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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

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]

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