S2: Innovation

A few years ago I left a bookstore with Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City. An entrancing read, it made me want to read more of his works, and I soon ordered Thunderstruck on paperbackswap.com. I never got around to reading it, though, and so I finally started it yesterday. It segues nicely into the next story post I wanted to write - more from my friend Millie - about work ethic and innovation in entrepreneurship.

Larson's habit is to weave two dissimilar lives together in a sort of double biography that no one would ever think to thrust together. For example, in Devil in the White City he tells the story of Daniel H. Burnham, the architect responsible for the phenomenal structures of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, as intertwined with the tale of another inhabitant of Chicago at the same time, serial killer H. H. Holmes. Thunderstruck mingles the paths of Guglielmo Marconi, discoverer of wireless telegraphy (the precursor to radio and telephone technology), and Hawley Harvey Crippen, a doctor attempting to run away with his lover after murdering his wife in a scandal that rocked London.

Near the beginning of the book, Larson describes Marconi's experiments with electromagnetic waves in his attic laboratory at his parents' house in Bologna (which I, as I read, for fun like to pronounce "baloney"), Italy in late 1894:
"He knew that if his telegraphy without wires was ever to become a viable means of communication, he would need to be able to send signals hundreds of miles. ...[But] established theory held that transmitting over truly long distances, over the horizon, simply was not possible. The true scholar-physicists...had concluded that waves must travel in the same manner as light, meaning that even if signals could be propelled for hundreds of miles, they would continue in a straight line at the speed of light and abandon the curving surface of the earth.
"Another man might have decided the physicists were right - that long-range communication was impossible. But Marconi saw no limits. ...He bought or scavenged metals of all kinds and used a chisel to scrape loose filings of differing sizes, then picked through the filings to achieve uniformity. He tried nickel, copper, silver, iron, brass, and zinc, in different amounts and combinations. He inserted each new mixture into a fragile glass tube, added a plug of silver at each end, then sealed the apparatus and placed it within his receiving circuit.
"...He tried as many as four hundred variations before settling on what he believed to be the best possible combination for his coherer. ...He tried shrinking the size of the tube. He emptied thermometers, heated the glass, and shaped it. He moved the silver plugs within the tube closer and closer together to reduce the expanse of filings through which the current would have to flow, until the entire coherer was about an inch and a half long and the width of a tenpenny nail. He once stated that it took him a thousand hours to build a single coherer. As a future colleague would put it, he possessed 'the power of continuous work.'
"...As he worked, a fear grew within him, almost a terror, that one day he would awaken to discover that someone else had achieved his goal first. ...And in fact he was right to be concerned. Scientists around the world were conducting experiments with electromagnetic waves, though they still focused on their optical qualities." [Larson, pp. 25-26]
That last line especially paints a picture for me of people all over the globe holed up in their own cluttered little workspaces, meticulously poring over physics books and using scrap metal and other odds and ends to perform experiments and build contraptions like those in the movies Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Back to the Future and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. And I love the coworker's description that he had "the power of continuous work". I would describe it as a different understanding of the word work...to me, it seems this was more play for Marconi...not whimsical or juvenile play, but rather a passionate hobby...an inner compulsion to discover for the thrill of that first glimpse of something no one in the world has ever seen before. I could be wrong, but I somehow doubt Marconi was nearly as concerned with getting his name in history books as with satisfying his own insatiable desire to figure out how to make his idea a reality.

Thus it has been with innovative entrepreneurs all along. I once read that Leonardo da Vinci was not merely the superb artist who painted the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, but in his journals were posthumously discovered drawings and formulas for all sorts of scientific contraptions including transportational devices, such as a helicopter, an automobile powered by a spring, and a military tank.

My friend Millie shared with me that it was much the same in Joplin, Missouri, after life began to get back to "normal" following World War II. Her husband Woody had worked in Kansas City in his young adult years for a fellow with a publishing company, so he knew the ins and outs of operating the machinery and filling the orders. So he went about acquiring the presses needed and a space to put them, and because he was a friendly person with a lot of connections around town, he began to get business from a number of local businesses. Millie would always say, "We started Dixie Printing on a shoestring." They were amateurs, and the funding for the endeavor came out of their own pockets, which were not plush. But because they worked hard and canvassed for business and went the extra mile with delivering orders through Joplin and nearby communities, their company grew into a success that still serves Joplin today on the corner of 15th and Main.

She said when they were first starting their business, other friends and neighbors were attempting their own ventures as well. A neighbor a few blocks down built a printing press for legal pads in his garage. She described it as having a bar with evenly spaced strings hanging down to print the inked lines on the pages, and I believe she said the man's family participated in the binding of the reams. [It is presently in a museum or printing shop in the town, but I was unable to locate where in a precursory web search for this post.]

Even a few decades before that, when one of Millie's or Woody's grandmothers immigrated to the United States from Ireland or Scotland, she earned money by sewing hats with earflaps for the military. Her small children would help by threading needles and having them ready in the pincussion next to her when she needed to move on to the next.

Creativity. Invention. Optimism. ...And a willingness to work hard, and experience trial and error in order to see things accomplished. I imagine Steve Jobs knew this process well. And the scientists who hope to make other planets habitable. And those attempting to procure remedies for cancer. Perhaps optimism is one of the more important components of the formula here. As Dale Carnegie would say, "Take a chance! All life is a chance. The man who goes furthest is generally the one who is willing to do and dare."


  1. First thanks you for the three comments you left.

    I thought is great to read and got really absorbed into it. Well done.


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