Editor's Note: This countdown was originally compiled by TheStreet Staff and published as a multi-part series, beginning May 1999. The original, unedited text is reproduced below.
NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The American Century has become the Business Century.
Two World Wars reduced politics to rubble, giving rise to government-by-focus-group. Art and culture have ground to a halt. Religion and science are locked in a futile struggle. Capitalism "won." Our colleagues are our families, and we increasingly find meaning in work. Like David Mamet says, Get them to sign on the line which is dotted. Nothing else matters.
If you buy all that, take a day off. You're working too hard. Still, business has been important, if not quite a replacement for everything else Americans held dear 100 years ago. TheStreet.com decided to examine the century in U.S. business and finance. There aren't enough lists floating around out there.
Here follows Countdown: A Century of U.S. Business, an all-week series ranking the top 100 signal points, inventions, ideas and companies of the 20th century, from least important to most. (Apologies to the rest of the world; look for our take on the 21st century's top global business events in mid-2099.) Each of the entries wrought some major change in the way business is done, the way money is invested, the way life is lived.
A word on methodology: We have focused on when a development became commercialized, when a company came of age, when an idea rose to become a reality. The emergence rather than the beginning. George Mallory may have gotten to the top of Everest first, but Edmund Hillary got up and down. The century is riddled with brilliant inventions and wonderful entrepreneurial ideas. Few were seminal.
For instance, when Microsoft licensed MS-DOS to IBM and when IBM let the PC clones license the operating system on their own, Bill Gates' company became the Standard Oil of the latter half of the century. If it hadn't penned that deal, Mister Softee might have remained one more West Coast thought to die still in the garage. The first successful commercial airplane, Douglas Aircraft's DC-3, is on the list; the Wright brothers didn't make the cut.
Don't expect the Great Crash of 1929 to top the list. And we don't really buy into the Great Men of History theory, so there aren't too many dead white guys on the list. All those things your parents and grandparents talk about -- the Depression, the RJR Nabisco takeover fight, walking barefoot to school in the snow, uphill both ways, and on and on? They're certainly important, but as time has gone on, some events and people necessarily have receded in importance. And some things that seem so vitally significant today -- say, the electronic auction phenomenon -- seem faddish. At least for now.
Should you take this list as gospel? Rankings are always subjective. We've tried to bring our passion for and knowledge of business and finance to this list. We hope to inform and we hope to give you some laughs.
We hope you get agitated, too. You'll find some gaps and horrible omissions. There'll be plenty of space for your quibbles, protests and, if warranted, praise. Whatever it may be, we want your feedback (include your full name).
100. Hallmark gets its start: Jan. 10, 1910.
Joyce C. Hall, a teenager (and a guy, by the way) from Norfolk, Neb., arrives in Kansas City, Mo., in 1910 and starts building a picture-postcard business into a giant of doggerel and cheer that would reshape American holiday celebrations. Hallmark is instrumental in the commercialization of holidays, which has driven a huge amount of the growth in U.S. retailing (and the growth in bogus holidays like Sweetest Day).
99. The Three Mile Island disaster: March 29, 1979.
So much for alternative energy. Three Mile Island's near-meltdown renders nuclear energy but a Simpsons joke, increasing the country's dependence on oil.
98. Disneyland opens: July 17, 1955.
With Ronald Reagan hosting a live ABC special, Disneyland opens in Anaheim, Calif. The first major destination theme park spurs growth in travel and tourism nationwide. Today Disney's parks alone are a $5 billion annual business, and Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., which has more than 50,000 employees, is the largest single-site employer in the U.S.
97. Nike's Revolution ads commodify dissent: 1987.
It's not the first time the ideals of the 1960s -- freedom, individuality, antimaterialism, dissent -- are called upon to push product. But it may stand as the biggest co-optation. Right at the height of the Summer of Love anniversary celebration, Nike uses the Beatles song to sell sneakers. Now it's almost impossible to escape ads that sell not just products but breaking the rules, dude.
96. The University of Phoenix, a for-profit university, is accredited: 1978.
The University of Phoenix is accredited in 1978, and few think that without the benefit of a Final Four-bound athletic team or ivy-encrusted heritage it will amount to much. It becomes the nation's largest private university. And unlike its more traditional academic competition, it turns a profit. Phoenix's rise goes hand in hand with the boom in private prisons since 1984, when Corrections Corp. of America takes over the county prison in Hamilton County, Tenn.
Both developments indicate the increased willingness of Americans and their elected representatives to hand over to the private sector functions previously reserved to government. But the move to market incentives hasn't unfolded like a libertarian's dream. Many educators criticize Phoenix and other for-profit education providers, saying they lack comprehensive library and lab facilities and a full-time, dedicated faculty. Prisons, meantime, face new regulations in the wake of violence and inmate escapes at CCA's prison in Youngstown, Ohio.
95. Jaws ushers in the blockbuster era in Hollywood: June 20, 1975.
Before Steven Spielberg's little flick, starring a gape-mawed contraption named Bruce and co-starring Roy Scheider, movies almost invariably opened gradually and tried to build an audience through word-of-mouth and limited advertising. Jaws, which goes on to gross $260 million in the U.S., introduces the concepts of heavy preopening marketing and wide releases -- sound familiar?
94. Frederick Taylor's 'scientific management' theory gains legitimacy: 1910.
Frederick Taylor forms his theory of "scientific management," a patchwork of efficiency and cost-cutting ideas, in the 19th century. But it doesn't gain wide currency until Boston lawyer and future Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis argues on behalf of consumers that a $27 million rate increase sought by the nation's Eastern railroads should not be approved by the Interstate Commerce Commission. Brandeis contends that the railroads cannot justify their costs. Citing Taylor's ideas, Brandeis maintains that the railroads could save $300 million a year through improved productivity.
93. The U.S. is a giant creditor nation: 1918-1982.
Following World War I, the winners (Allies) and losers (Central Powers) have something in common: They owe lots of money to the U.S., making it the world's biggest creditor nation. The tables turn by 1985, however, as the U.S. becomes a net debtor. And because we like to be No. 1 in everything, we quickly become the world's largest.
92. Harley-Davidson adopts Japanese management techniques: October 1981.
Having just bought the company in a leveraged buyout, Harley-Davidson Chairman Vaughn L. Beals Jr. and his management team realize that Japanese motorcycle makers are kicking their butts. To beat them, they join them, adopting such Japanese techniques as "just-in-time" inventory control. Just-in-time eliminates the high and costly inventory levels that require elaborate handling systems. Other U.S. major manufacturers, like General Motors, soon follow, lemminglike.
91. Southwest Airlines begins flying: June 18, 1971.
Southwest Airlines begins flying between Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. With its cheeky attitude, wink-and-a-nudge ads and low prices, the new carrier is an immediate success.
In 1978, the U.S. begins deregulating interstate airfares and schedules, enabling Southwest to fly outside Texas. While other discount airlines rush to grow, often destroying themselves in the process, Southwest expands more cautiously, becoming the nation's dominant low-fare carrier by avoiding expensive mistakes.
Today, the company's everyday low fares give millions of Americans the chance to enjoy the speed and convenience of flying, and its good relations with employees and simple but superior customer service make it the most feared competitor in the airline business. Last year, the company earned more than $400 million on revenue of almost $4.2 billion. Not bad for a company that flies only 737s.
90. Lou Gerstner turns IBM around: April 1993 to present.
Big Blue is still big in early 1993, but not big like Mark McGwire -- powerful, potent, popular. Big, instead, like Babe Ruth in the '40s -- unhealthy, and with its best days sadly receding. Along comes Louis V. Gerstner Jr., who replaces Chairman and CEO John F. Akers on April Fools' Day.
Gerstner, a former McKinsey consultant coming off stints at American Express and RJR Nabisco, joins an IBM hobbled by bloat and bereft of focus.
Gerstner bluntly declares, "The last thing IBM needs now is a vision" and instead quickly seeks to slash costs by more than $8 billion. The skeptical market keeps IBM on a downward course at first. But Gerstner winnows the workforce to 215,000 by mid-1995 from about 300,000, consolidates facilities and otherwise flenses the fat. Wall Street cheers.
A ghoulish management style is born. Gerstner's success is the most dramatic example, with hired-gun CEOs jettisoning staid traditions -- along with thousands of workers -- to upsize the stock price. Of course, it doesn't always work -- see "Chainsaw(ed) Al" Dunlap, late of Sunbeam.
89. John Bogle launches the First Index Investment Trust: August 1976.
The fund that becomes the mighty Vanguard Index 500 starts with just $11 million in assets under management and can't even buy all of the S&P 500 stocks until 1977. But it starts a revolution in investing, luring billions from investors concerned about the risks and costs of actively managed funds.
88. Thomas Watson becomes president of IBM's predecessor: 1914.
Thomas J. Watson is fired from National Cash Register in 1913, after having been framed for a scheme to create a dummy competitor to the monopolistic NCR. He joins Computing-Tabulating-Recording and quickly rises to lead the company, which is renamed International Business Machines in 1923. All's peachy until Bill Gates.
87. Valium is introduced: 1963.
Feel-good remedies and snake-oil cures have been around forever. Lifestyle drugs, which garner attention in the media, aren't that big a business. But Valium, from the Latin for "to be strong and well," is different.
Introduced by Swiss drug company Roche Labs in 1963, it quickly becomes mother's little helper for millions of housewives throughout the '60s and beyond. The first billion-dollar medicine and one of the first brand-name drugs, Valium launches the era of blockbuster medicines. More prescriptions are written for it than for any other drug between 1969 and 1982. But while the Swiss may have pioneered the blockbuster, the Americans later master it. Valium's descendants range from Eli Lilly's Prozac to Pfizer's Viagra.
