Bright sparks in a machine age

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One day in September 1886, a 24-year-old cigar and insurance salesman agreed to take a ride on a friend’s two-wheeled cart on the bumpy roads of Flint, Michigan. William Durant was wary of the contraption - conventional carriages were bigger, had higher sides and bigger wheels. But the journey was smoother than he had expected. Straightaway he spotted a market niche for a vehicle suitable for short trips that was smaller than a traditional wagon but more than a horse and saddle.

The next day he bought the small business that made the cart, for $1,500. He took his carriage to the Wisconsin State Fair, and by the time he returned to Flint, he had 600 orders. Later, he swapped horsepower for mechanical power. By the early decades of the 20th century, Billy Durant was running the biggest car company in the world: General Motors.

Durant is just one of a number of remarkable entrepreneurs and inventors considered in a clutch of new books. The others are Alan Turing, the Englishman who helped prepare the way for modern computing, William Shockley, one of three scientists who shared a Nobel Prize for inventing the junction transistor, and Charles Tyson Yerkes, a streetcar magnate who brought mass transit railcars to Chicago and London. In different ways, these men each changed the world.

It is, of course, impossible to explain why one person should succeed where others fail, or fail to try. All of these men were independent thinkers but also a product of their times - as well as forcers of change. All responded to external pressures, be it their unhappy childhood, repressed sexuality or competitive academic environment. So-called genius, and success in their chosen fields, did not necessarily make for great personal lives. While happiness might be a very 21st-century preoccupation, there is marked tragedy in these stories.

In broader scope these books are also about the great industrial-technological revolutions of the 20th century, and thus the story of the US’s rise to global pre-eminence. It was mainly Anglo-American scientists and businessmen who drove the powerful advances in communication and travel, and the emergence of China and India makes their stories more relevant than ever.

When does a bright idea become a brilliant one? For Billy Durant, his flair lay in marketing, says William Pelfrey in Billy, Alfred, and General Motors. When he was a child, he and his mother were abandoned by his alcoholic father. Durant threw himself into his new life. After he moved into horse-drawn carriages, he fixed on the manufacturing strategy that was later successful with automobiles: he offered a broad variety of models of the same basic product - high-volume, standardised production with vertical ownership and control of suppliers.

Although he doubted there was much of a future for cars, he was persuaded to take on the failing Buick Motor Company in 1904. In 1908 he acquired Oldsmobile, combining it with Buick in what was now General Motors. Oakland (later Pontiac) and Cadillac soon followed.

Durant possessed a genius for industrial organisation, a strategy of constant acquisition of new companies to consolidate under the GM umbrella. It worked brilliantly at that point and place in history. According to Pelfrey in this conscientious, if stolid account, this talent helped Durant build “the largest and most successful enterprise the world had ever seen”.

Behind it all was Durant’s drive and flair. Pelfry calls him an optimist, capricious, a dreamer. But his charisma did not help an overstretched Durant in 1910 when a banking syndicate took over his company. Ousted from GM, he immediately founded the Chevrolet Motor Company. Backed by Chevrolet’s success and money from industrialist Pierre du Pont, Durant regained control of GM.

He expanded massively: by the end of 1919 GM had 86,000 employees, many of them immigrants from the American South and Europe. It was too much. In 1920, the market collapsed, and GM suffered more than its competitors. Du Pont blamed Billy. He had to go. Durant later lost millions in misguided stock market bets, and ended up running a bowling alley in Flint. He died more or less penniless in a New York apartment.

While Durant got his great idea on the back of a horse-drawn cart, Alan Turing was schooled in more conventional halls. Turing had a formidable education in places brimming with rivalry, bright minds and new ideas: the English private school Sherborne, King’s College, Cambridge, and finally Princeton. As David Leavitt says in The Man Who Knew Too Much, Turing arrived at Princeton just as it was taking in brilliant scientists fleeing Nazi Germany. “Rarely had so many great minds gathered in a single building,” writes Leavitt.

