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Everything has a history. Before there was the Internet, there was the Arpanet. Palm Pilots trace back through laptops and desktops to the 30 ton ENIAC (electronic numerical integrator and computer), which has its roots in the programmable computers invented by the nineteenth-century British mathematician, Charles Babbage. Automobiles were preceded by steam-powered tricycles; trains, by wind-propelled land ships. Bankers are the heirs of money changers whose professional ancestors could be found guarding sacred temples used as safe depositories for personal assets.
Great fortunes have histories as well. They are created by visionaries who introduce themselves, their products, and ideas into the proper moment in time, the right crease in history. Henry Luce launched his middle-brow magazine empire just as a huge, and largely homogenous, American middle class was taking shape. Robert Woodruff took advantage of a shrinking globe and a second world war to create the first global brand: Coca-Cola. John D. Rockefeller seized control of the oil refining business just as industry was bursting forth with new energy demands. James Watt and Matthew Boulton launched the rotary steam engine under similar conditions a century earlier. For Spain to grow rich off the mineral wealth of the New World, there had to be slave laborers to dig the gold and silver out of the earth, transportation technology to get the precious metals to the Old World, and a market demand to satisfy. Tulip bulbs could soar to astronomical values in the seventeenth-century Netherlands only because the Dutch had made fortunes in sea trading and had a stock market to condition people to accepting risk for reward.
The transfer of money and power from the cross and crown to the new secular empire of business—the defining change of the last millennium—didn't just happen either. The desire to do business, the impulse to trade for profit, salesmanship born from merchant life—these are instincts nearly as old as the human species. But somewhere around a thousand years ago, a constellation of forces began to pull together in Western Europe.
War, invasion, and conquest, which had ravaged the continent since before the fall of Rome, abated. Until the Hundred Years' War got underway in 1337, Europe was, relatively speaking, at peace. Plague and pestilence subsided, too, and would stay in the background until the Black Death erupted about 1348, eventually killing perhaps one in two people continent-wide. With the coming of political stability, trade began to flourish throughout the Mediterranean and in the north of Europe, around the Rhine River and Baltic Sea. Cities grew and prospered as well, as land-poor lords started to sell off parts of their holdings in the form of town charters. The combination of growing urban populations and growing trade served to concentrate both marketplaces and workforces. Merchant and artisan guilds, which regulated the quality and price of trades, became powerful advocates of self-government.
A hunger for opportunity and personal freedom was awakening at the same time that western Europe began to provide the means for fulfilling individual ambition. The seeds of a business-based economy were being sown. And as that happened a handful of people—pioneers of the rough and tumble economic frontier, bold adventurers in the experiment that would come to be known as democratic capitalism—began to emerge.
One of first of these capitalist pioneers was the remarkable Godric. Born in the year 1065 near Walpole in Norfolk, in the east of England, he was the oldest of three children of Anglo-Saxon parents. His father, Aedlward, was a freeman who worked a small croft or an enclosed field, on which he most likely grew subsistence quantities of leeks, parsley, shallots, and the like. In return for the holding and the right to work the home farm, Aedlward was expected to render agricultural services to the lord of the manor. He was also dependent upon the lord's stores for food during famine and for protection in time of war—both being ever-present threats.
In the normal course of events, Aedlward's life would have become Godric's, but as a young man Godric aspired to something different, and perhaps even then, to something more. While still a teenager, he left his parents, brother, and sister, and set out to find his fortune. For a time he became a peddler, traveling on foot from market town to market town, selling whatever small wares he could lay his hands on at the annual fairs that were the commercial and social meeting place of the times. Working out of a tent or stall, one merchant might sell hair bought cheap at nunneries for women to add to their thinning locks; others might offer wines or furs. Notaries were available to seal contracts. The rich and poor alike gathered to ogle dancing bears, magicians, and stilt walkers. As they traveled from fair to fair, the peddlers would build a network and, if they had high aspirations, would use their new connections to expand their businesses.