86. The Panama Canal opens: Aug. 15, 1914.
In the late 19th century, the French try to build a canal across the Panama isthmus connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. They fail. Early in the 20th century, the U.S. has the same goal and seeks permission from Colombia, which then rules Panama. No dice.
So the U.S. sends a gunboat down Panama way, the supportive sight of which inspires the Panamanians to overthrow their Colombian overlords. The U.S. then gets a nice rent deal on the Canal Zone (which will revert to Panama on Dec. 31, 1999), and many massive engineering feats and mosquito bites later, the oceans meet. Now ships traveling from New York to San Francisco can save a modest 7,872 miles by not detouring around South America. U.S. and global commerce never look back.
85. The Public Utility Holding Company Act is enacted: 1935.
The law breaks up the powerful trusts that had dominated the nation's electricity and gas utilities. Power companies are rendered a political afterthought throughout the century, unlike, say, oil companies, which continue to wield influence. Sixty years later there would be talk of repealing or reforming PUHCA, which some see as an antiquated impediment to competition among utilities.
84. HBO via satellite accelerates the fragmentation of the TV marketplace: September 1975.
Today a unit of Time Warner, HBO broadcasts the heavyweight boxing championship match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier live from the Philippines. The "Thrilla in Manila" marks the first time satellites are used to deliver regularly scheduled programming and link together previously isolated cable systems.
HBO's bold move helps create the modern cable business, now the largest single segment of the entertainment industry. Twenty-four years later, U.S. consumers will spend close to $40 billion on cable, more than they spend on music, home videos and movies at theaters -- combined. Live satellite feeds also make it possible to offer national and worldwide broadcasts of everyday sporting events, turning collegiate and pro athletics into an 11-figure annual business. Unfortunately, the massive expansion does little to improve the quality of our entertainment.
83. The surgeon general reports that smoking causes lung cancer in men: Jan. 11, 1964.
Surgeon General Luther Terry, who picked tobacco in Alabama as a boy, startles Americans with the news that deliberately inhaling smoke deep into your lungs dozens of times every day might be bad for you. Cigarette consumption would drop 20% in the three months following the report, and over the next 35 years the tobacco industry would face an ever-increasing torrent of criticism.
In 1971, television and radio ads for cigarettes would be banned; in 1998, the industry would agree to pay $206 billion to settle state lawsuits over the public health costs of smoking, an unprecedented transfer of wealth from a legal private industry to the government. Still, coffin nails would remain a very profitable business. In 1998, industry leader Philip Morris would earn $5.3 billion, almost as much as Microsoft.
82. Michael Milken starts Drexel's junk-bond trading operation: 1971.
Michael Milken, a young punk out of Wharton, convinces his firm that there's gold in junk. After making a killing in "fallen angels" -- once-investment-grade bonds that have fallen in price because of investor worries that their issuers will default -- Milken and the firm then known as Drexel Harriman Ripley begin underwriting high-yield "junk" bonds for entrepreneurs previously cut out of the capital markets. Milken's clients include Turner Broadcasting and Mirage Resorts, unleashing Ted Turner and Steve Wynn on an unsuspecting American public. Would-be corporate raiders soon turn to junk as a source of financing. A little insider trading later, the 1980s are in full swing.
81. The first U.S. supermarket, King Kullen, opens: Aug. 4, 1930.
The Piggly Wiggly chain popular in the South lays claim to being the first self-service grocery store (and the even older A&P sold a lot of tea and stuff), but Michael J. Cullen's King Kullenstore in Queens, N.Y., is the first to bring together the high volume and low cost that are the hallmarks of the U.S. supermarket.
80. Intelsat 1 goes into service: June 28, 1965.
The first commercial communications satellite, nicknamed Early Bird, introduces live commercial television across oceans. Years later this wonderful technology would mean we could share the O.J. trial -- live! -- with our friends in Yemen.
79. Maiman unveils the first working laser: July 1960.
Building on the work of a bunch of other guys, Theodore Maiman's creation paves the way for multiple innovations, including high-quality printing, new forms of surgery, fiber-optic communications, bar-code scanners, CDs and laser tag.
78. The Black Monday crash: Oct. 19, 1987.
Really just a bump in the night.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average drops 508 points, a stunning 22.6%, on "Black Monday," raising fears that the U.S. economy is headed for a severe recession, or even a depression. But the Federal Reserve acts quickly to cut interest rates and pump cash into the banking system, helping end the threat. Little over a decade later, the slide would be remembered as not much more than a chance for investors to buy on one of history's biggest dips.
77. MCI is authorized to compete with AT&T: 1971.
MCI, founded in 1968, receives FCC approvals in 1969 that let the company build its first microwave route and interconnect with local phone companies. But the upstart scores its big breakthrough in 1971, when MCI (today subsumed into MCI WorldCom) becomes the first company authorized to compete with AT&T in the domestic private line market.
76. Bernays lights the 'Torches of Liberty': March 31, 1929.
In 1928, George Washington Hill of American Tobacco comes to public relations master Edward L. Bernays with a problem: Public smoking by women is taboo, and the untapped market potential is maddening. Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, consults a psychoanalyst to divine what might lead ladies to light up outdoors. The answer, in these just-past-suffrage days: Appeal to their desire for freedom and equality.
Bernays has his secretary quietly orchestrate a debutante demonstration at New York's 1929 Easter Parade: Young women of good breeding boldly fire up cancer sticks and puff away as they stroll Fifth Avenue. The effort, known as the "Torches of Liberty" or "Torches of Freedom" march, boosts sales of American's Lucky Strikes and reinforces the power of PR. Years later Bernays would put his PR skills to work against tobacco, disavowing Hill. But the damage was done: Flackery and cigarettes were big business and would stay that way.
75. The explosion of RCA's stock epitomizes market mania: 1928-29.
The Internet stock party of recent months wouldn't be the first time that stocks in a promising new technology have acted maniacally. Early in 1928, Radio Corp. of America is selling for 85 1/4. But over the next year and a half, it begins a dizzying climb. It hits 200 in May; 400 in November; 500 the following summer. After a 5-for-1 split, it rises even further, to the presplit equivalent of 573 3/4. It is probably the most pronounced symbol of excess of the bull market of the '20s. And guess what: It wouldn't be in business 70 years later.
When RCA and other stocks plunge below pre-1928 levels, it puts the fear of stocks in Americans. Investors turn to safer investments like bonds and, eventually, federally insured bank accounts and certificates of deposit. It would take a younger generation who knew not Joseph, unscarred by the crash and egged on by the great bull market of the 1980s and 1990s, to erase the troubling memory of the 1920s bubble.
That younger generation would learn that everything's different now, because there's a new economy and all.
74. AOL goes to flat-rate pricing: Oct. 29, 1996.
America Online's move away from rates based on the amount of time spent online to pay-one-price charging is a crucial step toward the now-dominant view of the Internet as an advertising-driven mass medium.
73. FDR signs the act creating the Federal Housing Administration: June 1934.
With innovations like the 30-year self-amortizing mortgage, the Federal Housing Administration puts the power of the federal government behind home financing, helping to make home ownership a reality for tens of millions of Americans and powering the residential real estate industry.
72. Rosie the Riveter and FEPC: Women and minorities contribute to the war effort: 1941-45.
World War II puts a quick end to the high unemployment levels of the Depression, as most non-flat-footed young men abandon their plowshares for guns. Women take factory jobs previously reserved for men, making Rosie the Riveter into a feminist and patriotic icon. And under pressure from civil rights leader and union president A. Philip Randolph, President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941 issues an executive order banning race discrimination by the feds and government contractees and creates the Fair Employment Practices Committee to enforce the rule, helping blacks to get previously unavailable jobs.
But civil rights progress would stall after the war as men returned from the front: Women would be laid off from their jobs and urged to return to the kitchen and play their part in the baby boom, while Congress would refuse to renew the FEPC.
71. Black and Scholes introduce their options pricing model in the Journal of Political Economy: May/June 1973.
Fischer Black and Myron Scholes of the University of Chicago devise a pricing model that establishes a standard by which options can be priced. Until Black-Scholes, traders and investors have been pretty much guessing. The model figures out a way to measure the volatility of the underlying instrument and its erosion of value over time. Black-Scholes adds enough credibility to pricing to make options -- and later more complex derivatives -- legitimate, liquid instruments for all sorts of institutional investors, ranging from Goldman Sachs to Barings' Nick Leeson.
70. Federal Express begins operations: April 1973. Before Federal Express, today a unit of FDX, mail delivery is the sole province of the federal government. Options for overnight, cross-country delivery range from telexing to getting on a plane documents in hand. FedEx and other overnight delivery companies revolutionize business in the U.S., allowing both corporate chieftains and average schmoes to reach heretofore unseen heights of procrastination.
69. The government bails out Chrysler: Jan. 7, 1980.
President Jimmy Carter signs the Chrysler Loan Guarantee Act, offering the troubled automaker $1.5 billion in federal support. One of the few useful pieces of corporate welfare ever enacted, the guarantees helped pull Chrysler (now a unit of DaimlerChrysler) through a severe recession, saving tens of thousands of jobs. The company would pay back the loans in 1983, seven years ahead of schedule. But the bailout wouldn't create the great moral hazard critics feared, since most big companies would either straighten up and fly right or, like Pan Am, be allowed to go bankrupt.
68. President Johnson's Texas-sized spending spurs domestic inflation: 1960s.
Guns? Butter? Guns? Butter? Hell, I'll take both! Lyndon Johnson's effort to conduct a war in Vietnam and a War on Poverty at the same time causes inflation to triple from 1.9% in 1965 to 6.2% four years later. The price hikes give Americans their first taste of the double-digit inflation that would follow a decade later.
67. Cohen and Boyer pioneer recombinant DNA techniques: 1973.
Herbert Boyer, a University of California at San Francisco biochemist, and Stanley Cohen, a Stanford University geneticist, slip a gene from an African clawed toad into a bacterium. The transplanted gene starts producing protein inside the bacterium, proving that simple organisms could be called upon to become protein "factories." The discovery is recombinant DNA, the first time the stuff of life is taken from its natural place and artificially inserted into another piece of DNA. The biotech industry is born.
Stanford and UCSF see the discovery as a money-making opportunity. In the years to come, the universities would license the process to dozens of companies, reaping millions of dollars. Science, the academy, medicine and the corporation would be inexorably entwined from then on.
Boyer, stricken with the Silicon Valley bug, would go on to help found the first biotech company, South San Francisco's Genentech. Genentech in 1982 would win the first approval for a genetically engineered protein, human growth hormone, giving hope to short kids everywhere that their hoop dreams might be realized.
66. Alfred Sloan becomes president of General Motors: 1923.
At the beginning of the 1920s, General Motors is nearly bankrupt and Ford has nearly 60% market share. But then Alfred P. Sloan comes along. He brings discipline to the far-flung company, actually doing some planning, strategizing and organizing. And he would manage, over his decades at the helm, to master market segmentation, selling Chevrolets to Joe Sixpacks and Caddys to the upper crust and, later, pimps. By targeting sales, the company avoids internal competition, a strategy that enables GM to bypass Ford as the No. 1 car maker. Sloan's revitalized GM establishes decentralized management, with division heads given the freedom to come up with their own ideas. Almost 80 years later, no large company would go untouched by Sloan's decentralization concept.
65. The CCITT Group 3 recommendation for facsimile machines is adopted: 1980.
The fax alone doesn't speed up the pace of American business -- after all, the first facsimile was patented in the mid-19th century. What changes things is the fax standard -- an international committee's adoption of specs for fax machines. Finally, offices know that if they buy a Brand X fax machine, they can send documents in a matter of minutes to a Brand Y machine across the country.
Once hooked on speed -- we're talking about the pace of business here, not the drug -- companies can't give it up. And so, getting the job done fast, faster and fastest would become an unshakeable part of American business. With the innovation of email, faxing would seem to take forever. And a T1 line becomes a must.
Business and the markets would speed up to match communication technology. Stock-market corrections would begin in the morning and be over by noon. Jay Goulds (and Gatsbys) would mint money instantly. On Internet time, companies would not only achieve stellar success but also flame out in a fraction of the time it took previous generations to build empires.
64. Nasdaq gets its first blue-sky exemption: Dec. 6, 1984.
By the mid-1980s, the upstart Nasdaq National Market System, run by the National Association of Securities Dealers, is pretty well sick of being called an upstart. Nasdaq wants to play on the same lucrative and prestigious field as the New York Stock Exchange. One key to level competition for Nasdaq is gaining exemptions from the so-called blue-sky laws, state-by-state regulations governing what securities can be sold to state residents. While NYSE and American Stock Exchange stocks have automatic exemptions, Nasdaq issues have to endure arduous registration processes in the various states.
That starts to change in December 1984, when Georgia becomes the first state to grant Nasdaq stocks the same treatment granted to the older exchanges' issues. Many states would follow suit. By the mid-1990s, giant companies such as Microsoft and Intel would turn down the Big Board's entreaties and stay on the formerly small-cap-only Nasdaq. The Amex would become such a shell of its former self that the NASD would effortlessly swallow it in 1998.
But the ascendancy of the Nasdaq would prove to be more than just a story of competition between stock markets. In giving a legitimate trading forum to entrepreneurial start-ups with little operating history and continuing losses, the Nasdaq would contribute to the "venture capitalization" of the country. These companies would be volatile and orders-of-magnitude riskier than many NYSE listings. But many individual investors would seize the chance to live entrepreneurial lives vicariously, seeking to discover -- and strike it rich on -- companies that go from the garage to the Fortune 500.
63. Frances Kelsey blocks the U.S. approval of thalidomide: 1961.
Worried about its potential for side effects, Food and Drug Administration medical officer Dr. Frances Kelsey delays the application for approval of thalidomide, a sleeping pill that later turns out to cause serious birth defects. Her action leads to the overhaul of the FDA and a tightening -- a creation, really -- of drug approval standards that live today. Not only would the overhaul bring regulation to the enormous and powerful pharmaceutical industry, it would haul the drugmakers into the modern era, forcing them to conduct scientifically rigorous clinical trials.
62. Benjamin Graham's Security Analysis is published: 1934.
"Margin of safety." Mull those words. Now apply them to your stock portfolio. Benjamin Graham would have wanted it that way.
Born Benjamin Grossbaum in London in 1894, Graham emigrates to America with his family a year later. By 1934, he's teaching evening classes to Depression-wearied business students at New York's Columbia University and joins fellow prof David L. Dodd in writing the seminal guide to value investing, Security Analysis.
Graham's bracingly simple philosophy hinges on those three little words, margin of safety. That means you buy stocks trading at a significant discount to their intrinsic value. To be extra safe, you buy stocks worth at least 50% more than they cost. You skip the high price-to-earnings ratios, the swollen price-to-book ratios. Graham popularizes the concept of valuation, and value, as guiding forces of investing.
The much-married, womanizing Graham's prudence (at least in finance) would inspire many to follow his teachings, perhaps most famously Warren Buffett, the billionaire Nebraskan more closely associated with the word oracle than Larry Ellison. Value investing would remain in sharp conflict with the headlong, and lately vastly profitable, chase after growth at all costs, but millions of investors would be more than content with the minimized risks and steady rewards of the Graham way.
61. Hoover Dam is completed: March 1, 1936.
The greatest American engineering feat of the century, Hoover Dam harnesses the power of the Colorado River and opens up the Southwest for major settlement and development.
60. The California asbestos lawsuits: October 1978.
Workers at Todd Shipyard and Long Beach Naval Shipyard in Southern California file a class-action suit seeking all profits -- estimated at $1 billion -- made since 1938 by 15 of the nation's major asbestos manufacturers. The largest asbestos manufacturer, onetime Dow component Johns Manville, would declare bankruptcy in 1982. By 1995, despite thousands of settlements, the total number of suits would be about half a million, and claims wouldn't be over.
But most of the money would go to the lawyers, not the victims. Soon, class actions would become a staple of American law, giving victims of dangerous products legal recourse (or giving greedy trial lawyers a way to get rich at the expense of blameless companies, depending on which side you're on).
59. Wall Street's fixed commissions end: May 1, 1975.
Pushed by the Justice Department, the Securities and Exchange Commission ends the price-fixing practice by brokers of charging 1% on all transactions. Wall Streeters argue that the Four Horsemen will gallop up Wall Street at any moment. And it briefly seems like they might be right. By the end of 1975, 35 brokerage firms disappear, though most of them are pretty dinky.
But guess what: Volume soars. (Price down equals demand up. Economics is funny that way.) In 1975, in the middle of a sucking bear market, average daily volume on the New York Stock Exchange is about 20 million shares. In 1999, that figure would be 823 million.
The end of fixed commissions brings about Charles Schwab, the giant of discounting, which by 1998 would record $2.74 billion in revenue and $348 million in net income and a market cap in 1999 of about $46 billion, more than Merrill Lynch. And don't forget the online brokers, which will make everyone who touches a computer rich beyond his or her wildest dreams.
58. Morgan consolidates U.S. Steel: 1901.
J. Pierpont Morgan's creation of U.S. Steel takes robber barony to a whole new level. Morgan adds several small steel companies to his own steel holdings and persuades Andrew Carnegie to sell his massive company to the new trust, which at a capitalization of $1.4 billion is the world's first billion-dollar company. U.S. Steel (today known as USX-U.S. Steel Group) controls 65% of U.S. steel output and further focuses the kind of negative attention on giant trusts that leads to the trustbusting of the early 20th century.
57. Calpers promotes shareholder activism: 1984.
The California Public Employees Retirement System, the nation's largest public pension system, in 1984 officially turns its sights on the boardroom. It fights back against cushy poison pill antitakeover plans and directors' willingness to dole out greenmail -- buying corporate raiders out at a premium to the market price.
Calpers begins pressuring underperforming companies, including Gillette, Avon and Texaco. In the early 1990s, it begins publishing an annual list of "focus companies," the biggest losers in its portfolio, pushing board members to produce better results or risk a "no" vote at re-election time. In doing so, Calpers becomes a symbol of shareholder activism: If you're mad as hell (and own enough stock), you don't have to take it anymore.
56. Eisenhower signs the act creating NASA: July 29, 1958.
Those dang Russkies put that gosh-darn Sputnik into orbit and we have to do something. So President Dwight Eisenhower inks the National Aeronautics and Space Act, creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Over the next 40 years the U.S. space program would put a man on the moon and contribute to advances in computer science, weather research, communications technology and lots of other good stuff. Total cost: a mere $14 billion annually (and far too many photo ops for John Glenn).
55. ADM becomes the world's largest linseed oil maker: 1923.
The newly formed Archer Daniels Midland has nine mills and 334 linseed oil presses, on its way to becoming a price-fixing agribusiness giant and home to David Brinkley in his sunset years. The same year, Cargill purchases Taylor & Bournique Co., a major Eastern grain-merchandising firm with a private wire system, establishing Cargill's first communications link with markets in the East. Cargill would become one of the largest private companies in the U.S.
The rise of Cargill and ADM mirrors the fall of the family farm and the long, slow death of rural America. In 1900, almost 38% of the country's workers are farmers. There are 5.7 million farms averaging 147 acres. In 1990, only 2.6% of the labor force tills the land. There are only 2.1 million farms, but the average acreage has risen to 461.
