limited indexing. For Root, the breaking point came when a request for a handful of letters resulted in several bulky volumes appearing on his desk. His response was swift: he demanded that a vertical filing system be adopted; soon the department was using a numerical subject-based filing system housed in filing cabinets.

The shift from bound volumes to filing systems is a milestone in the history of classification; the contemporaneous shift to vertical filing cabinets is a milestone in the history of storage…

It is easy to dismiss the object: a rectilinear stack of four drawers, usually made of metal. With suitable understatement, one design historian has noted that “manufacturers did not address the subject of style with regard to filing units.” The lack of style figures into the filing cabinet’s seeming banality. It is not considered inventive or original; it is simply there, especially in 20th-century office spaces; and this ubiquity, along with the absence of style, perhaps paradoxically contributes to the easy acceptance of its presence, which rarely causes comment…

But if it appears to be banal and pervasive, it cannot be so easily ignored. The filing cabinet does not just store paper; it stores information; and because the modern world depends upon and is indeed defined by information, the filing cabinet must be recognized as critical to the expansion of modernity. In recent years scholars and critics have paid increasing attention to the filing systems used to store and retrieve information critical to government and capitalism, particularly information about people — case dossiers, identification photographs, credit reports, et al. But the focus on filing systems ignores the places where files are stored. Could capitalism, surveillance, and governance have developed in the 20th century without filing cabinets? Of course, but only if there had been another way to store and circulate paper efficiently. The filing cabinet was critical to the infrastructure of 20th-century nation states and financial systems; and, like most infrastructure, it is often overlooked or forgotten, and the labor associated with it minimized or ignored.

The vertical filing cabinet was invented in the United States in the 1890s, and quickly became a fixture throughout North America and around the world. It spread globally because it provided a way to store large amounts of paper so that individual sheets could be retrieved easily. The technique of using drawers for storing a sheet of paper on its long edge was significant because loose papers cannot stand upright on their own. Put another way, the filing cabinet technology enabled loose paper to stand on edge so that more sheets could be stored in less space but still be accessed with minimal difficulty. It allowed loose papers to do the work of paperwork…

The filing cabinet had at least two inventors — and likely several others who remain lost to the historical record. The current accepted version attributes the invention to the Library Bureau, the Boston-based company founded in 1876 by Melvil Dewey, inventor of the eponymous decimal system of library classification. Although the Library Bureau would proudly claim the invention, critical developments happened elsewhere. It was the secretary of a charity organization based in Buffalo, New York, a man identified as Dr. Nathaniel Rosenau, who provided the initial impetus for construction of a vertical filing cabinet. Inspired by the use of cabinets to store index cards on their edges, Rosenau sought a bigger container for papers.

In 1892, he took his idea to the Library Bureau’s Chicago office, which built a prototype. But no matter the inventor, the turn of the 20th century saw the filing cabinet develop as a part of the rapid growth of an office equipment industry in which dozens of companies manufactured practically identical products with little respect for the hundreds of patents issued for products and parts. To underscore their uniqueness and modernity, this industry explicitly labeled its products “equipment,” “appliances,” and “machines” — not furniture. And it made these products indispensable to offices, and thus helped to constitute the office as a “modern” workspace. The office with a vertical filing cabinet was decidedly not a 19th-century office…

The filing cabinet was critical to the information infrastructure of the 20th-century; like most infrastructure, it was usually overlooked– an oversight that Craig Robertson (@craig2robertson) rectifies: “The Filing Cabinet.”

* “Michael Scott,” The Office (Pilot episode)

###

As we savor storage, we might spare a thought for Malcolm Purcell McLean; he died on this date in 2001. A transportation entrepreneur, he parlayed his experience as a trucker into the development of the modern shipping container— which revolutionized transport and international trade in the second half of the twentieth century. Containerization led to a significant reduction in the cost of freight transportation by eliminating the need for repeated handling of individual pieces of cargo, and also improved reliability, reduced cargo theft, and cut inventory costs (thus, working capital needs) by shortening transit time.

When McLean died in 1987, then Secretary of Transportation Norm Minetta said:

Malcom revolutionized the maritime industry in the 20th century. His idea for modernizing the loading and unloading of ships, which was previously conducted in much the same way the ancient Phoenicians did 3,000 years ago, has resulted in much safer and less-expensive transport of goods, faster delivery, and better service. We owe so much to a man of vision, “the father of containerization,” Malcolm P. McLean.