Godric's aspirations soon led him to work as a ship's mate as well as a peddler. Traveling up and down the east coast of the British Isles, he would sell for a profit in the English ports what he had bought cheap from the farmers and craftsmen of Scotland. As his maritime skills expanded, so did his trading network. By age 18, Godric had joined the ranks of the roving merchant-adventurers who led a precarious existence on the margins of the medieval economy, trading freely across the English Channel as they sold ornaments and tapestries to noblemen with a taste for luxury. Instead of answering to the laws and strictures of a lord, as his father had done, Godric was now bound only to the law of profit.
Simultaneously, England itself was emerging as perhaps the wealthiest country in northern Europe. In 1066, the year after Godric's birth, William the Conqueror had defeated the Anglo-Saxon King Harold on the plains of Hastings and thrown the island kingdom into disarray. By 1086, though, William had consolidated his rule so effectively that his agents could undertake a survey of his lands and people that wouldn't be matched for thoroughness for another eight hundred years. The survey results were collected in two volumes that came to be known as the Great and Little Domesday books because the tax judgments rendered from them were as binding on men as God's final judgment on Doomsday.
A national currency system was in effect in England: The monetary term "sterling," used to describe the silver penny introduced by William and his Normans, came into common use just as Godric was leaving home for the first time. Social mobility was possible, too. For a man of Godric's extraordinary, even fierce ambition, there couldn't have been a better time and place, and he was clearly not one to let such an opportunity slip by.
"Thus aspiring ever higher and higher, and yearning upward with his whole heart, at length his great labours and cares bore much fruit of worldly gain," writes his biographer, the monk Reginald of Durham, who got much of the story from Godric himself.
For he laboured not only as a merchant but also as a shipman ... to Denmark and Flanders and Scotland; in all which lands he found certain rare, and therefore more precious, wares, which he carried to other parts where he knew them to be least familiar, and coveted by the inhabitants beyond the price of gold itself; wherefore he exchanged these wares for others coveted by men of other lands; and thus he chaffered most freely and assiduously. Hence he made great profit in all his bargains, and gathered much wealth in the sweat of his brow; for he sold dear in one place the wares he had bought elsewhere at a small price.
As the breadth of Godric's revenue stream grew, so did his net worth, and his potential grew with it. Although born in poverty, he found himself in his early thirties the half owner of a merchant ship and part owner of another. In time, he began sailing south out of England to the ports of northern Spain and then through the Straits of Gibraltar. The novelist Frederick Buechner speculates, in his fact-based but fictional account of Godric's life, that as his budding trading fleet began to reach into the Mediterranean, Godric multiplied his profits from each trip by carrying passengers in the hold—pilgrims bound for the Holy Land or the Vatican in Rome—and by small acts of pirating. Still in his thirties, Godric had become truly rich, a merchant king. For good measure, he even befriended and helped a real king, Baldwin I of Jerusalem, after his defeat in 1102 on the plains of Ramleh. Godric is mentioned specifically in the account of that battle as "Gudericus, pirata de regno Angliae."—Godric, pirate of the English kingdom.
Godric was "vigorous and strenuous in mind, whole of limb and strong in body," Reginald of Durham tells us. He was of middle stature, broad-shouldered and deep-chested, with a long face, grey eyes most clear and piercing, bushy brows, a broad forehead, long and open nostrils, a nose of comely curve, and a pointed chin. His beard was thick, and longer than the ordinary, his mouth well-shaped, with lips of moderate thickness; in youth his hair was black, in age as white as snow; his neck was short and thick, knotted with veins and sinews; his legs were somewhat slender, his instep high, his knees hardened and horny with frequent kneeling; his whole skin rough beyond the ordinary, until all this roughness was softened by old age.