54. Watts explodes in race riots: August 1965.
Touched off by a DWI traffic stop, race riots erupt in Los Angeles' Watts neighborhood as African-Americans vent long-simmering anger about dire conditions in the inner city. Thirty-four people are killed and more than 1,000 injured. Scores of businesses and jobs destroyed in the violence would never return, while white support for civil rights would drop off sharply, exacerbating the decline of Watts and other inner-city neighborhoods, which even today remain isolated from the economic and business success going on around them.
53. The New Yorker serializes Silent Spring: June 1962.
Rachel Carson's landmark treatise Silent Spring, on the dangers of toxic chemicals and pollutants, gives rise to a second wave of muckraking. Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed, a denunciation of the Chevrolet Corvair's nasty habit of flipping over -- "stylistic pornography over engineering integrity," he says -- would be published in 1965. A decade of consumer protection and federal regulation would follow, including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1970. The Clean Air and Clean Water acts would come later, as well as the Freedom of Information Act in 1974.
52. Charles Merrill re-creates Merrill Lynch: 1940.
"Good Time Charlie" Merrill, high-living financier and playboy, is the driving force behind one of the most transformative trends ever to hit Wall Street: the democratization of investing. In 1940, Merrill merges Merrill Lynch with E.A. Pierce & Cassatt, the firm to which he'd sold Merrill Lynch's retail brokerage and branches in 1930. He then adopts a focus on the customer that builds the new Merrill into the largest U.S. brokerage and gets thousands, then millions, of Americans a share of the stock market's riches.
51. The baby boom begins: 1946.
Randy GIs return from WWII, and nine months later the navel-gazing generation begins. The boomers would impose their (questionable) taste upon all walks of life, from Schwinn bikes in the '50s, to love beads in the '60s, all the way to Internet stocks and SUVs today.
50. The Agricultural Adjustment Act is signed: May 12, 1933.
President Franklin Roosevelt signs the Agricultural Adjustment Act in an effort to end the terrible poverty that has visited farms in the wake of the Great Depression. The act, which creates price supports and controls on crop production, succeeds, at the cost of turning those hardy Jeffersonian farmers into dependents of the federal government long after the Depression has passed.
49. Levittown opens: October 1947.
William Levitt builds suburbia, and they come. The houses are small and uniform, but for GIs just back from the war and families used to grimy tenements, they're heaven. And they're cheap, running $8,000 to $10,000 each. Levitt sells 300 homes in his Long Island, N.Y., development in the first weekend and 17,000 in four years, marking Levittown as an enormous financial success and speeding a suburban explosion that extends from New York to Los Angeles.
Sadly, Levitt doesn't let equal rights get in the way of his quest to build the perfect tract house. His early contracts explicitly bar homeowners from allowing their properties "to be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race."
48. Hospital Corp. of America is founded: 1968.
Doctors don't make enough money.
Dr. Thomas F. Frist Sr., his Air Force surgeon son and Jack Massey (former head of Kentucky Fried Chicken) start HCA in 1968 to rectify that sorry state. Eventually HCA, the first investor-owned hospital chain, would merge with Columbia to form Columbia/HCA Healthcare. It would become the largest operator of hospital chains in the country, until it is brought low in a major Medicare bilking scandal.
The door to for-profit health care businesses is opened, not to close again. The health maintenance organization comes a few years later, when President Richard Nixon, worried about health-care inflation, persuades Congress to provide grants encouraging the establishment of HMOs. The law also opens the corporate door for HMOs by requiring any company offering health-care insurance to its workers to offer an HMO option.
47. The savings-and-loan crisis peaks: 1988.
S&Ls were never such a good idea. Using short-term liabilities (depositors' savings accounts) to finance long-term assets (mortgages) is a roadmap for disaster, and the inflation of the 1970s provides the necessary gas for the ride to receivership. By the early 1980s, 73 S&Ls go under, costing the federal fund that insures S&Ls close to $2 billion.
Unfortunately, rather than dealing with the crunch, your friendly representatives in Washington choose to look the other way and loosen regulations. With little to lose, the S&Ls pile on bad loan after bad loan, hoping to lend their way to profitability. Losses increase further because S&Ls, which for two generations had been run by the dumbest guys in the banking business, are suddenly given the chance to make all manner of commercial loans. A Texas office park here and a Florida hotel there, and we're suddenly talking real money.
By 1988, it's clear that the deregulation of the early '80s was a huge mistake, and hundreds of S&Ls (and commercial banks, which are facing their own problems) will have to be shut down. In 1988, 190 S&Ls fail, at a total cost of more than $46 billion, far outstripping the reserves in the federal insurance fund. U.S. taxpayers make up the difference. In all, taxpayers pay $132 billion to fix the S&L crisis -- instead of the $20 billion or so resolving it in the early '80s would have cost.
Still, things could have been worse. While the crisis would be expensive, it would be largely resolved by the early '90s, and the U.S. financial industry would be healthy going forward. The Japanese can only look on enviously.
46. AT&T is dismantled: Jan. 1, 1984. Forced by the Justice Department and Judge Harold Green to give up its monopoly status, American Telephone & Telegraph splits up into a long-distance company (today's AT&T) and the regional Bells. The move opens up competition in the long-distance market, thereby introducing the term "slamming" into the English lexicon and giving new endorsement opportunities to washed-up celebrities everywhere.
45. Reagan fires federal air traffic controllers: August 1981.
President Ronald Reagan fires 11,000 members of the air traffic controllers' union, demonstrating that the power once wielded by labor unions in America has waned. Of course, years of deindustrialization and repeated scandals involving organized crime had already greatly weakened the nation's once-mighty union movement.
For most of the next two decades, unions would remain on the defensive. But by the late 1990s, a new wave of union leaders would step up spending on recruitment in an effort to avoid marginalization. In 1998, union membership would grow by 101,000 workers, the largest increase in five years.
44. U.S. immigration peaks: 1907.
Call 'em strivers searching for a better life. Or, if you prefer, just call 'em cheap labor. Either way, immigrants have provided a vital spark to the U.S. economy throughout this century. Their influence peaks before World War I, when a flood of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe powers the growth of New York and the other new metropolises of the Northeast and Midwest, helping turn the U.S. into the world's foremost industrial nation. Immigration tops out in 1907, when more than 1 million European immigrants pass through New York's Ellis Island.
43. FDR signs the GI Bill of Rights: June 22, 1944.
The GI Bill makes college and advanced training possible for millions of vets, dramatically increasing the education level and skills of the U.S. labor force. The DeVry Institute would pick up the slack 40 years later.
42. The Jungle is published: 1906.
Though it's a maudlin novel and a Zola rip-off, Upton Sinclair's muckraking contribution has an almost immediate impact. The government would pass that year the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, which would pave the way for the Food and Drug Administration but strangely have no effect on the advent of Velveeta.
The Jungle marks the peak of the first wave of muckraking journalism, which galvanizes public outrage over the excesses and lawlessness that mar American business at the turn of the century. By World War I, pressure from the muckrakers, and their political counterparts, the Progressives, would have led to government protection of natural resources, the creation of public utility commissions and the enactment of labor laws.
41. Coca-Cola becomes a global brand: World War II.
Coca-Cola President Robert Woodruff decides he'd like to sell the world a Coke and starts with the U.S. armed services for a plug nickel a bottle. World conquest and a succession of schmaltzy commercial jingles swiftly follow.
40. The OPEC oil shock: 1973-74.
Angered at the West's support of Israel in the Arab-Israeli War, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia in October 1973 sanctions an oil embargo by the powerful Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. The countries, including pals like Iran, Iraq, Kuwait and Nigeria, keep much of the world at their mercy for five months, with effects stretching well beyond. Among the most significant: Sammy Hagar's I Can't Drive 55.
The quadrupling of oil prices that would result from the embargo sends inflation soaring, throwing the U.S. and much of the West into a gas-line-laden recession. Vast Detroit land boats are relegated to history's scrapheap and the extremely useful Department of Energy is created a few years later.
39. The Marshall Plan: June 5, 1947.
Two years after the end of World War II, Europe teeters on the brink of chaos. While the U.S. booms, Europeans face rationing for basics like bread. In Britain, fishing fleets are kept in port for lack of fuel. In Germany, the economy seems to slide toward subsistence farming and the Middle Ages. Threats of starvation and Communism loom over Western Europe.
So Secretary of State George C. Marshall gives a speech. But not just any speech. Marshall offers "substantial" U.S. assistance to help Europe rebuild after World War II. "The remedy lies in ... restoring the confidence of the European people in the economic future of their own countries and of Europe as a whole."
With more than its usual foresight, Congress rapidly agrees, and from mid-1948 to 1951, the U.S. pours $13 billion worth of economic support and technical expertise into Europe. (That's almost $100 billion in 1999 dollars.) The aid gives Europe an immediate boost, spurring new investment and pulling the Continent out of its slump.
38. The Berlin Wall falls, heralding the triumph of market capitalism: 1989.
Just as the "shot heard round the world" initiated the Revolutionary War that eventually freed America from British control (and taxes), the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 ignites a revolution for American business. With the end of the Cold War, huge potential markets emerge from the yoke of Soviet domination, eager to embrace Western-style capitalism, even including Taco Bells. In other words, the Rapture comes 11 years earlier than expected.
U.S. companies such as Coca-Cola, McDonald's, General Electric and Microsoft would bum-rush into the new "emerging" markets of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union hoping to tap new reservoirs of customers. For better and worse, American (and capitalistic) values would follow.
37. Wage stagnation starts: 1970s.
The U.S. economy has grown strongly over the last two decades, but the prosperity hasn't been shared equally. The statistics are unequivocal: While the income of the richest Americans would soar beginning in 1979, the poor would actually see their earnings decline. In fact, between 1979 and 1997, the average inflation-adjusted income of the richest 5% of Americans would rise to $235,000 from $148,000, a 58% increase, while the average income earned by the poorest 20% of Americans would fall to $12,000 from $13,000.
Wage stagnation is more an effect than a cause of broader trends in the economy, from the decline of unions to increased immigration of unskilled workers to technological advances that have eliminated low-skill (but decent-paying) jobs. Still, attention must be paid; overwhelming economic gaps tend to cause widespread social unrest. (See Russia, circa 1918, or Indonesia, circa 1999.) Fortunately, in the late 1990s, this trend would begin to turn, as an ultratight job market finally would lift wages at the bottom of the ladder.
36. The Supreme Court orders the breakup of Standard Oil: May 15, 1911.
In an 8-1 ruling, the Supreme Court affirms the government's right to limit corporate power, ordering everyone's favorite monopoly split into 34 different companies. But shed no tears for Roc-a-fella, who would grow even richer after the breakup when shares in Standard Oil's newly traded subsidiaries doubled and tripled in their first days of trading.
35. New York's WEAF broadcasts the first radio ad: 1922 Though there's vague evidence of some program sponsorship before this, the first ad on a commercial radio station (then called toll broadcasting) is on WEAF in New York -- a 15-minute spot for a Queens real estate development. In the years to come, broadcast ads would evolve in sophistication and cleverness, culminating in the groundbreaking "Swedish Bikini Team" TV commercials for Old Milwaukee in 1991.
34. President Ford signs ERISA into law: Sept. 2, 1974.
The bill introduces the trippingly memorable phrase "401(k)" to the lexicon. Before President Gerald Ford signs the Employee Retirement Income Security Act into law, most workers have their money in company-managed pension plans that focus on stable, conservative investments. The plans offer predefined benefits, but many workers who leave companies before age 65 -- regardless of their years of toil -- forfeit their pensions entirely.
ERISA creates safeguards to retirement plans and opens the door to the 401(k) plan, created in 1980 by R. Theodore Benna, a benefits consultant and probably not the ideal dinner-party guest. The 401(k) is a defined contribution plan. You put in the dough and you get the returns when you retire, or you take it with you when you leave one company for another.
Defined contribution plans would lead to a massive flow of money into stock mutual funds and the market, pushing up demand for stocks and contributing to the bull market of the '80s and '90s. Until 2010 or so, that is, when the baby boomers all cash out their retirement plans and the market cracks like the transaxle on a '79 Chevette.
33. The Supreme Court allows gene patenting: 1980.
In 1980, the Supreme Court rules that an oil-eating micro-organism from Exxon could be patented. Before that it wasn't clear whether genetically altered life forms could be owned. Owned. That means, for one, that our friends Cohen and Boyer (see No. 67) can get a patent on their recombinant DNA techniques. Gene therapy, all sorts of genetic engineering -- verily, the biotech industry -- rise like Frankenstein's monster.
32. Xerox founds its Palo Alto Research Center: 1970. Xerox, flush with photocopier gilt, sets up PARC to research electronic materials and devices. The center gives rise to innovations like early personal computers, the Ethernet connectivity standard (which helps computers talk to one another), flat-panel displays and advances in laser printing and computer languages. PARC's inventions and improvements touch virtually every corner of technology but, incredibly, Xerox manages to not capitalize on most of them.
31. The Civil Rights Act: 1964.
Among its other antibias provisions, this landmark legislation (proposed by Lyndon Johnson as a tribute to the slain JFK) outlaws race- and gender-based employment discrimination at any business with more than 25 employees. It also establishes the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission to review complaints, giving the federal government a new role in the hiring and firing process.
In theory, this means minorities and women will get a better shot at the corner office. Though the legislation removes important barriers, more than 30 years later, the Fortune 500 would include just two female CEOs ( Mattel's Jill Barad and Golden West Financial's Marion Sandler) and one black CEO ( Fannie Mae's Franklin Raines). But the debate would only continue and expand, as discrimination against homosexuals and the disabled as well as sexual harassment become issues for businesses to grapple with.
30: Toys R Us revives employee stock options: 1978.
Emerging out of the 1978 bankruptcy of Interstate Department Stores, an obscure New Jersey retailer called Toys R Us offers its executives and store managers stock options as an incentive to stick around. Options had been around for decades; Benjamin Graham, of all people (see No. 62), satirically predicted their utility in the '30s. But a stagnant stock market and changes in tax laws have caused them to fall into disuse.
That would change when Toys R Us stock skyrocketed, turning the company's options into a giant windfall for Chairman Charles Lazarus and other top executives. During the 1980s, Lazarus would be the highest-paid CEO in America, earning $156 million, almost twice as much as Warner Communications Chairman Steven Ross, the No. 2. Greedy executives everywhere take notice, making stock options as American as corporate jets. Over the next decade, literally hundreds of billions of dollars in wealth would pass from public shareholders to company executives and managers.
The good news: Over time, options would trickle down the corporate ladder, especially in Silicon Valley, making programmers and secretaries as wildly overpaid as the chieftains for whom they toil. But don't even get us started on repricing.
29. The Bretton Woods agreement: 1944.
Bretton Woods establishes the postwar New World Order. The accord, reached at a meeting in Bretton Woods, N.H., goes into effect in 1947. It creates a currency agreement that establishes fixed exchange rates for major currencies and sets the price of gold at $35 an ounce. The agreement would control currency relationships for nearly 30 years. The agreement also starts the International Monetary Fund and what would become known as the World Bank, rendering emerging countries dependent on the blessings of Moody's and Standard & Poor's.
28. Three Bell Labs scientists invent the transistor: 1947.
The transistor, probably the century's biggest " Bell Labs innovation," is made of semiconductor material and can act as both conductor and insulator for electric current. It would replace the larger, unwieldy and less-reliable vacuum tubes in radios, televisions and computers, transforming the electronics industry and making it possible for boombox-wielding teenagers to disturb the peace everywhere.
27. The first DC-3 flight: Dec. 17, 1935.
The DC-1 isn't bad. The DC-2 is even better. But the DC-3 is da bomb, the plane that revolutionizes commercial air travel. Built by Douglas Commercial, the twin-engined prop can carry 21 passengers more than 1,000 miles at a speedy 170 mph. It becomes an instant success after its first test flight in Santa Monica, Calif.
Within six months, American Airlines is flying the DC-3 commercially, and over the next 10 years, Douglas builds more than 10,000 DC-3s and C-47s (the plane's military version). Famous for its reliability, the plane quickly becomes the linchpin of the U.S. commercial airline fleet, and within three years, the vast majority of all U.S. passenger flights are flown on DC-3s.
With the advent of jet aircraft, the plane would lose its place in the passenger fleet, but some 60 years later more than 1,000 DC-3s would remain in service around the world. The sturdy prop would even outlast its manufacturer, which would become part of Boeing. (Arthur Raymond, the plane's designer, would prove pretty reliable himself. He would die in March 1999 at age 99.)
26. The first Japanese car, a Toyota, is sold in the U.S.: 1957. As stylistically different from the behemoth U.S.-made sedans as Oscar De La Hoya is from George Foreman, Japanese cars would gain popularity amid the 1970s concern about energy conservation. Though the U.S. auto industry would first try to combat the flood of Hondas with patriotic bumper stickers, asserting that buying American ranks right up there with loving one's mother and not burning the flag, it would soon figure out that building higher-quality and lower-priced cars would be an even more successful strategy. Eventually, General Motors and its kin would adopt many of the design and production standards originated in Asia.
25. A Merck scientist synthesizes streptomycin: September 1943.
In late 1943, Selman Waksman, a Ukrainian under contract with Merck, discovers the treatment for tuberculosis from an infected chicken gizzard. It isn't the first antibiotic, but it gives rise to the modern drug industry.
Streptomycin is the first drug deliberately discovered by natural screening processes, the chief manner in which pharmaceuticals are discovered until the biotechnological revolution of the late 1970s and 1980s. Merck owns the exclusive right to streptomycin but gives it up at the urging of Waksman. Two years after World War II, the two big antibiotics commercially developed by Merck, penicillin and streptomycin, account for half the sales of synthesized drugs. But Merck isn't the biggest seller of antibiotics. Merck is the innovator, Pfizer the marketer; it's a pattern that would persist more than 50 years later.
24. Volcker becomes Fed chairman: August 1979.
"Money matters," Milton Friedman has been saying since the 1950s, pleading the case for the importance of monetary policy in the business cycle and inflation. It takes a while, but people finally listen. In 1976, he wins the Nobel Prize for his work, and in 1979, his ideas get put into practice when Paul Volcker becomes chairman of the Federal Reserve, replacing the ineffective G. William Miller.
Volcker's mission is to squash the double-digit price increases that are crippling the economy. His elegant solution: open up a can of monetary whupass on inflation by raising interest rates. It works, though the painful tradeoff is a 10% unemployment rate and massive recession. Alan Greenspan is appointed Fed chairman in 1987 and continues the inflation fatwah -- though he has his own minirecession in 1990-91.
As the 1990s would progress and the economy would rebound with no signs of higher prices, pundits would begin to talk about the death of inflation, crediting the Fed's vigilance (and its resulting credibility in the financial markets) as well as warm fuzzies like technology-inspired higher productivity rates. Whatever the cause, the facts speak for themselves: The U.S. economy is still humming along, unemployment is at near-record lows and prices aren't climbing. For that, the Friedman-Volcker-Greenspan trifecta deserves a hand.
23. The first commercial television broadcast: April 20, 1939.
As the age of industrialization dawned in the 19th century, inventors and philosophers alike looked forward to a new era in human history. For the first time, more than a privileged few among us would be released from the toil of striving endlessly to produce life's most basic necessities. The threescore-and-ten we spend on this mortal coil would become a time for leisure and contemplation, a pleasant freedom from work.
Nobody quite realized how bored we'd get.
Fortunately, David Sarnoff, president of Radio Corp. of America (see No. 75) and a huckster for all time, steps up to solve the problem. While Sarnoff doesn't invent television -- that honor goes to Philo Farnsworth, a proto-dork in San Francisco -- he is the first to see its endless commercial possibilities, and through the '30s spent millions of dollars to make television a reality. Finally, after a decade of feverish research, Sarnoff and RCA are ready to offer television to the world. Always a showman, he picks the 1939 World's Fair in New York to make his demonstration.
The response would surpass even Sarnoff's greatest expectations. While World War II would slow the adoption of television, within a decade 7 million sets would be in use in the U.S., and by 1960, the box would be a part of nearly every American home. Broadcast television would become a $40 billion industry, drive the growth of practically every other medium, provide a platform to develop national brands quickly and efficiently, and provide an insatiable demand for vacuous, buff twentysomethings. And, of course, NBC's Manimal.
22. Bank of America launches the first credit card: September 1958.
Sears has been granting credit since about 1910, and by 1958, many Americans have a variety of individual charge cards. Diners Club exists, but you have to pay that off every month. The credit idea is floating around, but Bank of America is the first to do it and get it right: In September 1958, it mails out the first buy-stuff-at-more-than-one-place or get-a-loan-from-it credit card to its customers in Fresno, Calif. Credit limits are $300 to $500. Loans are offered at a rate of 18% a year.
The ruination of America wouldn't happen. But millions would go deep into debt, pay usurious APRs and suffer bad credit. Then again, Americans' buying habits would be forever altered, leading to massive consumer spending and booming economic growth. Finally, Americans would be able to rent cars, call at midnight for the Tae Bo video and get frequent flier miles simply for buying that new cappuccino maker.
21. Microsoft is tapped to provide the IBM operating system: 1981.
William H. Gates III, a nice young nerd from a good family, licenses his company's computer operating system, called "Quick and Dirty Operating System" and renamed MS-DOS, to International Business Machines. IBM cedes control of the license for all non-IBM personal computers. This is not a good decision.
Microsoft goes on to "improve" everything Apple ever comes up with and Gates becomes really rich.
20. President Johnson signs Medicare into law: July 30, 1965.
Between assignations, President John F. Kennedy in 1963 sends a bill to Congress to create Medicare, a medical-hospital insurance plan financed through Social Security. First envisioned by President Harry S. Truman, the plan provides for low-cost hospitalization and medical insurance for the elderly. It isn't passed till the middle of 1965, when it becomes a pillar of President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. By 1998, Medicare would cover 37 million people and spend over $200 billion annually, providing one-fifth of all the money spent on U.S. health care.
In the early '80s, Medicare would be "reformed" with the institution of a fixed-price system under which diseases are put into payment categories. The new system is supposed to reduce hospital stays and cut down on extraneous tests and treatments. The changes would bring about the overhaul of the heretofore mom-and-pop health-care system, spurring the for-profit health-care industry (see No. 48): hospital chains, new forms of insurance concerns under the managed care umbrella, groups of physicians banding together to increase their pricing power, health-care information services concerns.
These industries only partially succeed in consistently making money, but they would turn the routine check-up into an adventure in cajoling the generalist into allowing you to see the specialist, completing convoluted paperwork and navigating eye-popping billing.
19. The Depression-era securities laws: 1932-34.
After President Franklin Roosevelt makes stock-and-bond-market reform one of his election promises, he and Congress unleash a flurry of legislation designed to make sure everyone in the market sandbox plays fair. The Glass-Steagall Act of 1932 lets the Treasury Department balance its books, while the Bank Act of 1933 -- since then confusingly known as Glass-Steagall, which even more confusingly should actually be pronounced to rhyme with (Steven) Seagal, not "seagull" -- says bankers are bankers, brokers are brokers, and ne'er the twain shall meet. The law is intended to prevent banks from speculating with their depositors' money, but it would eventually be considered a barrier to the one-stop financial shopping malls that companies like Citigroup are panting to provide. Congress would swear to change it every term then get preoccupied with more important things, like impeachment.
The Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 introduce the term "full disclosure" into the lexicon (requiring publicly owned companies to register their shares and reveal every financial wart and mole at least once a quarter), and ban insider trading. The 1934 legislation also creates the Securities and Exchange Commission to enforce the whole mess of new laws, though the complaint would be heard that SEC regulators are more archaeologists than detectives.
18. Netscape goes public: Aug. 9, 1995.
The World Wide Web takes a great leap forward with Netscape's IPO, just 16 months after the company's founding. Morgan Stanley prices the young browser maker's stock at $28 a share, having boosted its expected range to $21 to $24 from $12 to $14. Netscape soars to 75 intraday and closes at 58 1/4, leaving goggled-eyed brokers babbling, "They think it's the next Microsoft!"
Netscape itself (today part of America Online) wouldn't quite live up to that label, but its startling debut would blast the Web into the forefront of public -- and corporate -- consciousness. The years that follow would spawn a tornado of business and technology development, forming billion-dollar companies (and multimillion-dollar failures) in the hyper-compressed span known as Internet time.
The Web would have major effects on commerce, communications, education and public discourse, yet still the massive industry would be built almost entirely on dreams. But those dreams are so vast that they promise to forever alter business and daily life if they come just a little bit true.
17. Bakelite is introduced: 1909. Belgian-born Leo Baekeland spends three years early in the century trying to invent a versatile, synthetic material with multiple industrial uses. In 1907 he creates polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride, phenol-formaldehyde for short, Bakelite for even shorter. Baekeland formally introduces his invention, the world's first 100% synthetic plastic (as opposed to the partly organic celluloid), at a 1909 meeting of the New York chapter of the American Chemical Society. And now? It's a staple of antique fairs. And those of you who've spent a week of your lives without touching plastic (and aren't the Unabomber) can write to TSC for a shiny new credit card, with a fat credit line (just kidding, you hermits).
16. Hewlett and Packard put Silicon in the Valley: 1939.
Like any great rock 'n' roll band should, it all started with a couple of college kids banging around in a garage. Bill Hewlett and David Packard, blustering with Stanford swagger, take to an old shed at 367 Addison Ave. in Palo Alto, Calif., to build an electronic measuring device called an audio oscillator, "Model 200A."
In this 45-mile, hilly strip of land between San Francisco and San Jose, Hewlett-Packard begins a tradition of cutting-edge technology companies that have a couple of things in common -- screw-the-rules ideas, a Stanford connection and entrepreneurial, irreverent inventors too young or too stupid to think that it couldn't be done. Years later, when Steve Jobs and Stephen Wozniak take to a Los Altos garage to invent a personal computer, Apple already has its role models. So do Jerry Yang and David Filo, who start a computer list in their Stanford dorm room that becomes Yahoo!.
But these ventures have more in common than shared climate and fecund garages. Advances in technology become a cause for community pride. A culture develops in this burgeoning "Silicon Valley" to reward dedication to craft, not company. People are encouraged to start new ventures. Co-workers quickly become clients, and a competitive, cooperative network is born to encourage entrepreneurs. "Do lunch," says Stanford alum and Sun Microsystems head Scott McNealy. "Or be lunch."
Today $5 billion -- or a third of all venture capital raised in the world -- is invested in Silicon Valley, and much of that funding is local. As grows the valley, so grows the valley.
15. Kroc buys McDonald's: 1961.
While hawking food mixers in 1954, Ray Kroc is entranced by two of his customers: the McDonald brothers, whose San Bernardino, Calif., restaurant serves cheap burgers, fries and shakes. (And unlike the burger joints du jour, McDonald's isn't a drive-through). Kroc sees an expanded McDonald's as a great way to sell more of his mixers, and when the Brothers McD. wonder who's going to handle all these new restaurant openings, he offers his services. He buys them out in 1961, for $2.7 million, which ranks right up there with the sweet deal the Dutch scored for Manhattan, and kicks off an massive expansion. Though not the first modern entrepreneur to make his fortune by franchising (that nod goes to Isaac Singer, of sewing machine fame), he's certainly among the most notable successes, paving the way for businesses from Domino's to Century 21.
By 1963, Ronald McDonald would don his stripy socks, and just two years later, he'd be recognized by 96% of American children, giving an early glimpse of the company's gargantuan brand power. Of course, its ubiquity would turn the "Mc" prefix into shorthand for mass produced, cookie-cutter products. Eventually, McDonald's would take its formula abroad, attracting job-and-burger-seeking crowds in the good times (post-Communist Moscow) and rocks through its windows in bad (China -- right now).
The food seems beside the point, though nutritionists would blame the fast-food revolution for America's increasingly porky populace. Taste would take the back seat to familiarity. McDonald's would become the ultimate safe haven; in every corner of the globe, the sight of the Golden Arches would signal a known culinary quantity for suburban families with screaming kids, Eurailpass-toting grads sick of escargot and frazzled workers on 15-minute lunch breaks. But even fast food palates have some degree of discrimination. Witness the career arc of the Arch Deluxe.
14. The United Auto Workers stage their first sit-down strikes: 1936-37.
Following the Wagner Act of 1935, which requires U.S. employers to recognize their workers' collective bargaining efforts, the United Auto Workers' new muscle results in sit-down strikes in Flint, Mich. It forces General Motors to recognize the upstart union. Union power, measured by the percentage of the population represented by a union, would grow for two decades. Its peak: 1955, when the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations join forces and one-third of all American workers are union members.
The rise of unions would give unskilled and semiskilled industrial workers a chance to reach America's middle class, but their increasing power would come at a price. By the late 1970s, the web of work rules and high wages they created would hamper smokestack industries facing competitors from low-wage countries like Mexico and more efficient producers like Japan. Union leaders would stonewall necessary changes, destroying millions of jobs in order to save them. The resulting backlash -- fed by business leaders and their willing political handmaidens -- would erode labor's power. By 1999, just 1 in 10 private sector workers would be unionized (No. 42).
13. Kennan's 'X' letter gives birth to the peacetime military-industrial complex: 1947.
Before Malcolm X, or the X Games, there was Mr. X, the coolest X of 'em all. In the aftermath of World War II, Americans slowly begin to realize that Joe Stalin has more in common with Adolf than with Winston. The right wing is hot to nuke Moscow while we have the chance, while the left decides that maybe purges and mock trials aren't so bad after all. It falls to Mr. X, a.k.a. George Kennan, writing anonymously, to offer a plan that ultimately would become the U.S. blueprint for the Cold War.
In the July 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs, Kennan, the head of the policy planning staff of the State Department, advocates the "containment" of the Soviet Union. He argues that the Communist system would ultimately collapse under its own weight if the U.S. and its democratic allies barred Moscow's further expansion.
Events would prove Kennan right, though the process took more than four decades, far longer than he expected. In the interim, the U.S. would spend trillions of dollars on the Cold War, conscripting tens of millions of American men into the military and employing millions more indirectly at the companies that built the weapons to support the war machine. Along the way, the military-industrial complex would arm much of the Third World, including some countries that would remain distinctly unfriendly to the U.S. well after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Added Cold War bonus: the Internet, which was strongly supported in its early days by your friends at the Pentagon (when Al Gore Jr. is still smoking dope).
12. Keynes publishes The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money: 1936.
The greatest business catastrophe of the 20th century, the Great Depression, is in full swing when British economist John Maynard Keynes gives government policymakers worldwide a tip: When demand is collapsing, when one in four able-bodied adults is unemployed, when farmers are destroying their crops because no one can afford to buy them, balancing the budget should be the last thing on your minds. Unfortunately, this advice sails right by, and it takes an unplanned event (that would be World War II) to provide the extraordinary government-led stimulus needed to get the U.S. economy out of the Depression.
In his seminal 1936 work, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, Keynes envisions government as a counter-cyclical force, increasing spending and running deficits when the economy is slowing, while cutting back and paying off its debts when times are good. Keynesian theory would spark a fiery response from conservative economists, who argue that government spending is inherently more wasteful than private investment, though plenty of real-world examples suggest otherwise. (Compare, say, the Golden Gate Bridge to the phat wood-paneled Gulfstreams that fill corporate jet fleets.)
But Keynes' theory would suffer from a serious real-world problem of its own. After the war, while Western governments would prove all too ready to stimulate their economies by running deficits and ratcheting up spending, they wouldn't be as willing to follow the second half of Keynes' advice by cutting back in boom times. As a result, they would run chronic deficits, eventually causing huge government debts, driving up inflation and interest rates, and crowding out private investment. Only in the early 1990s, as debts reached crisis proportions in the U.S. and Western Europe, would politicians finally step away from the trough of deficit spending.
Even so, Keynes would remain the century's most influential economist.
11. Reagan is elected: 1980.
Are you better off today than you were 19 years ago?
Whatever your answer, Ronald Reagan deserves some of the credit.
For four decades following the Great Depression and FDR's election in 1932, the majority of Americans view Washington as a necessary counterweight to the free market's excesses. But that perception sours in the 1970s, thanks to Vietnam, Watergate, rising inflation and a stagnant economy. Once the solution, government is increasingly perceived as the problem.
Reagan's landslide 1980 win over Jimmy Carter crystallizes that dissatisfaction, marking a revolution in the way Americans see government. The ramifications would touch just about every aspect of Washington's relationship with the economy. Under Reagan, Congress would make the tax code simpler and less progressive, largely deregulate the transportation and communication industries and cut domestic spending while increasing spending on the military.
The Reagan election also would lend strength to a new Federalist movement, in which power would devolve to the states. States and municipalities start competing against one another for businesses, doling out handsome tax breaks and other fancy corporate welfare.
But the biggest change of all came from the massive deficits Reagan would run during his administration. The deficit spending, combined with the Federal Reserve's tight-money policies, would make the 1980s a time of great glee for lenders, who would watch real interest rates soar after being depressed by the inflation of the '70s. Meanwhile, labor would suffer, with unions under siege and the minimum wage falling in real terms to the lowest levels since the 1940s.
The impact of the Gipper's deficits would outlast his reign, as President Clinton would learn to his dismay. Hoping to unveil a big new "economic stimulus" package in 1993, the Big Creep would find instead that his first duty would be satisfying the bondholders who held trillions of dollars of U.S. debt. "Do you mean to tell me the success of my program and my re-election hinges on the Federal Reserve and a bunch of fucking bond traders?" Clinton asked his aides, according to Bob Woodward.
The answer: Yes. Thanks to Reagan, we're all Republicans now.
10. Carrier Engineering is founded, beginning the commercialization of air conditioning: 1915.
Willis Carrier and six others found Carrier Engineering Co. 13 years after first testing his "apparatus for treating air" in a Brooklyn printing plant and nine years after patenting it. The company's product: a guarantee to achieve not only the temperature but the humidity levels required by customers. In 1922, Carrier would patent the centrifugal chiller, making it possible to cool off large spaces like stores and movie theaters.Without air conditioning (the term was actually coined in 1906, by textile engineer Stuart Cramer) the growth of temperature-sensitive industries like film, tobacco and textiles would have been difficult, if not impossible. The South and the Southwest would have been far less attractive to settle and develop. There'd be no such thing as a "summer blockbuster" in the movie business. And the deodorant industry would be even bigger than it is now.The business of cool wouldn't stop there. In 1924, Clarence Birdseye would found Birdseye Seafoods after being inspired by the flash-freezing food storage techniques of Inuits in the Arctic. TV dinners would follow.
9. The current bull market begins: August 1982.
It would be hard to imagine in the crisp, thin air of the late-1990s bull market (elev. 11,000), but stocks in the late '70s and early '80s remain mired in a muggy, swamplike bear market just above sea level. Business Week sums it up in its legendary Aug. 13, 1979, cover story, "The Death of Equities: How inflation is killing the stock market." Major foreign currencies, high-grade corporate bonds, gold, houses, farmland, postage stamps -- common stocks have underperformed them all since 1972.
Business Week looks right for exactly three more years. The Dow Jones Industrial Averagebottoms at 776.92 on Aug. 12, 1982. But a steady decline in interest rates, with yields on 13-week Treasuries having eased to 8.6% from nearly 13% in the previous month and a half, finally gets the stock market's attention as banks starting cutting their lending rates. On Aug. 17, stocks break out of the bear market once and for all as the Dow leaps a then-record 38.81, or 4.9%, to 831.24.
A supernova of wealth creation the likes of which the U.S. and the world had never seen would follow. The frightening crash of 1987 (see No. 78) ultimately would look like nothing but a buying opportunity, as the best would be yet to come. Companies tapping the gushing public well for financing, individual investors gaining more financial security than they ever thought possible, Wall Street's brokerages becoming globe-spanning giants of capital movement, the federal deficit disappearing in a flood of tax revenue -- the bull market's effects would touch almost every aspect of American life. Supernovas end as dead stars, sure, but the blinding glow of wealth would keep the focus well away from that unhappy truth.
8. The first Wal-Mart opens: 1962.
Ben Franklin variety store proprietor Sam Walton feels the heat from discount merchandisers, so he creates one of his own. Walton opens Wal-Mart Discount City in Rogers, Ark., in 1962. That same year, S.S. Kresge Co. launches Kmart, F.W. Woolworth starts Woolco and Dayton Hudson begins its Target chain. That sound you hear is the U.S. becoming a service economy.
Wal-Mart bests them all. Starting expansion in 1963, Walton puts his stores on the outskirts of small towns, where there's little competition and he can undercut the stores on Main Street. He rips off other discounters' ideas, is obsessively miserly and studiously red-necked, and in 1992, he would die America's richest man. In the 1990s, Wal-Mart would become the country's biggest retailer and, after the Manpower temp agency, the biggest private employer, surpassing General Motors.
Customers love the everyday low prices, self-service, broad selection and mammoth stores. Sam himself would become a cult-like figure, having instituted a bizarre culture wherein the employees are "associates," the company has a "Wal-Mart" cheer (which begins "Give us a 'W'" and has the cheerers gyrating their hips when they come to the hyphen), and customers are met at the front door by "People Greeters."
Oh, yeah: Sam doesn't like union workers belonging to his club, pays the "associates" paltry wages, gets out of doling out generous benefits packages by limiting his full-time staff and promotes "buying American" while doing a little importing on the side. And Wal-Mart fosters homogeneity and the destruction of the downtown in small towns across the U.S. But at least those TVs and hunting rifles are cheap.
7. Kaiser's World War II shipyards surpass all expectations of production: 1942.
In a note to his boss in 1944, German armaments minister Albert Speer describes the ongoing war as "a contest between two systems of organization." The German style of production seeks variety and perfection; the Americans build generic product at high volume, sometimes at the expense of quality. The Germans early on were the innovators in technology, engineering and metallurgy while the Americans made strides in plant layout, economies of scale and production organization. The American economic revelation was that if you built something to 90% of specifications, not 100%, the boost in output is greater than 10%.
No product is a better symbol of the American wartime "production miracle" than the "Liberty Ship," the Model T of the seas. The thing was 440 feet long and crept along at 10 knots. It could hold 440 tanks, 2,840 jeeps, 230 million rounds of rifle ammo, or 300 freight cars.
And no one builds them better -- er, faster -- than Henry J. Kaiser, the dynamic dabbler of California who creates the factories that are part of the extraordinary production effort that wins the war and brings the country out of the Great Depression. The strides in industrialization would go on to power the economic boom of the '50s.
In 1941, it takes about a year for the East Coast shipyards to build a 10,000-ton Liberty Ship. In 1942, Kaiser's shipyards in Portland, Ore., Vancouver, British Columbia, and Richmond, Calif., get that down to two months. By '43, "Sir Launchalot," as he became known, would build them in two weeks. In November 1942, as a publicity stunt, he has the Robert E. Peary built in four days, 15 hours and 26 minutes. His shipyards (which build a variety of warships) account for about one-third of all the merchant ships launched during the war.
Kaiser ultimately would employ around a quarter of a million in the war years. Kaiser manages to get such extraordinary productivity by paying relatively high wages and giving benefits, like good health care (he invents the nonprofit health maintenance organization) and child care. At the same time, his paternalistic policies antagonize unions, who are jealous of the loyalty he commands.
And to sailors, Kaiser ships could be a nightmare, as they occasionally split down the middle while at sea. But at least we wouldn't be speaking German 50 years later.
6. Ford introduces the assembly line: 1913.
When the Model T comes out in 1908, it costs $850. After 1913, when Ford's Highland Park, Mich., plant begins to use conveyor belts to move parts from worker to worker, the price is cut by more than half.
Marx has predicted the alienation wrought by having the worker make a mere part of the product rather than the whole. But Communism's father doesn't foresee the sneaky genius that is the capitalist mind. When bored workers start leaving the plant, Ford doubles the prevailing wage to $5 a day, shocking the moneyed elite.
The jewel of Ford's new model would be the River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Mich. The giant complex takes in coal, iron ore, rubber and other raw materials and turns out finished automobiles. (Later it is the site of the "Battle of the Overpass," where a 29-year old Walter Reuther and an associate try to distribute United Auto Workers literature and are badly beaten by a Ford goon squad.)
While Ford's methods would revolutionize modern industrial production, his marketing efforts would be less successful. The buying public would reject his imposed conformity, demanding models other than T and colors other than black. In the coming decades, Ford would lose its leading position to innovators like Alfred Sloan's General Motors (See No. 66). And while Henry's business model -- centered on affordable, mass-marketed, mass-produced product -- would dominate American industry throughout the century, almost 90 years later, consumers would learn to love status symbols and niche marketing and services.
5. Equal pay for equal work: June 10, 1963.
"Help Wanted -- Male."
Until John F. Kennedy signs the Equal Pay Act in 1963, classified ads are full of that perfectly legal prerequisite. Not surprisingly, the job market for women isn't too great; they earn just 59 cents for every dollar earned by men. But the new legislation reverses the practice of paying women less than men for the same job, simply because of their gender. By the first quarter of 1998, women would be earning more than 76 cents for every male dollar -- not perfect, but an improvement.
The law would be only part of the larger cultural phenomenon of second-wave feminism. The same year that Kennedy signs the act, Betty Friedan publishes The Feminine Mystique, her landmark work on the state of the stay-at-home wife and mother. But the Equal Pay Act wouldn't just bring into the labor force women suffering from Friedan's "problem that has no name." It also improves the plight of the women already working not by choice, but because they must. For them, the Equal Pay Act does more than just assuage the boredom of suburban middle class life; it helps support their families.
4. The Great Crash: Oct. 24-29, 1929.
The satirical newspaper The Onion, in its recent book presenting made-up front pages from throughout the 20th century, wasn't too far off from reality in whipping up this gem for Oct. 22, 1929: "Stock Market Invincible; 'Buy, Buy, Buy!' Experts Advise." Here's economist Irving Fisher on Oct. 16 of that year:
Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau. I do not feel that there will soon, if ever, be a 50- or 60-point break below present levels. ... I expect to see the stock market a good deal higher than it is today within a few months.
The 1920s bull market that's produced rip-roaring if ephemeral prosperity in the U.S. is showing its age well before the fateful October. Levels of margin buying have soared, leaving many Wall Street players and ordinary Americans alike deeply in debt on shares that are serving as collateral for themselves. That's not a recipe for disaster; it's a detailed schematic blueprint for disaster.
The final break begins in earnest on Black Thursday, Oct. 24, with New York Stock Exchangestocks plummeting on a record 12.9 million shares. There's a modest recovery on Friday, a short session on Saturday and a 9.3 million-share selloff on Monday, setting the stage for a crescendo of panic selling on Black Tuesday, Oct. 29. NYSE volume hits 16.4 million shares, and the collapse leaves the Dow Jones Industrial Average down 39.6% from its Sept. 3 high. Scores of brokers, speculators and margin investors are ruined; runs on banks begin. By the July 1932 bottom, in the depths of the Great Depression, the Dow is off 89% from its high. It would get back to that 1929 high in due course -- by November 1954.
There would come arguments over whether the Great Crash caused the Depression or just dramatically its signaled its arrival. But indisputably, the debacle all but destroyed Americans' faith in the stock market, leaving it in rubble for decades to come.
3. The Federal Reserve is formed: 1913.
J.P. Morgan dies, and the country needs a replacement. So the U.S. creates an actual central bank.
Congress first considers chartering a privately controlled network of regional reserve banks that would be given governmental powers: control over money flow to local banks in times of crisis and an "elastic" national currency that would expand and contract to meet shifting demand. But the nation is unwilling to cede that much power to a private institution, so President Woodrow Wilson adds a publicly appointed board to supervise the Fed's policy, creating a secretive hybrid of public and private control that would exist in essentially the same form almost 90 years later.
The populists think that the Wilson compromise doesn't go far enough; bankers fear it more. The New York Sun, Wall Street's house organ, attacks the plan as "covered all over with the slime of Bryanism," speaking of populist and anti-gold standard bearer William Jennings Bryan. The bankers think that the government is going to start mucking around in their business. It takes a bit of getting used to for them, but they eventually embrace the system wholeheartedly.
At first, the Fed is not great at controlling the expansion and contractions of the economy. (See the Great Depression.) But the creation of the Fed -- along with Progressive political reforms -- heralds the end of the wild and woolly laissez-faire policies of the 19th century. The federal government now has a direct role in managing the private economy. At the same time that it attempts to protect the public interest, it safeguards the profit motive, the peculiar institution that makes the modern liberal state.
The Fed is supposed to be disinterested and above politics; whether it is would be a great debate throughout the century. By forever removing the power to print money from Congress and the White House, the creation of the Fed would save the U.S. from the bouts of currency-induced hyperinflation that would cripple economies from Germany to Brazil throughout the century.
But that stability would come at a price. In a literal sense, the Fed arguably would become above politics. Toward the end of the century, central bankers and fellow-traveling wonks, more than elected political leaders, would begin to dominate economic policy and come to shape the country and the world.
2. Intel invents the single-chip microprocessor: 1971.
In 1971, Intel develops the 4004, the first chip to contain all the components of a central processing unit. With just 2,300 transistors, the basic on/off switches of computing, the 4004 is pretty primitive, incapable of much more than simple arithmetic. But things would change fast.
In 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore noted that the number of transistors on a single chip appeared to be doubling every two years or so, and that the trend was likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Since computing power increases about as fast as transistor density, Moore's Law, as the prediction became known, posited that chips would get twice as quick every other year.
Moore was right. Within three years, computing speeds would advance enough to make possible the first personal computer, the build-your-own Altair. By the early 1980s, Intel's 80286 chip would offer enough performance to interest people outside the computer industry in PCs, though knowledge of DOS would remain a must. And by the mid-'90s, PCs featuring the so-called "Wintel" operating system (See No. 21) would be essential for businesses and homes worldwide.
Meanwhile, cheap microprocessors would become ubiquitous outside the PC, from coffeemakers to car engines to cell phones to traffic lights. With chips ever faster and cost-per-instruction ever lower, technology would turn into a trillion-dollar industry and the engine of U.S. economic growth. Optimists would predict a future filled with smart products, while pessimists would wonder whether humanity had opened a Pandora's box of soulless artificial intelligence. But the chip would be here to stay, and it would do more to change human existence than any invention since the controlled production of electricity.
1. Eisenhower creates the interstates: June 29, 1956.
Gas is cheap in America, and it's cheap for a reason.
The freedom to move thousands of miles to find a better job or start a new company. The chance to create products for a single vast market, with a single currency, a single language, a single set of laws. As Americans, we take those opportunities for granted. But together, they give the U.S. economy a resilience that Europe and Japan have been unable to match.
For 200 years, America's uncanny ability to reinvent itself, from agrarian nation to industrial powerhouse to leader in technology and medicine, has done more to keep U.S. business vibrant than anything else. And more than any other event in this century, the building of the interstate highway system has enabled that reinvention to continue. The new highways diminish railroads, fertilize the suburbs and cement the elevation of the automobile, with its attendant anonymity and individualism, to the center of American culture and business.
Conceived by President Dwight D. Eisenhower as he rode over the German autobahns as supreme allied commander at the end of World War II, signed into law on June 29, 1956 and built over four decades at a cost of $130 billion, the interstates bind us together even as they free us to move and dream. The frontier hasn't closed; it runs everywhere now, on those quiet, essential lanes of blacktop.
And so in a century filled with big inventions, flashy takeover battles, and fortunes made and lost, the creation of the interstate highway system tops our list as the most important business event of the American century.