Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Decline of the Motor City

I often blog about technology's intersection with our culture. Most of the time, I think that on balance, technology is a positive influence. But every now and then I see something that makes me wonder.

I recently came across a survey of 3400 hundred people done by in which Detroit was ranked as the most hated city in the United States. That is quite a contrast to the Detroit of the mid 1960's. In those days, Detroit was at the top of its game.

I was reminded of this by a video I came across in the Internet Archives. I was looking for a reference to an old radio program that used to be on WJR in Detroit. The Internet Archive has a promotional video made by the radio station in 1966. It is a wonderful snapshot of technology at that time. There are shots of the old (then state-of-the-art) radio broadcast equipment, the newsroom with typewriters and teletype machines, cars with AM radios, kitchens of the era, and shots of shiny new GM cars. The narrator in the film talked about the prosperity of Detroit. The city had disposable income 15 percent above the national average, and seventy percent of people were home owners. What a difference forty years makes.

Now, Detroit is a virtual welfare case. I doubt that in their wildest imagination the boosters of Detroit in 1966 could have seen their bleak future. Technology created Detroit and failure to stay current with technology, and bad management, was the city's undoing. What new Detroits are among us today, the failures in our future? Can we do something different this time to re-write the outcome? Can Detroit be resurrected? Tough questions but questions that won't go away.

Here's the video. It runs about 20 minutes but it is a fun look back.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Can You Teach Innovation?

[Picture: Thomas Telford's Pontcysyllte Aqueduct from Wikipedia]

I follow a number of blogs and newsfeeds about innovation. Most of these stories lament that if business was only more innovative we would be out of the economic woods. I just saw such a lecture given by Tim Brown of IDEO to MIT's Sloan School of Business that makes the case for "design innovation". It's an interesting talk but I have my doubts it is the answer. Bookstore shelves creak under the load of business titles on the subject of innovation. Roundtables and blue-ribbon panels on innovation are convened at national conferences. The audience is busily planning new ways to come up with the next spontaneous innovation.

Somehow, the whole concept of "teaching innovation" by recipe seems unlikely to produce much real change. It seems too much in the realm of theory and not enough in the reality of practice. I thought about how I learn something new. Reading tops my list if I want background information. For a specific skill, structured lessons followed by repetitive practice usually work well. Music lessons come to mind. Being a music student is the simplest form of apprenticeship, which also works well for learning more complex skills such as auto mechanics or brain surgery. Almost all complex skills demand an apprenticeship. Is this true for innovators? Do you learn how to innovate by being an Apprentice Innovator? I think so.

I know innovation when I see it... and so do most people. So you want to learn how to innovate? Find someone to work for who is really skilled at it. Do your job but watch the innovator closely. Being under the wing of an expert innovator can help you learn how to deal with challenging problems. They can help you learn how to build the sponsorship that is critical to getting around the bureaucratic roadblocks that are always present. And perhaps most importantly, they can challenge you to stretch beyond your self-imposed limits to reach what you really are capable of doing.

The innovators of history were talented, thick-skinned, and they had a knack for developing sponsors, They had a burning desire to make their marks. Often, they would start in one field where they learned by trial-and-error in a small arena and then moved on to the field where they made their name. Most were hands-on from a very young age, learning the fundamentals of their craft whether technical or business. Formal education played a smaller part in their ultimate success than did energy and tenacity. The people we think of as today's icons of innovation (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Larry Page to name but a few) fit the description perfectly.

Here's an historical example I just came across. Thomas Telford (1757 - 1834) was one of the most innovative civil engineers in the history of Great Britain. He was a great civil engineer before they even had schools for civil engineers. Telford was a Scot raised in a very poor family. At 14, he was apprenticed (hands on) to a stonemason in Edinburgh. He was good at it. When he was 25 (notice he spent nine years learning his basic craft), he moved to London to seek his fortune. He gradually moved from being a stonemason to being responsible for the specifications, and the overall control for his projects. He was gradually moving from stonemason to being an on-the-job-trained architect. When Telford was 30, he met Sir William Pulteney, a member of aristocracy and a Member of Parliament. Pulteney recognized Telford's talent and became his sponsor, opening the door for Telford to take on increasingly more responsible projects for local governments. Because of that sponsorship, Telford started work on the Ellesmere Canal at age 35. Even at this stage, Telford was under the tutelage of a more senior and experienced civil engineer named William Jessop. Jessop taught Telford all he knew about canal building and supported Telford's innovative design concepts. Telford built a thousand foot long canal aqueduct 126 feet above the Dee River valley. The Pontcysylte (the spelling is Welsh) Aqueduct is still operational today, two hundred years after it was built. Telford had previously built a more modest aqueduct using similar design principles so he was confident that his larger design would work. Telford went on to a long and very successful career of building roads, canals, and bridges throughout the British Isles. When he died, he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

[The photo is of the Menai Suspension Bridge built by Telford in 1826. The bridge still carries automobile traffic.]

