Friday, October 31, 2008

Charles Schulz

Today we celebrate Charles Schulz (1922-2000) for his accomplishments in the world of syndicated comic strips - namely his "Peanuts" cartoons.

Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Charles Schulz developed an early interest in cartooning. After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Schulz returned to Minnesota to pursue his artistic ambition. After several small comic strip appearances (1945-1950) in papers such as the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Saturday Evening Post, Schulz landed his first nationally-syndicated spot in seven national papers on October 2, 1950. Peanuts was a hit. Over the next decade, Peanuts would become an international success and earn Schulz several honorary cartoonist awards.

Today, we continue to enjoy Charles Schulz' work in many ways including: classic Peanuts television specials such as "Its the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" (scene pictured above), over 1400 literary publications, or theatrical plays such as "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" - the most-produced musical in American theatre.

When Charles Schulz retired, Peanuts was running in over 2600 newspapers worldwide.

We celebrate Charles Schulz as a Hero of Capitalism not only because his comics contributed to the success of countless newspapers worldwide, but also because Charles Schulz' pursuit of happiness extended something of special value to the entire world - a good laugh.


Schulz Museum
Charles M. Schulz Biography

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Robert Adler

Have you ever noticed someone willing to spend a couple of minutes searching for the remote when it only takes 5-10 seconds to walk up to the TV and change the channel? Has that been you at some point? Then you're one among many who will appreciate the hero I'm honoring today, Robert Adler. Among his many accomplishments in a life devoted to communications technology, Adler developed the first commercially viable remote control for televisions.

Adler (1913-2007) was a Jewish immigrant from Austria who fled Europe during WWII. He was working for Zenith in the early 1950's when the company's first attempt at a remote control, known as "Lazy Bones," was introduced. Unfortunately this device was attached to the TV by a cord, and you don't have to be an insurance underwriter to see the problem with that. One of Adler's colleagues then developed a wireless remote that shined light onto photovoltaic cells in the TV set. This remote was also problematic because stray light could be interpreted by the TV as a signal from the remote. The remote also had to be carefully pointed at the correct cell for the command to be properly interpreted.

Adler's breakthrough in 1956 was to have the remote send ultrasound signals to the TV. His invention, marketed as the "Zenith Space Commander," was a mechanical device that "clicked" at different frequencies. A small, hammer-like device struck one of a set of two (and later, four) aluminum bars, each with its own resonance. The high frequency sounds were captured by a receiver in the TV for the purpose of changing channels and adjusting volume. Ultrasound technology for remote controls became the standard in the marketplace for two decades until infrared devices were developed.

I'm one who falls asleep on the couch with the TV on, even with a remote by my side. I can hardly imagine the hassle of groggily standing up just to turn it off. Television accessories may not be equivalent to miracle drugs or yield-enhancing biotechnology, but Robert Adler's invention of the remote, leading to truly effortless television-watching, makes him a Hero of Capitalism in my book.

IEEE Profile
Tribute on Inventor Spot
USA Today Obit
IHT Obit
Wikipedia Entry: Remote Control
Wikipedia Entry: Robert Adler
Pictorial History of the Zenith Space Commander

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Sergey Brin

During the internet frenzy of the 1990’s one of the most intense competitions was for dominance in the search engine market. The Search Engine Wars were led initially by Alta Vista and Inktomi, who offered larger search indexes than any of their competitors. The competition to offer the largest index led to leapfrogging technology, offering fast access from engines like Northern Night and AlltheWeb. Google entered the competition in June of 2000, setting the bar at 500 million pages, and over the next several years fought a constant battle to offer the biggest index that moved quickly into the billions.

At the time, it seemed that this battle would constantly be led by the site with the best technology, but that this lead would change hands fairly rapidly as new technologies emerged. But instead trying to establish dominance on this front alone, Google has become a dominant force on the web by branching out to its current multi-faceted role of providing everything from e-mail to document storage to online shopping to even its more recent expansion into web-based application provision.

All of this has led to a ten year old company with a market capitalization in excess of $100 billion, making co-founder Sergey Brin one the richest men in the world.

