2 Disparate But Essential Skills

In the 1880s, as the world was getting ready for electricity, there was a tremendous technological battle going on. Should direct current be used as a standard, or alternating current?

Just saw a good movie detailing this battle, called The Current War. With hindsight, it seems obvious who the winner should have been, and it was the eventual winner – alternating current (for reasons brought out in the movie).

But the movie highlights the battle between direct current’s proponent, Thomas Edison, and alternating current, championed by both George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla.

From what I know of the rivalry it was factual so what I didn’t know I will assume to be factual.

And while the rivalry between Edison and Tesla is fairly well repeated, George Westinghouse generally takes a back seat.

But I believe that Westinghouse and Tesla needed each other for success, and our electrical grid today is a monument to that collaboration.

But one thing that stood out for me in that movie – something that was probably unexpected from Edison’s actor Benedict Cumberbatch or producer Martin Scorsese – was how both Edison and Westinghouse were as excellent salesmen pitching their inventions to the country. There were some pretty dirty and underhanded things done, too.

But  without that sales skill, plenty of wonderful inventions are forgotten by the world today.

And, one more thing to be said without spoiling it – how important the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair was to both camps.

It is worth seeing.

But back to the sales skills – to be both a brilliant inventor and a great salesman are really diametrically opposed skills. And it is rare, I believe, to have both of them. And if you don’t have both, at least have a partner who has the other.

Think Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak who founded Apple.

Bill Gates? For most computer geeks, the story of how IBM eventually called on a fledgling Microsoft in need of an operating system for its to-be-introduced Intel-based PC is the stuff of legend.

Takeaway: If it weren’t for one fateful day in 1980, you might be using CP/M instead of Windows or Mac OS.

…What happened next has been subject to endless speculation and an urban legend in the tech industry.

On the day when IBM showed up to negotiate with DRI, Kildall was delivering some documentation to a client using his private plane, leaving Dorothy and the company’s lawyers to hash out the deal. DRI apparently got stuck on the nondisclosure agreement after Kildall returned later in the day, and ultimately the deal came to nothing.

Desperate for an operating system, IBM turned to Microsoft. They found a CP/M clone written by a friend of Bill Gates, Tim Paterson of Seattle Computer Products and the designer of the SoftCard, dubbed QDOS, or “Quick and Dirty Operating System.” Microsoft licensed this to IBM so it would be ready in time…

To expand on that story, from what I have repeatedly heard is that the IBM reps showed up and with Kildall gone, Dorothy was afraid to sign the non-disclosure agreement.

IBM then turned back to Microsoft and while they had no operating system at the moment, Bill Gates was smart enough to say “Yes we can supply you with one!”. 

He bought for $50,000 the rights to Seattle Computer Product’s QDOS, which Microsoft then enhanced and licensed to IBM.

Which became Microsoft DOS which was used around the world before Windows.

Most people who are adept at engineering and invention are terrible salesmen.

One example was Karl Benz, who is credited with being the inventor of the automobile in 1886, the same time as the electrical wars in the US. But the reason he has that honor was because of his wife, Bertha. Otherwise, he probably would have been forgotten.

There would have been no Mercedes-Benz without Bertha Benz.

Benz’s company merged with Gottlieb Daimler’s company in 1926, a time of economic upheaval in Germany, and they formed….Daimler-Benz (now Daimler).

Benz was a typical engineer, believing that his automobile needed ever more perfection and tweaking. His wife kept telling him to put it to market.

But being a stubborn German he refused.

So Bertha, also a bit stubborn, decided one dawn to sneak out with her 2 sons while Karl was still asleep and take this contraption 65 miles to visit her mother.

First cross-country automobile journey

On 5 August 1888, 39-year-old Bertha Benz drove from Mannheim to Pforzheim with her sons Richard and Eugen, thirteen and fifteen years old respectively, in a Model III, without telling her husband and without permission of the authorities, thus becoming the first person to drive an automobile a significant distance, though illegally. Before this historic trip, motorized drives were merely very short trials, returning to the point of origin, made with assistance of mechanics. Following wagon tracks, this pioneering tour covered a one-way distance of about 106 km (66 mi).

Although the ostensible purpose of the trip was to visit her mother, Bertha Benz had other motives — to prove to her husband, who had failed to adequately consider marketing his invention, that the automobile in which they both had heavily invested would become a financial success once it was shown to be useful to the general public; and to give her husband the confidence that his constructions had a future.

There is a cute ad Daimler produced, not shown in the US, of that drive.

Not shown in the video, but in addition to getting fuel at the first “service station” (a pharmacy), she made the first repair using her garter belt. Maybe by taking the car without permission she was also the first “car thief” 😉

Before this drive, the fledgling automobile was considered as nothing more than a toy – a contraption for amusement.

But Bertha, ever the saleswoman, electrified the world’s imagination with this 65 mile drive. The drive eventually was publicized around the world.

The world was never the same after Karl’s invention (with Bertha’s help), and electricity, courtesy of George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla.

But you’ve gotta let them know.

The movie is worth seeing, too.

Here the 2 leading stars talk about their movie on the View.


Filed under History, Movie Review, Other Stuff, Outside the Box

7 responses to “2 Disparate But Essential Skills

  1. Hogdayafternoon

    Thanks Bill! Nice article.

  2. bizjetmech

    The story of IBM/Microsoft has always amazed me. The DOS put out by Digital Research (DRDOS) was far superior (I used to use it) to MSDOS. As I heard it when I worked in Monterey, the DRI guys disliked the buttondown reputation of IBM and didn’t get along with them very well. So near and yet so far from being billionaires….

  3. Another good article. Thanks Bill.

    “There were some pretty dirty and underhanded things done, too.” Same was true of the U.S. Continental Railroad, yet without it….

    • As I am in Sacramento Ron, where the Central Pacific Railroad started east to form with the Union Pacific the first transcontinental railroad, I heard a funny story about the building of the railroad line here.

      I forget the exact numbers, but Congress paid so much for flat land in layinkgthe track, so much for foothills, and so much for the mountains.

      And the Central Pacific’s men convinced Congress that the foothills started about 16 miles west of where they really were!

  4. Here’s a glimpse of George Westinghouse’s leadership style: he was walking across a yard between buildings at his factory complex. A young laborer–a recent immigrant–was trundling a wheelbarrow, filled with heavy copper ingots, over an iron slab which serves as a track across the yard. The wheelbarrow went off the track and into the mud. As the laborer struggles to get it back on the track, other workers begin mocking him.

    Although wearing formal clothing, Westinghouse waded into the mud and helped the man get the wheelbarrow back on the track.

    More effective than putting up posters about “we must respect our fellow employees at all times,” don’t you think?

    • Without a doubt David. His leadership style reminds me of Bill Hewitt and David Packard. There’s a story of a salesman trying to find the main office in the ask someone cleaning a closet out where it is and he was told only to learn later the “janitor” was Bill Hewitt

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