My point here is that Telford succeeded because he had developed a natural talent, he was ambitious, and he had a series of mentors and sponsors who opened doors for him. As far as I know, he didn't read books or go to conferences on how to innovate. The few books that were available to him talked about the designs that had been done before, even back to antiquity. More importantly, he could go see real bridges and canals to learn from what others had done.

Maybe the conferences and business books can work and I am just a curmudgeon. But I feel more hopeful when I see hands-on apprenticeship programs where real-world problems are being tackled. Start-up ventures and new product programs teach in ways no amount of reading can replace. Sometimes these ventures fail but this can be the greatest learning experience of all. A good mentor or sponsor is there to make sure you take what you learned and 'get back on the bike'. In the end, the great innovators would not be bounded by the limitations of their current situations. They were willing to head out on their own when it was the best way they could pursue their dreams.

We live in very different times than did Thomas Telford. I am not suggesting that everybody ditch their current company and try to start a new venture. Not that many people in Telford's day left the security of their situations. But enough did to make the difference. Telford was not reckless or arrogant. He got where he did through a series of incremental, hands-on steps. And the result is still some of the most innovative engineering of his day...and even ours.

[Bonus: If you want to see how Telford actually built the aqueduct, check out this terrific 3D computer animation of it here.]

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Lincoln Highway

There was a great documentary on last night on our local PBS affiliate about the Lincoln Highway. Rick Sebak was the producer for WQED of the film entitled A Ride Along the Lincoln Highway. Look for it in your local listings. It is worth watching if you get the opportunity.

So what is The Lincoln Highway? It was the first designated coast-to-coast highway in the United States. The Lincoln Highway was not a product of the federal government or state governments. It was a marketing scheme cooked up by Carl G. Fisher, an early automobile parts entrepreneur. Fisher owned the Presto-O-Lite Company which used pressed carbide pellets to produce acetylene gas for fueling car headlamps before cars had electric lighting. Fisher also built the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Fisher got together with some of his other automotive magnate friends and convinced them that a highway marketing project would give people something to do when they wanted to drive their new cars. The more people drove, the more car products they would need.

The Lincoln Highway Association was chartered on July 1, 1913. The association didn't build any new roads. They laid out a route over existing roads that went from Times Square in New York City to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. The Lincoln Highway was not one single U.S. highway but a variety of highways and state roads that were designated with signage. Fisher wanted to call it The Lincoln Highway as, at that time, there was no national monument to Lincoln (The Lincoln Memorial was not dedicated until 1922). Most of the work of the LHA was working with local officials to mark the existing roads with Lincoln Highway markers as well to insure publicity, guidebooks, etc.

The LHA operated until 1930 when it finally ceased to exist. But the Lincoln Highway segments are still with us. In the early 1990's, a new LHA was founded to preserve and protect as much of the original roadway as possible. The documentary focuses on a lot of the people who are in the current LHA and who are passionate about their hobby. The Lincoln Highway was in some way a predecessor of the Interstate Highway System. In fact, Dwight Eisenhower took a coast-to-coast military convoy across the Lincoln Highway in 1919 to assess military travel by road. That experience, coupled with his contact with the German Autobahn during World War II, lead him to champion the Interstates (now known as the Eisenhower Expressway System).

One of the interesting features of the Lincoln Highway was that in various locations they had a mile of paved road they called Seedling Miles. These were well marked and showed drivers how much more enjoyable a good road could be compared to the gravel and mud that made up much of the early Lincoln Highway. The idea was that people would be begin to demand better roads like the Seedling Miles. And they did.

The original dream of Carl Fisher and his buddies came to pass. (Fisher, by the way, also promoted a north-south highway called the Dixie Highway that went from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan to Miami Beach, Florida). People did get out and drive. The Lincoln Highway certainly can't claim credit for all of that but it was a brilliant promotional tool for a young industry. We are now predominantly a nation of highways and motor vehicles. You can have too much of a good thing. But the highway still calls to people and is the stuff of songs and stories. The Lincoln Highway was part of where it all started.