Born in the Soviet Union, educated in America, Sergey Brin met up with Larry Page while working on his PhD at Stanford. Together they developed their new technology for search engines and started Google. Within 5 years of this meeting, the search engine devised by Brin and Page became the most commonly used engine on the net.

Being the most used search engine is a valuable accomplishment, but, as evidenced by the intense competition of the 1990’s and early 2000’s, one that was expected to be fleeting. However, Brin’s vision for Google was to become the Microsoft of the internet. He envisioned Google as the first place people would want to go for all of their needs on the internet. At the time of Google’s rise, everyone was panicked that Microsoft’s dominance in operating system provision would naturally extend to the internet and the “solution” was to challenge this dominance on antitrust grounds. Brin instead took the fight directly to Microsoft, intent on building a better product and breaking Microsoft’s hold on the typical computer user with this superior technology. This is the essence of the capitalist spirit, the reason for his tremendous success, and the reason that I see Sergey Brin as a Hero of Capitalism.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Tim Berners-Lee

There are plenty of jokes about who invented the Internet and while no one person can take credit for its invention, Tim Berners-Lee certainly made a great contribution to the Internet. In 1989-1991, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web.

Berners-Lee studied Physics at Queen's College at Oxford University. While attending Oxford, Berners-Lee built his first computer using, among other items, an old television. While working as a consultant for CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, Berners-Lee wrote a program named "Enquire". "Enquire" was written for his private use and was never published, however, it formed the conceptual basis for the future development of the World Wide Web and was his first program for storing information including using random associations.

After working elsewhere in graphics and communication software, Berners-Lee returned to CERN as a Fellow in 1984. It was during this time that he proposed a global hypertext project and effectively invented the World Wide Web. He wrote the first World Wide Web server, "httpd", and the first client, "WorldWideWeb" a what-you-see-is-what-you-get hypertext browser/editor which ran in the NeXTStep environment.It was designed to allow people to work together by combining their knowledge in a web of hypertext documents (explanation taken from

Berners-Lee has never tried to obtain intellectual property or commercial rights over the World Wide Web, one of his priorities has been to maintain an openness of information. In 1994, Berners-Lee and MIT founded the World Wide Web Consortium to help the Web to continue to evolve.

Berners-Lee is co-Director of the Web Science Research Initiative and recently wrote a book about the past and future of the web, "Weaving the Web". He continues to promote the web as an open, universal community.

His invention has greatly reduced transaction costs, allowing for information to be shared quickly and easily. Berners-Lee is definitely a Hero of Capitalism.


Monday, October 27, 2008

Hugh Hefner

Wait! Don't stop reading! Whether or not the company Hugh Hefner founded, Playboy Enterprises Incorporated, has enriched your life personally, Hefner truly fits the definition of a Hero of Capitalism. He used private property to produce wealth.

Born in 1926, Hefner graduated from the University of Chicago at Urbana-Champagne after serving in World War II. He started his career in publishing as a copy editor at Esquire Magazine. Hefner started "Playboy" magazine, the most popular of Playboy Enterprises subsidiaries, in 1953 with the centerfold Marlyn Monroe kicking off the now very successful magazine. According to Wikipedia, one of his first investors was his mother. Though she did not approve of his overall vision, she believed in him. The company website states, "As of December 31, 2007, there were a total of 33.3 million shares of [Playboy Enterprises Inc] outstanding, which resulted in a market capitalization of approximately $305 million."

Today we honor Hugh Hefner for founding and ongoing contributions to Playboy Enterprises Inc. This ability to see a market opportunity has created wealth through private ownership.

Hugh Hefner on Wiki
Playboy Enterprises on Wiki
Playboy Enterprises Corporate Website

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Wright Brothers

The Wright brothers (Orville, 1871–1948 and Wilbur, 1867–1912) stand out as innovators and businessmen who tirelessly worked to achieve powered human flight. 

Starting out as bicycle sales and repairmen, the brothers would quickly master the design and construction of bicycles, leading to the Wright Cycle Company that manufactured their own models. While the operated this successful business, they became interested in the problem of flight, which many other gliding enthusiasts and inventors.