He was also, if Frederick Buechner's Godric is to be believed, a brawler and wencher, an especially shrewd trader and, when necessary, a con man and worse. What Godric seems to have been most of all, though, was a man caught in a dilemma. That dilemma—the intersection of values and money, and the search for meaning among conflicting definitions of success—would continue to trouble businesspeople throughout the millennium that Godric saw begin. Cosimo de' Medici bargained with a Pope to resolve it. John D. Rockefeller would bargain with his Maker, while the contemporary global financier John Templeton has spent a fortune encouraging exploration into God's true nature. (Physicist Freeman Dyson, winner of the year 2000 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, received a staggering $948,000.) By the millennium's end, a culture obsessed with finding meaning in a world and workplace radically altered by the technological revolution would be rushing to embrace the spirituality of the new age. Godric, though, had no similar range of options. Then as now, a businessman defined his business progress by the profit he made; but then unlike now, the Roman Catholic Church was very clear on which choice Godric had to make. The only true progress was to be found on the road to salvation, and the pursuit of profit inevitably put that progress, and the soul, at risk.
On the North Sea island of Lindisfarne, where St. Cuthbert had once been bishop and where Godric sometimes put in to port during his trading voyages, all the irreconcilable claims on his soul appear finally to have overwhelmed him. The community of monks who lived on Farne invited the wealthy merchant to join them in prayer, and as he did so, Godric was overwhelmed with remorse. Am I doing the right thing by my fellow man? he is said to have asked himself, Am I doing right by my maker? Is this trading deceitful? Convinced that he was traveling the wrong path, Godric fell to his knees by the windswept shore where the monks lived and vowed to renounce his life as a merchant, a vow he eventually kept with an almost frightening fidelity. Godric's life as a businessman was over.
At age 40, with his sins weighing heavily upon him, Godric left behind his worldly goods and set out to lead the life of a hermit. After walking for many months, he joined a fellow hermit, Elric, at Wulsingham in Durham. After Elric's death in 1108, Godric settled for good at Finchale, on the river Wear near Durham, where he built a small wooden chapel to the Virgin Mary and lived for another 57 years.
At Durham, it is said, Godric mercilessly mortified his flesh in the praise of God. He also developed the gift of prophecy—foretelling, for example, the assassination of Thomas à Becket at his cathedral church in Canterbury in the closing days of 1170—and became a friend of wild animals, many of whom would seek refuge with him when they were being hunted. Even snakes were drawn to him: He kept them as pets, forcing them out of his room only when they distracted him from his prayers. Godric is also credited with being the earliest lyric poet in the English language. One of his works that still survives is a hymn to the Virgin Mary that he set to music. He died shortly before his 105th birthday, on May 21, 1170, and was canonized not long afterward by the Roman Catholic Church.
To the Catholic Church, Godric's transformation is a triumph of spirituality over the misguided values born of a life devoted to commerce. Precious few of us stand so firmly in our principles that we would sell our businesses and give away our riches to save our souls. Nor is it an easy choice to live out the rest of a very long life without earthly comforts, doing penance in solitude. Not only was Godric able to do all these things, but in doing them, he discovered his true gifts: an astounding ability in lyrical poetry and a special communion with animals. By the standards and understandings of the time, the dramatic reversal of Godric's life is proof enough of saintliness.
But Godric's life tells a more complex story than the sainthood he earned. Born at a time when capital accumulation for the peasantry was nearly unthinkable, he was nonetheless a model of modern wealth creation: an up-from-the-bootstraps capitalist who transformed the hand fate had dealt him. In both the major decisions of Godric's life—to pursue wealth and to pursue salvation—he chose to give up the safety and comfort of his known world to pursue at great personal risk goals that might in the end be unattainable. In both circumstances he had to break free of his confines, the perceptions of himself, and the expectations he had been born to. If the second half of his life is a model for the eternal conflict between personal values and the pursuit of prosperity, the first half provides a model as well: of the potential of emerging free-market capitalism to create secular wealth—even for those outside of the upper classes. Business was rising with the new millennium. A new kind of economy was starting to take shape. The pursuit of money and power was just beginning to break free of the politics of the church and the crown, and the Western world would never be the same again.