Fanfare for the People

A while back, I wrote a blog post about the wonderful color images that the Library of Congress has made available as one of their photostreams on Flickr. These pictures were all taken by photographers working for the Farm Services Administration or the Office of War Information. I was looking at the collection again recently and I was so impressed with the portraits of the people portrayed in their daily work. These photos also captured a time when women were working in factories in dramatically increased numbers to augment the war effort.

I started toying with the idea of setting some of these photos to music. What music could be more appropriate than Aaron Copeland's Fanfare for the Common Man. Copeland wrote the piece in August of 1942 at the request of Eugene Goossens, the conductor of the Cinncinnati Symphony Orchestra. This was one of eighteen fanfares that were composed by various conductors but by far the one which has lived on beyond its original intention.

So here is a little slideshow that I put together using a few of the photos which show people at their work, much of it working with technology. I hope you like it.

[Update: This box shows up as 4:3 while the original is 16:9. You will see the images cropped here but if you double-click through to the YouTube page you can see it in full format.]

Why Care about the History of Innovation and Enterprise?

There is nothing inherently beautiful about an old, rusty gear. The beauty I see is in the solid order of the object; finely made, well-designed for its purpose. A new gear has some of these properties, but it has no long history. It does not represent what once was and what might have been. It holds no mystery about people now gone. Its history is still being written. Old objects, however, have tales to tell. These stories may be real or they may be a fiction of my own imagination. But the stories make these pieces of scrap come to life. They are more interesting just because they are but a remnant of what once was. I cannot look at these things without thinking that the people who created them are now gone. But they had lives, and dreams, and hopes that were moving them towards some promise in their own future. That future is now past and this is what is left to remind us of their lives.

I like stories. Most of the stories I am interested in are about passionate people that tried to do some pretty amazing things. We still have the evidence of many of those efforts. Whether it is a great canal, or the successor machines of the automobile pioneers, or even the clothes that we wear. All of these things came from people with big dreams. Many of the early folks had no formal training in either technology or business. It didn’t matter. They could see something that others couldn’t see and went after that vision despite criticism, or the opposite, total indifference. They persevered. Some of them even succeeded. It didn’t have to turn out the way it did. Some of the successes could have easily been failures. We might never have heard of the Wright Brothers or Eli Whitney or Henry Ford. Others could just as easily occupied their niches in history. But they didn’t and in that is the story.

The history of technology and enterprise continues to be written every day in the business and tech news of the day. We are often so close to it we cannot see the old patterns that continue to be played out; the scrounging for capital, the defense of a patent, the creation of a market demand. Every historic technology faced the same general problems as those innovations and enterprises being created today. Of course, some things have changed (the speed of information flow, the scale of markets, the political environment). But the winners and losers today could learn a great deal from those who have gone before them.

Every now and then I have to remind myself of these things. I hope the reminder is helpful to you as well.

[The image is from Flickr by nohjan of and gear on a lock of the Erie Canal. Used under Creative Commons license]

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Alexander Hamilton, Founder of SUM Town

Ask someone whose portrait is on the ten dollar bill and you will probably get an answer like Abraham Lincoln or Benjamin Franklin. In fact, it is Alexander Hamilton, first United States Secretary of the Treasury and a Founding Father of our country. Hamilton even lead three battalions of troops at the Battle of Yorktown.

Hamilton believed in a strong central government as well as industry and trade as the basis for a vital country. One of the ideas that he championed was the formation of the first public-private corporation in the United States. The Society for the Establishment of Useful Manufactures (or SUM) received a corporate charter from the New Jersey legislature in 1791. A survey of possible waterpower-driven manufacturing locations identified the Great Falls of the Passaic River in New Jersey as the best site to build the new enterprise.

To provide a place for the working people to live, the town of Paterson, NJ was founded next to the falls. It was named after William Paterson, governor of the state -- a wise political move to help build support. Some of the charter members wanted to name the town after Hamilton but he would have none of it. In fact, Hamilton would not participate financially in order to avoid a conflict of interest, even though he had championed the idea. The corporate charter allowed for a subscription of up to a million dollars in capital, a huge undertaking for that time. Leading business men subscribed to the stock and the first factories were built and put into operation to produce textiles. Other products planned included iron wire and even straw hats.

Paterson was the first planned industrial community in the United States. The original plan for the town was proposed by Pierre L'Enfant, the same architect who laid out the plans for Washington, D.C. L'Enfant was soon replaced, however, as his plans were viewed as much too grandiose for the needs of the industrial town. A much more pragmatic plan was undertaken to guide the building of the new town.