Among the many improvements that Orville and Wilbur made to the then-current theory of flight, they developed two radical breakthroughs that finally enabled them to achieve powered flight. The first was a long-standing belief that they had about dynamic control during flight. The brothers adapted their knowledge of bicycles and their observations of birds to flight and realized that flying through the air required three axes of control. The second major breakthrough was their invention of a better wing profile, which they achieved through rigorous testing in a wind tunnel that they designed and built themselves.

By achieving flight in 1903 and quickly improving on their original design, the Wrights eventually demonstrated their invention to the world, leading to the birth of the aviation industry. From overnight packages to cheap intercontinental flight, the contribution of the Wright Brothers is vital to our standard of living and they should be remembered and thanked for their diligent work.

James Tobin, To Conquer the Air
Smithsonian exhibit
Kitty Hawk national memorial
Wright tribute site
PBS NOVA website
Time 100 profile
Wikipedia profile

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Frank Whittle

Today we celebrate Frank Whittle (1907-1996) for his contribution to aviation - the jet engine.

Frank Whittle, born in Coventry, UK, showed early signs of interests in engineering. His father, a mechanic and 'inventive' engineer, owned all the means necessary for young Frank to exercise his own inventiveness. At his father's Piston Ring Company workshop Frank became an expert in mechanics and the tools of the trade.

Frank's admiration for aviation also began early on. As an adolescent he spent much of his time reading about astronomy, engineering, turbines, and the theory of flight. By age 15, Frank knew he wanted to be a pilot.

Frank gained his flight experience in the Royal Air Force (RAF). This is also where he developed his thesis on jet propelled engines - and later witnessed his ideas come to fruition.

Frank's thesis argument simply stated: '..that planes would need to fly at high altitudes, where air resistance is much lower, in order to achieve long ranges and high speeds.' With support from the RAF, Frank formed Power Jets Ltd and began construction on his jet propulsion engine in 1936. By 1941 his invention was in the air. In short order, Frank's jet engines spread to the U.S. and eventually worldwide.

A note concerning Frank Whittle's ideas on political economy:

Frank was a long-time advocate of Socialism. He argued in favor of nationalizing the entire jet industry, but later changed his mind when his corporation was the only one to be nationalized - leaving his competitors, such as Rolls-Royce, free to prosper from the market boom in commercial aviation. That said, we can still recognize Frank's pursuit of self-interest as the leading motivation for his jet engine development - which consequently benefited all of society.


Frank Whittle at:
BBC-Historic Figures
The History of the Jet Engine

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

John Mackey

There's a popular and lazily accepted myth that capitalism is all about greed and not much else. This is kind of like saying motoring is all about combustion, or that farming is all about photosynthesis. Greed, or self-interest, is an important element of the human condition, hence its importance in capitalism or any type of human institution. But capitalism is more than a system that revolves around greed. It's founded upon people reaching their goals, greedy or otherwise, by satisfying the desires of others.

John Mackey, my hero of note this week, is a successful capitalist whose business decision-making is guided by both self-interest and altruism. Mackey co-founded Whole Foods in 1980 after finding some success with his initial organic foods store, Safer Way. Ever since, Mackey has been driven by his ambition and his personal vision for improving the world to grow a niche grocery store into a Fortune 500 company. Even disregarding his attempts to modulate capitalism with consciousness, his company's success proves that Mackey has made the world a better place. Whole Foods has improved the lives of millions by offering organic and high-quality food, often sourced locally (but not exclusively so) and tailored to the increasingly discriminating tastes of urban, middle class shoppers.

Mackey is a long-time vegetarian and an animal-rights activist who believes strongly in many contemporary environmental causes. Many of these causes have become integrated into Whole Foods business practices, though not completely. While Whole Foods sells a wide variety of meats to his personal distaste, his commitment to animal welfare has has shown through in the implementation of animal treatment standards for vendors. Where does personal preference end and business acumen begin? It's hard to say. Mackey is a strong believer in organic produce - the selection found at his stores is evidence of this - but in one interview Mackey admits that if the buying public turned away from organic, Whole Foods would abandon organic to stay in business. He honors the value - and respects the power - of consumer choice.

