Putting the Past to Work

Jack Falvey:

IN AN AGE OF INFORMATION OVERLOAD, identifying the most useful information in a timely fashion isn’t easy — and it may be some comfort to know it never was. Yet by studying the adaptive skills of earlier captains of commerce, entrepreneurs in even the most cutthroat businesses can learn how to smack down the competition.
The key: Embrace invention — even that of your competitors — and use it better and faster than they do.
In the 1870s, John D. Rockefeller had a telegraph line run to his Euclid Avenue home in Cleveland. When he came home for lunch, he could stay in touch with his Oil City, Pa., contacts for updates on gushers and dry holes. He could then telegraph his brother in New York to adjust the price of kerosene for the European market, and his brother could pass the price on to Europe by trans-Atlantic cable.
Although Standard Oil employed telegraphers, John D. Rockefeller sent and received his own “e-mails.” Sending and receiving Morse code at commercial speeds were not easy skills to master, but Rockefeller was “computer-literate.” He had to be skilled in the current technology to have the best information and act on it.
The oil business of that day was not a fuel business. Standard Oil sold illumination. Tallow and whale-oil concerns were its competitors. Kerosene lamps, especially with mantles that burned white-hot, were a great advance in technology. Standard Oil produced a lamp-fuel kerosene of such purity that explosions were greatly reduced. Its five-gallon branded blue tins became known around the world. (Meanwhile, the byproduct of kerosene distillation, gasoline, was discarded as a nuisance.)