Foreword by David Grubin.
St. Godric: God and Profit.
Cosimo de' Medici: Putting Money to Work.
Philip II: Wealth without Wisdom.
Tulipmania: Sharing the Greed.
James Watt and Matthew Boulton: Turning Evolution into Revolution.
The Transcontinental Railroad: Rouges and Visionaries.
J. Pierpont Morgan: The American Colossus.
John D. Rockefeller: Organizing the Octopus.
Henry Ford: Building Cars and the Markets for Them.
Robert Woodruff: The Brand's the Thing.
Time Warner: Turning Opposite Cultures to Common Advantage.
Bill Gates and Cyberspace: The Dematerialized Future.
Philip II was in his day the richest man in the richest country the world had ever known. Today, it seems unlikely that more than one in a thousand college graduates outside of Spain even knows his name, much less the rough dates of his rule -- 1556-1598, to be exact. Why is that? What's the special alchemy that converts temporal wealth and power into something more enduring? What is it that takes a contemporary Master of the Universe and turns him or her into a mogul whose reputation will endure for generations?
On those questions, history teaches some pretty clear lessons:
1. Being first isn't enough. Great fortunes are the trailing indicators, not the leading indicators, of great businesses and industries.
Oil had been gurgling out of the petroleum fields of western Pennsylvania for seven years before a Cleveland grocer named John D. Rockefeller got into the game. Refineries were a dime a dozen --Rockefeller's was one of 26 fighting for survival in a highly volatile market before he embarked on his famous (and only marginally legal) "Cleveland Massacre" of 1872. Nor did Rockefeller invent the vertical holding company that eventually gave him control over the industry, from the well to the consumer. Rockefeller simply did the process better. Rather than foster a cult of personality like so many other robber barons, he invented modern management -- the committee system, first and foremost -- to control the octopus he had created, and because he did so, he got richer and more powerful than any American had ever been.
Henry Ford, history's first billionaire, didn't invent the automobile either, or the assembly line. Alphonse Beau de Rochas thought up the four-stroke engine. Carl Benz was selling cars to Parisians by 1887. In the United States, Frank and Charles Duryea were turning old horse-drawn carts into horseless carriages by the early 1890s. Ransom Olds, slated to disappear from history after General Motors canceled the line named for him, sold 5,000 of his Oldsmobiles in 1904. As for the assembly line, Ford himself admits that he borrowed the idea from Chicago meatpackers who used it, in reverse, to "disassemble" carcasses. Ford, though, put the two together -- the automobile and the means of mass production -- and that made all the difference.
John Pierpont Morgan, the third of this trio of American moguls who ruled the roost from the Civil War to the Great Depression, didn't make anything at all. Instead, he oversaw the transfer of wealth from the Old World to the New One and consolidated fractious industries -- think General Electric, International Harvester, AT&T, and U.S. Steel, for starters -- so that the money entrusted to him and his bank wouldn't go down the drain. All of that made Morgan powerful beyond description: He served in effect as the central banker of the United States for four decades, and his death in 1913 was mourned in The New York Times as if he had been a head of state. It made him rich, too, though his power outstripped his bottom line. One story, probably apocryphal, has John D. Rockefeller folding his Times after reading that Morgan's estate had been valued in the $100 million range, turning to his wife, and saying, "And to think, he wasn't even rich."
2. Genius isn't enough either. Great ideas are pure potential waiting to happen, but without access to capital, that's just what great ideas remain: pure potential. Merge genius and money, though, and you're off to the races, and into the history books, too.