Alas, all did not go well. The first head of the SUM corporation embezzled much of the money. The mills never became profitable due to small manufacturing volumes and extended start-up costs. The waterpower capability of the falls was over-estimated. And mismanagement fouled up much of the remainder. By 1796, the project was closed down and Paterson became a virtual ghost town.

But all did not end there. As the technology matured, new factories were opened on the Passaic by independent businessmen who leased the water rights from the Society. The Society actually turned a tidy profit on its real estate and water rights deals. Paterson was even the first site for Samuel Colt's manufacturing of firearms in 1835 (although Colt later moved his business to Connecticut). Paterson continued to prosper through the next 150 years as a manufacturing center.

The story has a tragic ending for Hamilton as well. In July of 1804, Hamilton was mortally wounded in a duel with the Vice President, Aaron Burr. Burr had taken offense at a supposed derisive comment Hamilton had made about Burr and demanded a pistol duel. Evidence suggests that Hamilton deliberately missed Burr but Burr had every intention of killing Hamilton who was shot in the lower abdomen. Burr was charged with murder but never tried. He fled to South Carolina but later returned to Washington, D.C. to complete his term as Vice President.

American Experience on PBS has a great biography of Hamilton which you can watch online here.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Erie Canal

Erie Canal at Lockport, NY

I just finished reading a fascinating book on the Erie Canal entitle, Wedding of the Waters, by Peter L. Bernstein. I knew a little about the Erie Canal. Everyone knows a little about the Canal even if it is only the old childhood song with the line, "Low bridge, everybody down, low bridge for we're coming to a town." But the story is much more interesting than a simple song lyric and Bernstein does a great job telling the reader about the political and technical problems that had to be solved before the Erie Canal was completed in 1825.

From the earliest days of this country, knowledgeable leaders knew that the future of the country depended on creating an economical link with the frontiers to the west. Given the state of technology in the late 18th century, that link was obviously a water route. The problem was the Appalachian Mountains, which effectively closed off the lands on the far side of the mountains from trade with the east. One of the earliest proposed river routes was to build a canal and locks based on the Potomac River being connected to the Ohio at Pittburgh. A company called the Potomack Canal Company undertook this task and after a quiescent period during the Revolution was headed up by none other than George Washington. As Bernstein writes in his book:

In 1785, after completing a trip all the way from Mount Vernon to Pittsburgh and then down the Ohio River, he [George Washington] expressed his urgent concerns to the governor of Virginia:

“I need not remark to you, Sir, that the flanks and the rear of the United States are possessed by other powers - and formidable ones too: nor need I press the necessity of applying the cement of interest to bind all parts of the Union together by indissoluble bonds - especially of binding that part of it which lies immediately west of us, to the middle States. For what ties let me ask, should we have upon those people, how entirely unconnected with them shall we be, and what troubles may we not apprehend, if Spaniards...and Great Britain...should hold out lures for their trade and alliance? That will be the consequences of their having formed close commercial connexions with both or either of those powers?...The western settlers (I speak now from my own observations,) stand, as it were, upon a pivot. The touch of a feather would turn them any way.”

The effort to open the Potomac went on until after Washington's death in 1799 but was a failure. The company even had to resort to slave labor when the low-paid immigrants deserted the dangerous and difficult job in droves.

In contrast, the New Yorkers saw the perfect opportunity to build a canal connecting the Hudson River with the Great Lakes by using the Mohawk River valley, the only northern valley running east and west through the Appalachians until you go as far south as Georgia. Years of proposals, surveys, and acrimony went by trying to get people behind the building of a canal. The State of New York finally proposed building such a canal with federal government money and was turned down, not once, but twice -- the first time by Thomas Jefferson who virtually laughed at the absurd idea and later by James Madison. So like good citizens, the State of New York decided to pay for it themselves.

Image: Profile of topography of Erie Canal

Imagine digging a 363 mile long, 40 foot wide by 4 foot deep ditch with only hand shovels, horse-tools, and a little blasting powder. And what was known as Clinton's Ditch (for De Witt Clinton, champion of the Canal and governor of New York) had to go up and down 675 vertical feet using 83 locks. The kicker to me is that at the time, there were zero civil engineers in America. Two of the men who took leading roles in designing and building the canal were judges who had a little surveying experience to help them settle boundary disputes.

