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Published: April 1, 2000


Assaying Edison... And His Equals

The first piece of enterprise I have imposed on myself is to determine a time frame and identify the innovators. A key date is May 10, 1869, since that was the moment the lines of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific finally kissed at Promontory Point, Utah, creating the essential bone in the skeleton of a railway network that made the mass market a practical possibility. The railways and the people who made them will be one bookend. The other bookend is the new electronic network of the Internet and the World Wide Web. Here again we have to acknowledge the role of government, since it was an agency of the U.S. Defense Department — the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) — that funded the academic engineers and scientists who at the end of the 1960s created a national information network. Richard DeLauer, then U.S. Undersecretary of Defense, established the transmission control protocol and the Internet protocol as essential for linking networks. Is he an innovator? It is tempting to tell the stories of such innovative public servants as Mr. DeLauer and New Dealers like Harry L. Hopkins and Harold L. Ickes, but I am persuaded that it is better to confine the individual studies to people in private enterprise, where the name of the game is risk.

Another consideration: the sheer multitude of individuals to consider. My intention is to fine down a working list of entrepreneurs to 100, for something like an Innovators' Hall of Fame. They are hard to select. There are thousands and thousands of them, and they cover a wide spectrum of activity. The people who came to pay homage to Thomas Edison in 1929, on the 50th anniversary of his first incandescent light, are suggestive of the range of American prowess. Watching Edison re-enact his first moment of triumph were Henry Ford, Orville Wright, Marie Curie, Harvey S. Firestone, and President Herbert C. Hoover — the Indiana Jones of the turn of the century, who found a fortune in an abandoned silver mine in Burma marked by fresh tiger tracks.

But who are the most important and illustrative of the thousands? What are their origins and their inspirations? Is any common motivation discernible? How much were they original and alone, how much were they the lucky inheritors of a legacy of research by others? What was their contribution to American civilization? What, for instance, gave Gustavus Swift the idea that made the refrigerator railcar work (1874)? Why was Christopher Soule's typewriter the one that E. Remington and Sons developed (1873)? Who was the genius behind the marketing of George Eastman's 1889 Box Brownie ("You take the picture, we do the rest")? What was special about Jonathan O. Armour's mechanization of the nation's meat processing industry? How did King Camp Gillette find the money for his new use of steel? Would Alexander Graham Bell have beaten the Wright brothers to flight if he hadn't become obsessed with the telephone? Why didn't the Wright brothers become more successful businessmen?

I have come to appreciate more acutely the difference between invention and innovation, between making a discovery and making a business. Philo T. Farnsworth transmitted the first all-electronic television image, but David Sarnoff built the RCA Corporation. Chester F. Carlson invented a process he called electrophotography, the basis of the modern photocopier, yet it was the Haloid Company men, Joseph C. Wilson and Dr. John F. Dessauer, who made the idea work (but only after putting in $75 million and endless hours of frustrating experiment between 1947 and 1960). Weren't they the innovators? The genius of William B. Shockley expressed itself in the invention of the transistor with John Bardeen and Walter H. Brattain at the Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J., but his brilliance did not translate to running a business — he could not get along with people. The scientific/business innovators are Gordon E. Moore and Robert N. Noyce, two of the "traitorous eight," who left the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory and in 1968 founded the company that became the Intel Corporation, and the microchip business. Then again, to what extent would Intel have flourished without the innovating managerial energies of Andrew S. Grove? Alfred D. Chandler, the father of American business history, has long and persuasively argued that the secret of America's modern success ultimately lies with such innovators in corporate strategy and structure as Pierre S. duPont at DuPont, Theodore N. Vail at the AT&T Corporation, and Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. at the General Motors Corporation.

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