Of all the business marriages in history, none ever mattered more than that between James Watt and Matthew Boulton. Watt's inventive genius unlocked the potentials in steam propulsion. Boulton's entrepreneurial genius, his deep understanding of market dynamics, and the raw capital he had to throw at the problem -- his Soho Manufactory in Birmingham was the largest industrial operation in England by 1776 -- unlocked the potentials in what Watt was able to imagine and create. Alone, it seems almost certain that Watt would have ended up, at best, as a footnote in the history of technology. Watt compacted the steam engine and made it far more efficient, but it was Boulton's urging that forced Watt to turn his attention from reciprocity to rotation, from an engine that went up and down to one that could turn things, and it was the rotation that was critical. Boulton seems even less certain of a spot in history had he never stumbled upon Watt. By the late 18th century, captains of industry were getting to be commonplace. Together, though, Watt and Boulton launched the Industrial Revolution, which along with the companion Consumer Revolution changed everything. And that leads, in turn, to maybe the most important lesson history teaches on the subject: 3. Businesspeople who last don't create or manage history; they insert themselves into the right creases in time.
Cosimo di Medici certainly wasn't the first banker. He wasn't even the first to head up the Medici family bank, but he was in change of it in Florence in the mid-15th century when a whole cluster of forces -- expanding trade opportunities, the unshackling of educational opportunities, the rise of humanism -- combined to create a new epoch of culture that Cosimo could both help finance and adorn with some of the finest pieces of art and sculpture the Renaissance was to know.
Watt and Boulton's new and improved steam engine intersected with history at the exact moment that population concentrations were creating both the labor force to serve the factories the steam engines would power and the markets to consume the products the factories turned out. (Surprise: City people need to have more made for them than country people.)
Rockefeller's oil caught the same urbanization wave a century down the road: Now there was a need for central heating and for lamps to light the streets. Henry Ford made Rockefeller far richer and more powerful still by creating a new market demand for refined petroleum, but Ford made himself the richest and most powerful industrialist of all because he perfected the manufacture of the machine that was part and parcel of the American imperative for wide open spaces. Had he not been such a crackpot in his personal views -- and a vehement anti-Semite into the bargain -- Ford almost certainly would have been elected President of the United States. He had manifest destiny by the neck, only to toss it away.
Robert Woodruff deserves mention in the long logs of history, too, not for being an ad genius, although he was all of that, but for understanding that the world was shrinking sufficiently to create a brand that could be recognized from Sydney to Siberia and for using everything at his disposal -- including, ironically, a world war -- to make sure his product, Coca-Cola, became the first global brand.
Which gets me back to the Spanish king we began with. Philip II's problem wasn't money. He had more than enough of that: The palace he built outside Madrid was splendid beyond description. His problem wasn't power either. Spain was a looser confederation than the term "kingdom" often implies, but Philip raised armies and waged wars all the time. Philip's problem was history: He chose the wrong intersection to stand at the crossroads of. At a time when the world was looking forward as never before, Philip took a stand for the past. He made himself the Warrior of the Counter-Reformation. In truth, he might have had no choice, given his real and historical commitments to the Vatican. But excuses dim, the scorecard commands, and Philip paid the price. He was near the end of his second decade on the throne when his counselors seriously considered an invasion of China. Instead, both he and his country essentially disappeared from history.
So, who survives from the current crop of Masters of the Universe, especially the high-tech crowd? Who will essayists half a millennium from now be writing about? Not Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn, sad to say. They'll get their footnotes in history: Playing such a key role in launching the Internet can't be wholly ignored. But both they and their fellow Arpanet creators were simply too far in front of the curve to reap what followed.
How about Andy Grove, Arthur Rock, the two Steves (Jobs and Wozniak), and the other Silicon Valley geniuses, visionaries, and venture capitalists who have turned so many great concepts into great products and great companies? Maybe, although no one of them seems to tower over the others in the way that Cosimo di Medici outshone the crowded ranks of investment bankers in 15th-century Florence. Maybe it's the effect of shareholders intervening in the marriage, but it's also hard to think of one pairing of genius and money that might endure the way Watt and Boulton have. Still, one suspects that The Columbia History of the 20th Century makes a horrible mistake by not mentioning a single one of them.