In an editorial shortly after his death, the Baltimore Sun wrote that “he ranks next to Robert Fulton as the greatest revolutionary in the history of maritime trade,” and Forbes Magazine called McLean “one of the few men who changed the world.” On the morning of McLean’s funeral, container ships around the world blew their whistles in his honor.

source

“The heart and soul of the company is creativity”*…

Creativity doesn’t have a deep history. The Oxford English Dictionary records just a single usage of the word in the 17th century, and it’s religious: ‘In Creation, we have God and his Creativity.’ Then, scarcely anything until the 1920s – quasi-religious invocations by the philosopher A N Whitehead. So creativity, considered as a power belonging to an individual – divine or mortal – doesn’t go back forever. Neither does the adjective ‘creative’ – being inventive, imaginative, having original ideas – though this word appears much more frequently than the noun in the early modern period. God is the Creator and, in the 17th and 18th centuries, the creative power, like the rarely used ‘creativity’, was understood as divine. The notion of a secular creative ability in the imaginative arts scarcely appears until the Romantic Era, as when the poet William Wordsworth addressed the painter and critic Benjamin Haydon: ‘Creative Art … Demands the service of a mind and heart.’

This all changes in the mid-20th century, and especially after the end of the Second World War, when a secularised notion of creativity explodes into prominence. The Google Ngram chart bends sharply upwards from the 1950s and continues its ascent to the present day. But as late as 1970, practically oriented writers, accepting that creativity was valuable and in need of encouragement, nevertheless reflected on the newness of the concept, noting its absence from some standard dictionaries even a few decades before.

Before the Second World War and its immediate aftermath, the history of creativity might seem to lack its object – the word was not much in circulation. The point needn’t be pedantic. You might say that what we came to mean by the capacity of creativity was then robustly picked out by other notions, say genius, or originality, or productivity, or even intelligence or whatever capacity it was believed enabled people to think thoughts considered new and valuable. And in the postwar period, a number of commentators did wonder about the supposed difference between emergent creativity and such other long-recognised mental capacities. The creativity of the mid-20th century was entangled in these pre-existing notions, but the circumstances of its definition and application were new…

Once seen as the work of genius, how did creativity become an engine of economic growth and a corporate imperative? (Hint: the Manhattan Project and the Cold War played important roles.): “The rise and rise of creativity.”

(Image above: source)

* Bob Iger, CEO of The Walt Disney Company

###

As we lionize the latest, we might recall that it was on this date in 1726 that Jonathan Swift’s Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships— much better known as Gulliver’s Travels— was first published.  A satire both of human nature and of the “travelers’ tales” literary subgenre popular at the time, it was an immediate hit (John Gay wrote in a 1726 letter to Swift that “It is universally read, from the cabinet council to the nursery”).  It has, of course, become a classic.

From the first edition

source

Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 28, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Patents need inventors more than inventors need patents”*…

 

patent-toiletpaper

 

Patents for invention — temporary monopolies on the use of new technologies — are frequently cited as a key contributor to the British Industrial Revolution. But where did they come from? We typically talk about them as formal institutions, imposed from above by supposedly wise rulers. But their origins, or at least their introduction to England, tell a very different story…

How the 15th century city guilds of Italy paved the way for the creation of patents and intellectual property as we know it: “Age of Invention: The Origin of Patents.”

(Image above: source)

* Kalyan C. Kankanala, Fun IP, Fundamentals of Intellectual Property

###

As we ruminate on rights, we might recall that it was on this date in 1981 that IBM introduced the IBM Personal Computer, commonly known as the IBM PC, the original version of the IBM PC compatible computer design… a relevant descriptor, as the IBM PC was based on open architecture, and third-party suppliers soon developed to provide peripheral devices, expansion cards, software, and ultimately, IBM compatible computers.  While IBM has gone out of the PC business, it had a substantial influence on the market in standardizing a design for personal computers; “IBM compatible” became an important criterion for sales growth.  Only Apple has been able to develop a significant share of the microcomputer market without compatibility with the IBM architecture (and what it has become).

300px-Bundesarchiv_B_145_Bild-F077948-0006,_Jugend-Computerschule_mit_IBM-PC source

 

%d bloggers like this: