BUILDING AMERICA

August 18, 2019


What individuals would you say have contributed greatly, maybe the most, to our present way of life?  Now I’m talking about the modern day “captains of industry”.  Let me show you my short list of just a few.

  • Bill Gates—Microsoft
  • Steve Jobs—Apple
  • Sergey Brin and Larry Page—Google
  • Michael Dell—Dell Computers
  • Mark Zuckerberg—Facebook
  • Tim Berns-Lee- Creator of the Internet formerly DARPA
  • Jeff Bezos—Amazon
  • Bill Hewlett and David Packard—Hewlett / Packard
  • Peter Theil—Creator of Pay Pal
  • Elon Musk—Tesla Automotive and Space X
  • Richard Branson—Virgin Atlantic

Think about it, most days we are touched by just about every invention or program they created and commercialized.  Of course, there are others, maybe many others but these names above seem to pop up time after time when we talk about what services facilitate our day-to-day lives.

Who were their predecessors?  Those people paving the way for the creativity and genius demonstrated by those above?  The History Channel published a booklet called “Building America”: The visionaries Who Transformed Our Nation. This booklet was published in 2019 and noted the following as their choices:

  • Cornelius Vanderbilt
  • John D. Rockefeller
  • Andrew Carnegie
  • J.P. Morgan
  • Henry Ford

These men changed history and drove America towards greatness. These visionaries pioneered the railroad, oil, steel, finance, and auto industries that continue to this day to promote innovation and discovery.   History tells us “they waged personal wars that had public consequences, and they amassed untold wealth while many ordinary citizens suffered.”  These men were sometimes merciless in their business tactics and sometimes made efforts to bleed competitors dry and drive them into bankruptcy. They were not “touchy-feely” kind of guys.  I seriously doubt any had teddy bears and blankets when they were very young.

Cornelius Vanderbilt—When Vanderbilt was born New York City was a city of roughly thirty (30,000) thousand inhabitants and was well on its way to becoming the most important port in the world.  Transportation was a significant venture in the 19th century, and there were abundant opportunities in that particular industry.  Vanderbilt started working as a ferry captain for the commercial steamboat service that operated between New Jersey and New York. He learned how to design steamboats, and in the late 1820s began to build his own boats and operate ferry lines around the New York region.

Vanderbilt knew that transportation was the key industry of the time, and recognized a pressing need to improve and expand America’s infrastructure.  In the 1860s, he began to acquire small railway lines operating between Chicago and New York.  He also had the foresight to recognize that a transcontinental railroad would transform the United States, slashing travel time literally by months.  His gamble paid off. By the end of the Civil War, he was the richest man in America, with a net worth of sixty-eight (68) million dollars which would be two (2) billion in today’s money.

Although Vanderbilt was the acknowledged king of the railroads, his ambition had not abated.  He wanted to construct a new railway station in the heart of New York City to bring together the Harlem line, the Hudson line, and the Central line.  That station is today called Grand Central Station.

Another great legacy was the founding and funding of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.  Today, Vanderbilt enrolls nearly thirteen thousand (13,000) students of which half are undergraduate and one-half are graduate and professional.  Vandy accepts less than ten percent (10%) of freshman applicants, making it one of the most selective universities in the country.

John D. Rockefeller—Rockefeller respected Vanderbilt and aspired to follow in his footsteps relative to participating in the developing oil industry.  A time came when Rockefeller wanted to own every refinery in the U.S.A.  Big expectations and by the time he was thirty-three he was the most powerful man in the country.  Drilling for oil was a tremendous gamble and Rockefeller was searching for a method allowing few if any risks.  He studied production processes and noted how very ineffective the processes were.  An oil rig could hit absolutely nothing or a gusher and lose one-half of the oil. He also became intrigued with the process of refining oil and realized quickly that whoever controlled the refineries controlled the industry itself.  At age twenty-four (24) he plowed all of his savings, $4,000, into building a refinery. He struggled at first but signed a contract with Vanderbilt to supply kerosene. In 1870 Rockefeller founded Standard Oil which included refineries, warehousing, barrel making and shipping.  He also was very instrumental in financing and developing pipelines to carry the oil so the existing need for rail cars was greatly reduced.   

With money being no problem in his later years, Rockefeller founded the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, later known as the Rockefeller University of New York.

ANDREW CARNEGIE—At age twelve, Andrew Carnegie immigrated with his parents from Scotland and settled in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania.  At this time, believe it or not, no one had ever used steel to build structures such as bridges and buildings. Carnegie was determined to find a way in which steel could be used for these and other purposes.  During the investigative process, he met Henry Bessemer, an English inventor who had built a device to streamline the steel-making process.   At the tender age of thirty-three (33) Carnegie was poised to make it possible to build the first bridge using steel to span the Mississippi River.  People were very skeptical of the “new” material and on the day the bridge opened, he set up a parade led by an elephant.  As the animal made its way across, people followed.

The steel industry took off and there was a new millionaire in the U.S.  As a result of his wealth, he donated one million dollars to create Carnegie Technical Schools in Pittsburg.  Carnegie merged with the Mellon Institute of Industrial Research to become Carnegie-Mellon University.

Mr. Carnegie also developed plans and funded Carnegie Hall in New York and for the past one hundred and twenty-five years that facility has set the standard for excellence with world-class performers. 

Andrew Carnegie went to work as a young man and was largely self-taught.  He believed access to books was essential for immigrants and ambitious citizens who wanted to educate themselves.  For this reason, he endowed his first library in his home town of Dunfermline, Scotland in the 1880s.  After that, he began to finance libraries where he had business interests or personal connections and eventually, he had libraries in most of the English-speaking world.

J.P. MORGAN— John Pierpont Morgan was born into the banking industry as a result of his fathers joining one of the world’s first investment banks.  He was one of the first generation of transatlantic bankers.  J.P. Morgan watched as Rockefeller and Carnegie created empires out of nothing and longed to do the same but Morgan needed an innovation to do the same.  Enter Mr. Thomas Edison.  Morgan understood that if Edison was successful in bringing low- cost electricity to homes and businesses, the need for kerosene and heating oil would decline.  He had the vision of understanding that electricity would revolutionize the world like fire and the invention of the wheel.  Morgan hired Edison to install electricity in his home on Fifth Avenue in New York City.  That residence turned into a laboratory for Edison’s experiments.

Edison then installed a small power plant in a shed on Morgan’s property and ran four thousand feet of wiring through the walls and ceilings of the house.  He installed four hundred light bulbs in the house, some of which were the very first manufactured.  After months of trial and error, Morgan’s home became one of the first in the world to be lit with electricity. 

Many in that era viewed electricity as magical and miraculous.  Morgan’s own father felt he was being played and electricity was merely a carnival trick but Morgan held his ground and soon electricity became a “must have” with the well-financed households.

In 1887, with the equivalent of eighty-three billion dollars in today’s money, Morgan and Edison formed the Edison Electric Illuminating Company.  This company transformed a lower Manhattan building into the world’s first commercial power station, which at the time, was a high-tech wonder filled with massive generating equipment generating electricity for thousands of homes.

J.P. Morgan wielded huge power on the unregulated stock exchange and when the economy experienced a downturn, Morgan launched a smear campaign to trigger a sell-off of all Westinghouse stock.  Westinghouse was a competing entity generating electricity as the Edison Company did.  Today, JPMorgan Chase & Company is the largest bank in the United States, and the sixth largest in the world.  This entity is the result of merging several large U.S. banking corporations, including JPMorgan & Co., Chase Manhattan Bank, and Bear Stearns.

HENRY FORD—Henry Ford was expected to take over the family farm, but at the age of sixteen he left home to worked as an apprentice machinist.  In 1891, Ford went to work at the Edison Illuminating Company of Detroit.  Aside from working for Edison, he experimented with developing self-propelled vehicles.  In June of 1896 he completed the quadricycle, a light metal frame fitted with four bicycle wheels, which were powered by a two-cylinder, four-horsepower gasoline engine.  It ran successfully although very prone to breaking down.  After several successes, Ford resigned his position at Edison Company and founded the Detroit Automobile Company which later became Ford Motor Company, 

Henry Ford felt there was a much better process than building each car from the wheels up.  Rather than assembling cars one at a time, a line of workers put them together piece by piece.  This method became known as the assembly line and it changed the manufacturing industry forever.  This process demonstrated that a complicated assembly could be simplified and accomplished by minimally-trained personnel.  They had to know just one job and work that job hour after hour each day.  His assembly lines-built cars eight times faster than all competition; consequently, he could sell them at a lower price due to a reduced labor content.

Hope you enjoyed this look back in history.

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