Mackey believes in capitalism as a force for good, but argues for businesses to play a more active role in both marketing the market system and contributing to society in ways that go beyond providing goods and services. This is an important challenge to the Friedman orthodoxy as well as a bridge between the modern liberal sentiments of the western middle classes and classical liberal economic doctrine. In my opinion Mackey serves as an excellent ambassador for capitalism as well as an exemplar of that system's great potential.

The Guardian
"grist" interview
"60 Minutes" interview
Mackey's "conscious capitalism" vs Bill Gates vision of philanthropy
Criticism from the left

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Coenraad Johannes van Houten

Today we honor Coenraad Johannes van Houten (1801-1887) for his invention of cocoa powder. This powder (picture right) let people enjoy great things like Dutch Chocolate and chocolate milk. The trick was that van Houten found a cheap way to bring the fat content of simply ground cocoa beans to a point where it could be digested easily. The process is more complicated than I care to describe here. See the link below for more information. Other chocolate makers built upon this process to ultimately develop the chocolate we enjoy today.

The van Houten family owned the Van Houten Company, founded by our honoree's father. Though the company alone generated great wealth for the Dutch people, the invention of cocoa powder is why we honor van Houten today. His personal drive to grow his chocolate company has brought joy and wealth to all of us chocolate lovers around the world!

Coenraad Johannes van Houten on Wiki
More on the invention

Monday, October 20, 2008

Austin Kness

"All you need to do to become a millionaire is invent a better mouse trap." Entrepreneur Austin Kness did just that in the 1920s when he made the first major improvement on James Atkinson's Little Nipper. Kness invented a mouse trap that required no bait, caught the mouse alive, and could catch multiple mice at once without needing reset.

Kness called his new invention the Kness Ketch-All Multiple Catch mousetrap. He started Kness Mfg. in 1927 to sell his new product, however the company closed during the Great Depression. Kness reopened the business in the late 1930s and the company has since enjoyed tremendous success; expected revenues for 1999 were 5 million dollars.

Kness invented the new mouse trap because, while working as a janitor in a high school, he was having to set multiple traps every evening and then empty the traps in the morning. Kness came up with a solution to his problem by inventing a more efficient mouse trap, making his job easier and all our lives richer.

Kness success in improving mouse traps is rare. It appears slightly harder to become a millionaire than just inventing a better mouse trap, the US Patent office has issued over 4400 patents on mouse traps. However, only 20 percent of those patents have made any money.

Sources: History of the Mouse Trap Mousetrap maker snares sales

Friday, October 17, 2008

John Allison

I’m not sure if any of you have heard this, but sometimes, capitalism gets a bad rap. No, seriously…the capitalist is not a beloved figure. Incredible, isn’t it?

Today, I want to take a look at one of the individuals who is on the front lines of the efforts to get a positive message out there regarding capitalism.

John Allison is the CEO of BB&T. He is also an objectivist and a big fan of Ayn Rand’s. He actively encourages people to read Rand classics like Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, both in his professional life and outside of it.

Under Allison’s guidance, BB&T has become involved in developing programs to allow people to discuss the virtues of capitalism. Allison spearheaded the donation of significant sums of money to establish dozens of programs like Duke’s Program on Values and Ethics in the Marketplace, UNC – Wilmington’s Moral Foundations of Capitalism program and Clemson’s Institute for the Study of Capitalism. Each center has its own unique focus, but all committed to teaching and researching the moral foundations of capitalism.

These centers lead discussion groups, bring in speakers and coordinate seminars to bring in thinkers from disciplines other than economics to spread the message that the capitalist is not evil, but rather that there is a moral foundation to capitalism.

Basically, John Allison is capitalism’s public relations guy. It’s terrible that we need a p.r. guy, but it’s great that a leader like John Allison is willing to take up that role and make a real difference in getting the message out there.

BB&T Programs

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Charles Kettering

Every time you start your car or have a purchase rung up at a cash register, you can thank inventor and businessman Charles Kettering (1876–1958) for making your life easier and better.