The canal was completed on-time and essentially on budget. The entire bond debt that the State incurred was retired in 1836, years ahead of schedule. The cost of shipping wheat and other bulk materials from the west dropped by 95 percent. It not only made commercial trade with the west economically feasible but it also opened the gates to settling cities like Cleveland and Chicago. It would be hard to find a single project that had as much impact with the possible exceptions of the Transcontinental Railroad and the Panama Canal. I am not sure these even measure up.

Bernstein goes on to make the point that the Erie Canal not only connected the regions within the United States, but it also connected the United States to Europe through vast grain shipments that allowed Britain in particular to feed the hungry workers of the industrial revolution cities.

Given all the noise of late from some quarters about the inefficiency of government spending on infrastructure, I found it ironic to read what Bernstein had to say in his epilogue.

Suppose we had to bet today on which project would turn out to be the more successful effort, geography aside: a profit-seeking venture controlled by one of the great executives and administrators of all time [Washington], or a state-financed project managed by a committee of politicians. The choice would be an obvious one. Thomas Jefferson had reminded George Washington in early 1784, “Nature then has declared in favor of the Potomac, and through that channel offers to pour into our lap the whole commerce of the Western world. [Moreover] public undertakings are carelessly managed, and much money spent to little purpose.”

Yet the privately owned and operated Potowmack Company ended up a financial failure and finished way behind schedule, while the committee of politicians who managed the construction of the Erie Canal would oversee their novel, complex, and gigantic project with high success, bringing it to completion on schedule, at a mind-boggling level of expenditure that came close to the original estimates, and without a single significant blunder or failure along the way. The long odds would have come out the winner on that bet.

Today, the Erie Canal is finally quiet, having been superceded by the New York State Thruway and the St. Lawrence Seaway. A much-modernized version of the canal still carries an occasional load of small freight and pleasure boats. At many places, you can still find the archeological remnants of the original structures. I find it encouraging to realize what people can do when they set their mind to a task. It is also a reminder that even the greatest of endeavors comes laden with naysayers and politics.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Automotive Sculpture

I was browsing through some photographs recently that I had taken at an old car show. I came across this picture which shows the logo that adorned the radiator of an old automobile at the show. If you look beneath the three knights you can see the word "Graham". I became idly curious about Graham cars and started doing a little digging to find out more.

The Graham brothers (there were three of them) came from an Indiana farm background and near the turn of the 20th century they got involved with a glass-making factory. The company was one of the predecessors of what eventually became Libby-Owens-Ford (LOF) that became a major supplier of safety glass to the automotive industry. The brothers got interested in manufacturing light trucks based on modifying Ford's Model-T's. Eventually, they set up their own truck manufacturing business and began supplying trucks to Dodge. Dodge bought the brothers out but they weren't out for long. The Grahams took their profits and bought the recently-defunct Paige Motor Car Company and renamed it (surprise) the Graham-Paige Motor Company. They began producing cars in the late twenties when there was still a little "roar" left in the economy. By 1930, they had dropped the Paige part of the name and the cars became badged as simply Graham (although the public continued to call them Graham-Paige).

So what was the symbolism of the logo? The icon on the radiator in my photo was designed for the Grahams by the (then) well-known Chicago sculptor, Laredo Taft (1860 - 1936). Now I became curious about Mr. Taft. Digging around, I found the following:

The badge is meant to represent the three Graham brothers as valiant white knights that come to the rescue of troubled car companies. I guess the brothers actually felt that way about themselves.

Taft, as it turns out, usually designed much bigger works starting with statues on the Horticultural Building in the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition. His largest work is a 126 foot-long sculpture in Washington Park in Chicago, entitled Fountain of Time.

The sculpture honors the 100 years of peace that had endured between the U.S. and Great Britain beginning with the Treaty of Ghent in 1814. It shows 100 figures at all stages of life parading past Father Time. Taft even put himself in the sculpture as you can see in this photo.

The sculpture itself is inspired by Henry Austin Dobson's poem, "Paradox of Time". The poem contains the line:

Time goes, you say? Ah no, Alas, time stays, we go.

But I digress. Back to the Graham boys. Time was not kind to the Graham Automobile Company. The company creaked on through most of the Great Depression losing money every year except 1933. By 1940 with World War II approaching, the company switched to government contracting and became profitable. No Graham cars were ever built again. Even then, curiously, the government rescued car makers from total demise!

So my photo of the radiator ornament taught me a lot. I now know something about the Grahams, Lorado Taft, and the unlikely connections between technology and art. Who would have guessed?