Bill Gates? He would seem the most obvious choice. Gates has the money and power. If news reports and the U.S. Department of Justice are to be believed, he also has the requisite ruthlessness. (Yes, it helps.) Like J. P. Morgan, Gates sees his ruthlessness as justified by the need to consolidate an industry. He also has inserted himself and his company into a crease in history, one of those epochal intersections -- the rise of the digital age meets the creation of the global community -- when great potential lies all around. The question is whether like Ford, Woodruff, Rockefeller and others, Gates has inserted himself in the right direction. Or whether like Philip II, he has chosen to look backward when the world is looking ahead. But that might well take another 500 years to answer. (Howard Means)
Posted March 31, 2001
Who says that history has to be dull? Money & Power is a lively introductory look at how modern business developed. You could graduate in economics from the finest colleges in North America, and never get this information. Anyone who wants to have a basic understanding of some key elements and tensions in business operations should read this book. Unlike many books related to television specials, this one has been turned into a book rather than simply being a copy of the television script. Money & Power does not require you to have seen the special to benefit from its very interesting contents. The book is organized around 12 chapters that each highlight one person or event in business history. The beginning of the chapter provides linkage material to put the information into context and to relate it to what preceded the chapter. The first problem that business people faced in Christian Europe was that profit-making (especially earning interest on money) was considered sinful. The book takes a look at how that belief evolved through first considering an early peddler-merchant, St. Godric, who eventually gave up his entrepreneurially bookstrapped career to become a hermit, and was eventually sainted. By the Renaissance, the consummate banker Cosima de' Medici was able to handle this differently. Through a large donation he obtained absolution for his sins in operating a business. The importance of trust is also developed. From the de' Medici's to J.P. Morgan, banking relied on prudent, dependable people whom you could trust. During financial panics in the late 19th century and early 20th century, J.P. Morgan was the lender of last resort who bailed out the markets. After Morgan, the Federal Reserve system was created to fulfill this critical economic role. At the opposite end of the spectrum, greed can be destructive. The book describes the manias in Holland with tulip bulbs and the parallel bubble in England, as well as the wasteful use of wealth by Phillip II of Spain (he of the ill-fated Spanish Armada). The role of business person, as separate from inventor, is nicely developed in the story of how James Watt and Matthew Boulton collaborated to commercially exploit the steam engine. That theme is continued in examining Henry Ford's work in creating his own infrastructure and marketplace for the mass-produced auto. The role of financiers and speculators is nicely developed in a section on the U.S. transcontinental railroad (the 1860s version of the Internet today). A chapter on Robert Woodruff of Coca-Cola explains the power of modern brands and marketing. A chapter on Time Warner develops the ways that new combinations of capabilities can allow new developments to occur (think of Time as 'conduit' and Warner as 'content'). This continued the theme of creating a favorable industry structure that was begun in the chapter on John D. Rockefeller's creation of the Standard Oil trust. A final chapter on Bill Gates and Microsoft heralds the current age, in which 'the road to riches is open to everyone.' Many books that operate at a 'simple' level are also simplistic. This is not the case with Money & Power. Great precision is used that provides relevant distinctions that are valuable to those with more knowledge. For example, the book points out that St. Godric was the son of a freeman. This is an important point, because the son of a serf could not legally have wandered off to become a peddler. Very few people were freemen in the late 11th century. His experience is much more understandable for having that information included. I thought that the 12 examples were especially well chosen to make anyone who reads the book more business literate. If the book could have been expanded to 15 examples, it would have been nice to capture some of the great work in establishing new concepts for corporations that has occurred in the last 30 years. After you read this book, I also suggest thatWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 29, 2011
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