Kettering finished a degree in electrical engineering and took his first job at National Cash Register company. Experts at the time claimed that an electric cash register would be impossible because the motor would have to generate one horsepower and that it would burn out quickly from starting and stopping repeatedly. Slow hand-crank registers were the norm, but Kettering believed he could do better. By combining principles of springs from wrist watches and after designing a clutched motor, Kettering made it possible to produce a cheap and reliable electric cash register, thereby revolutionizing retail sales around the world.

After founding Delco (the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company), Kettering developed the electric ignition and self-starter system, which he later took to General Motors. The ease of ignition literally opened the automobile market to a far wider market, including women—the hand crank starters could be difficult even for a strong man to use, and many had broken a wrist trying to start their engines.

Kettering later served as a vice president at General Motors and founded the General Motors Research lab, leading to better fuels, engines, spark plugs, automatic transmission, four-wheel brakes, and better paints for cars, as well as refrigerators with ice-makers and train engines.

PBS American Experience profile
Wikipedia profile

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Charles Townes

Today we celebrate Charles Townes for his contribution to light amplification by stimulated emissions of radiation technology - or lasers for short.

Charles Townes was born on July 28, 1915 in Greenville, South Carolina where he attended public schools and later Furman University. With a B.A. in Modern Languages and a B.S. in Physics, Townes moved on to earn his M.A. in Physics at Duke University followed by his PhD at the California Institute of Technology in the same discipline.

Townes joined the faculty at Columbia University in 1948 where he performed extensive research in microwave physics. Charles' work led him to the discovery of the Maser - microwave amplification by stimulated emissions of radiation. Along side his brother-in-law, Dr. Arthur Leonard Schawlaw - a one time Stanford University professor - Townes' maser was further developed into the laser.

Townes' dedication to physics opened up a world of innovation. Laser technology led to large advances in medicine, telecommunications, computers, and countless electronic products. As a result we are all better off.

It is worth noting some of Charles Townes' additional accomplishments: Charles' academic exposure - various positions including provost, lecturer, researcher, etc - extends to the Universities of Paris, Tokyo, MIT and later the University of California, Berkeley. He has received many prestigious awards inclusive of a shared stake in the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics, and holds over 27 degrees from several universities.

Cheers to Charles Townes!


Charles Townes at:

Academy of Achievement

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss

Jacob Youphes was born in Latvia and changed his surname to Davis upon immigrating to the US in 1854. Löb Strauß came across the pond in 1847 from Bavaria, changed his forename to Levi, and started a dry goods shop in gold rush-era San Francisco. These two migrants would later join together to patent a simple but popular idea: copper riveting at the stress-points in work pants for increased durability. This innovation set the stage for blue jeans, one of the most popular items of clothing in history.

In the early 1870s, Davis was a tailor in Reno, Nevada. The inadequacy of contemporary work pants for miners and other heavy laborers is reported to have manifested itself through a particular customer of Davis's, whose problem inspired the tailor to apply metal rivets in the pockets and fly to prevent further ripping. Davis obtained cloth for his business from Strauss, who was a merchant in San Francisco. It's likely Davis used cotton duck cloth, and not denim, to make his early pairs of riveted pants. What's known for sure is that he and Strauss worked together to mass produce both duck cloth and denim "waist overalls" and that by 1911, duck cloth had gone by the wayside in favor of denim.

So how did Strauss get involved? Davis had a good idea but didn't have the means to capitalize. Strauss was a successful businessman with money. Evidently he was also someone whom Davis could trust. After being approached by the Latvian entrepreneur, Strauss engaged in what can be merrily described as "unfettered capitalism," providing the resources to help Davis patent his invention. The two went into business together and it didn't take long for this clothing operation to outgrow the dry goods store which had been a San Francisco staple since the 1850's. It didn't even take a century for the ancestor of waist overalls, blue jeans, to become a symbol of comfort and freedom the world over.

Levi Strauss Bio, company website
Jacob Davis Bio, company website
History of Denim, company website
US Patent 139121 illustration
Ideafinder info on blue jeans

Monday, October 13, 2008

Sir Alexander Fleming

Today we honor Sir Alexander Fleming (1881-1955). Fleming is best remembered as a Nobel Prize winner for his co-discovery of penicillin. As a farmer's son, it was by chance that he was part of a rifle club with a man who encouraged his academic pursuits. After completing his education in London and lecturing at St. Mary's for several years, he fought in WWI. It was during this time that his interest in bacteria in the blood intensified.

Fleming's discovery of penicillin has would be a modern day myth, except that it is indeed true; it was an accident. Fleming carelessly left some of his cultures in his lab for weeks while on vacation. When he returned, he did not immediately clean them up. Then, one day he noticed that the "stuff" growing in the dishes was keeping bacteria at bay! He published an article about his discovery in 1929, but it would be years before the research would come to fruition with the work of Howard Florey and Ernst Chain, who share the Noble Prize with Fleming.

Fleming's pursuit of personal profit (in the form of scientific prominence) benefited us all. Fleming was a scientist looking to better his career with a publication, which turned out to be a great life saver and improver. Not only did this discovery go on to create vast amounts of cash wealth, but it created joy and happiness from longer lives and the ability to beat diseases like Gonorrhea that is hard to quantify.

Alexander Fleming on Wiki
Alexander Fleming in Time
Alexander Fleming's Noble Prize Biography

Friday, October 10, 2008

Earl Tupper

Earl Tupper (1907-1983) is as famous for his invention of the airtight plastic food container Tupperware as he is for the method he used to sell his new invention.

Tupper worked for a year with the plastics manufacturing division of DuPont and then left to form his own company in 1938. His new company did contract work for DuPont and Tupper's big invention came when DuPont and Earl S. Tupper Company began to concentrate on peacetime, everyday use, plastic products. Tupper developed a process to make clean, clear, translucent plastic from polyethylene slag. Out of this new process, he invented an airtight lid for plastic bowls.

The new plastic container was marketed as a give away with cigarettes and while it won design prizes and was seen as a "Wonder Bowl", people were slow to adopt the new method of storing food. It wasn't until Tupper began working with Brownie Wise that his company became a phenomenon. Wise had been selling large quantities of Tupperware at Home Parties, Tupper noticed her large number of sales, quickly hired her as his company's vice president and made Home Parties the exclusive method of selling Tupperware.

Tupper's new invention of an airtight and waterproof plastic bowl and lid set made Tupper a successful inventor, his recognition of a better marketing scheme made him a hugely successful businessman.

Interestingly, afraid of how his children would be taxed if he died as the sole owner of Tupperware, he was advised to change the structure of his company and create a board. Tupper didn't like this idea and instead sold his company for $16 million in 1959 to Rexall Drug Company. Shortly after, Tupper divorced his wife, bought an island in Central America, gave up his US citizenship to avoid taxes and moved to Costa Rica.

MIT's Inventor of the week: Tupper
PBS's American Experience Tupperware!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Alex Kendrick

The movie Fireproof is creating quite a bit of buzz after making $7.2 million in its first weekend. $7.2 million is not a lot of money when it comes to blockbuster movies, but it IS a lot of money if you spent only $500,000 on production.

Fireproof is the third movie from Sherwood Pictures, a unique movie-making operation. Sherwood Pictures is the brain-child of Alex Kendrick, an associate pastor at Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, GA. Kendrick wanted to use technology to better reach people. His first project, Flywheel, was done on a $20,000 budget. But it was done well enough to capture an audience, sell tens of thousands of DVDs and to be distributed in Blockbuster Video stores.

They parlayed that success into Facing the Giants, their second film. Giants cost $100,000 but raked in $10 million in theaters. Now Fireproof has continued this trend, even outgrossing a big budget thriller like Eagle Eye.

But successful movies today are not successful just in the theaters and DVD rental markets. A true blockbuster today will branch out and make money in complementary markets. Kendrick has tapped into this strategy by pairing his movie with a book, The Love Dare, that is featured in the movie. Sales of the book have been brisk enough, that it will come in at #4 on the New York Times Bestsellers list for Advice books (Paperback).

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett make headlines through their efforts to apply a capitalist model to philanthropy. Kendrick seems to have found a way to make this a truly viable approach. I’m not here to promote (or rail against) Kendrick’s ideas. I am here, however, to be impressed by his use of capitalism to advance the cause that is most important to him. For this, Alex Kendrick, you are a Hero of Capitalism.

USA Today Story on Fireproof

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Elihu Thompson

The inventor and businessman Elihu Thompson (1853–1937) stands as a hero of capitalism for the hundreds of inventions that make all of our lives better. Thompson's prolific career included over 690 patents—only three people claim more. Alongside Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, he stands as one of the important pioneers of electricity.

Thompson invented the electric arc welder, the 3-coil dynamo (which helped create the first electric lighting system), and the electrostatic motor. His inventions also improved the automobile muffler, the X-ray, the lightning rod, and the refracting telescope. After studying the Caisson disease that plagued workers on the Brooklyn Bridge's underwater supports, he suggested that a mixture of oxygen and helium be used to avoid the "bends" that came from rapid decompression, a "discovery" for which every scuba enthusiast can be thankful. He also was the first to suggest using lead shielding to protect people from x-ray burns.

One of his earliest and most humble inventions also stands as one of the most important for human life and flourishing. Thompson invented the electric induction watt-meter, which measures the use of electricity by customers of power generating companies. Without this simple invention, it would have been impossible for power companies to distribute and sell the electricity that we all use today. Although improvements have been made, the basic concept behind the device still owes its genesis to Elihu Thompson.

Thompson's company, the Thompson-Houston Electric Company, eventually merged with the Edison General Electric Company to become today's General Electric company. Thompson went on to win the first Edison Medal from the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers in 1909 and served as president of MIT from 1920-23.

Wikipedia profile
Biography page
American Philosophical Society biography and profile

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Kemmons Wilson

Kemmons Wilson (1919-2003) was an entrepreneur best know for his motel chain, Holiday Inn.

Wilson's success story is one of struggle. His entrepreneurial pursuit began in the middle of the Great Depression which proved the ultimate test of his ability. Wilson's recipe for success is one familiar to many successful entrepreneurs - he increased his profits gradually while re-investing his earnings into greater capital along the way. Beginning with popcorn sales, he moved on to jukeboxes and eventually construction and real estate ventures. In each endeavor, Wilson's competitive edge secured his place in the market.

Wilson introduced the first Holiday Inn in the early 1950s and began expanding his operations alongside the construction of the U.S. interstate system. By the end of the 1950s, Wilson's motel chain had spread across the nation; by mid-1970s, the world.

Wilson eventually sold the Holiday Inn chain and founded a series of corporations now operated by his family under the umbrella of Kemmons Wilson Co. in Memphis, Tennessee.


New York Times



Monday, October 6, 2008

Paul de Vivie

Many thousands of capitalism's heroes have devoted their energy, creativity, and wealth to the development of bicycles. I can honor just one of those heroes at a time, so today I introduce to you Paul de Vivie, aka "Velocio," a major player in the development of bicycle derailleurs.

Precursors to the modern bicycle first appeared 190 years ago. It wasn't until the 1890's, however, that bicycles began resembling what we have today, with the advent of pneumatic tires, chain-driven "safety bicycles," and free wheels. Rudimentary derailleurs, which are the transmission apparatus on most contemporary multi-speed bicycles, were also in development at this time in England but did not have much success. Not only was popular sentiment divided on the merits of bicycles having multiple speeds (variable gear ratios were seen as appropriate for sissies and the elderly), but a competing technology using gears within the bicycle hub was more successful commercially.

Paul de Vivie was such an avid cyclist that he quit his profession and devoted his time to cycling, writing for his own magazine about the sport (pen name: "Velocio") and improving upon existing bicycle designs. De Vivie was convinced that bicycles needed multiple gear ratios, so he combined his work of adding sprockets to bicycle chain wheels with the designs earlier developed by English inventors. While at the turn of the century the English cycle industry was far more advanced than France's, English derailleur systems weren't seeing any further progression. In 1906, de Vivie's work paid off with a four-speed bicycle driven by a derailleur system that could be operated without the rider dismounting.

Velocio's effort would not have been as notable had he not devoted so much of his time to marketing the derailleur to the French Public. French personalities in cycling decried variable gears, especially their use in races. De Vivie would not back down; he sponsored riders in races to prove the superiority of multiple gears. He also used his magazine, Le Cycliste, to tell stories of extended bicycle tours through the countryside, made enjoyable by the ease of which one could cycle into the wind and over hills once the limitations of a single gear were overcome.

Anyone who has a bicycle with multiple speeds can appreciate de Vivie's contribution to cycling. While his early derailleur systems do not resemble the derailleurs found on bikes made in the last 60 + years, his were the first to demonstrate that such a transmission system is not only mechanically viable, but for most purposes superior to the alternatives.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Stan Lee

Today we honor Stan Lee for his creation of Spiderman.

Stan Lee is a very personal Hero of Capitalism for me because he has brought much joy and wealth to my life. Specifically, his creation of Spiderman has brought lots of joy to me (and millions of others I might add). Not only did Stan Lee's Spiderman breath life into the struggling Marvel Comics, but he helped make comics culturally relevant and enduring. Today his listing on is long and varied. Spiderman the comic went from being a secondary comic book character to a major feature film. The Spiderman movie was nominated for two Academy Awards and was the 33rd highest grossing US film of all time (in real dollars).

Stan Lee has gone on to protect his intellectual property by taking Marvel Comics to court and being continually vigilant in the battle for his artistic rights. Stan Lee's contribution to the world through the development of his own private property is why we honor him today.

Stan Lee in Wikipedia
Stan Lee Conversations

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Richard M. Hollingshead

Today we honor Richard Hollingshead for his invention of the drive-in movie theatre.

The inspiration for his invention is uncertain, was he trying to sell more cars (his family owned Whiz Auto Parts), make his mother more comfortable at the movies, or create an environment where he didn't have to dress up to view a movie?

While the reason is unknown, Hollingshead saw an opportunity and in 1932 began work on developing the first drive-in theatre. Using his driveway as a test area, the inventor nailed a sheet between two trees and used a projector to begin testing his idea. A radio behind the screen served as the sound. Hollingshead worried about cars in the front rows blocking the view of people in the back rows and so he developed ramps and spacing schemes to help combat this problem. The patent he received for this design was revoked years later.

In 1933, Hollingshead and three other investors built the first drive-in theatre in Camden, New Jersey. They charged 25 cents per car and 25 cents per person for admission to the theatre.

Hollingshead invention sparked a new craze and reached its peak of popularity in the 1950s and 1960s. While not as common today, drive-in theatres can still be found all over the world, especially in rural areas. Many drive-in theatres are closed for the season, but a few are still open for Halloween movie showings.

Drive-In Theatre History History of Drive-Ins

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Hal Richman

Its easy to think of our Heroes of Capitalism as exclusively captains of industry who have created vast amounts of wealth. But we're looking to celebrate all of the people who have used private property to create wealth. Even if we're not talking about billions of dollars. So today I'm taking a look at an entrepreneur, but one who is more of a niche provider of a good, rather than a captain of industry.

For fans of board games and fantasy baseball leagues, Hal Richman is a household name. For the rest of the world, he is a relative unknown. In 1961, Hal created Strat-o-matic baseball, a dice and card board game that allows players to create teams and leagues using the their favorite baseball players from seasons gone by.

Yes, I know, it sounds terribly geeky. And, to be honest, it is. But we also know that fantasy sports leagues are a multi-billion dollar enterprise today. Hal Richman tapped into this part of the sports fans’ psyche long before ESPN and CBSsportsline and all the other fantasy sports websites.

From humble beginnings in the early 1960’s Richman has grown his product, significantly, adding defensive ratings, ballpark ratings, clutch hitting, and many more elements designed to add to the reality of game play. With the rise of the computer age, Richman’s growing company even developed a computer version of the game to try to stay with the times, adding internet play 6 years ago. Given the success of the baseball game, Richman also has expanded into basketball, football and hockey versions of the game.

Over the years, millions of copies of the Strat-o-matic game have been sold, but since it is not a publically traded company, actual revenue figures are not available. For turning a youthful passion for baseball into a multi-million dollar operation (and cult phenomenon), Hal Richman is a Hero of Capitalism.

And yes, I’ve been one of these geeks