Leavitt locates the germ of Turing’s genius not in his education but in his homosexuality. His “outsider’s nature” helped him to make creative connections that others couldn’t see. An early (and unrequited) love at Sherborne, Christopher Morcom, died of tuberculosis. Leavitt casts the remainder of Turing’s life as an impossible quest to regain this passion. His imagining of a machine that could think was an attempt to create a companion, the love missing from his life. The computer, Leavitt thinks, is even a metaphor for the homosexual - those who denied the possibility of an intelligent machine could be compared to those who denied homosexuals an independent mental life. Turing was set on proving both wrong.

Again, timing was crucial to Turing’s success. When the second world war broke out, Turing was called to Bletchley Park where he helped build the “Bombe”, the machine that deciphered Germany’s Enigma code. After the war, he moved to Manchester to construct a new computer. He was shy, awkward, lonely. When in 1952 he reported a robbery at his home, the police uncovered his affair with a 19-year-old man. Turing was arrested for gross indecency and given compulsory oestrogen treatment, a form of chemical castration, which caused him to grow breasts. Later he was trailed by police who thought him a national security risk. Obsessed with Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, he committed suicide by biting into an apple dipped in cyanide. Leavitt raises the possibility that the death could have been murder.

Like Turing, William Shockley’s sharp mind was spurred to action partly by factors external to his work. Shockley came from a later generation than Billy Durant. Just after the second world war, the 35-year-old physicist was working at Bell Laboratories near New York, trying to use solid state physics to replace the telephone’s old-fashioned and unreliable vacuum tubes. When his experiments failed, he retreated to Chicago’s Bismarck Hotel and on New Year’s Eve, 1947, began days of feverish thinking and scribbling, eventually imagining the junction transistor, which would make possible the electronics revolution of the second half of the 20th century. Without the transistor, the host of devices we use today, from PCs to mobile phones and iPods, would have been impossible.

According to Joel Shurkin in Broken Genius, Shockley had a disrupted, peripatetic childhood. Born in London, he grew up in Palo Alto, and was schooled at home; the social isolation, says Shurkin, bred Shockley’s awful temper. The blow of his father dying when Bill was 15 lasted his whole life. From then on he was always trying to make his father “proud”.

As with Turing, the war was a great spur. As part of the US war effort Shockley worked out the correct height from which to drop depth charges to destroy surfacing German U-boats. He analysed the efficiency of Allied bombing raids, calculating that for every ton of British bombs dropped, the Germans lost between 52 and 122 man-months of effort. But it cost Britain 18 man-months; the bombing was less productive than the Allies had imagined. By introducing radar bombing techniques over Japan, he increased efficiency and helped to bring victory.

After the invention of the transistor, Shockley’s competitiveness tore the Bell team apart. He left to set up Shockley Semiconductor Laboratories in California, hiring brilliant scientists but fighting with his own staff. Two - Robert Noyce, and Gordon E. Moore, who became famous for the observation that computer chips are likely to double in power every 18 months or so - went on to form Intel. It was the birth of an industry that has brought great wealth to the US and is still transforming the world today. Shockley, however, did not share in this success. Shockley Semiconductor collapsed. In the 1960s, after a car crash, he publicly embraced eugenics and ended his life largely isolated.

To be an outsider does not make someone a genius - but like many other great minds Charles Tyson Yerkes was not one to gel with a crowd. Yerkes grew up in an earlier age, in a poor district in Philadelphia in the years before the American civil war. When he was five, his mother died of puerperal fever.

The distinctive quality John Franch identifies in Yerkes’ early character was his outsider status - as a Quaker, he was on the edge of Philadelphia’s polite society. The Quaker mindset left its mark. As Franch records in his comprehensive Robber Baron, one contemporary remarked that Yerkes had a “quietism” about him, and a high degree of “self-discipline and self-control”.

He shared a further Quaker belief - that material success is a sign of divine favour - which fitted well with the rampant materialism and growth of the US at that time. He became a broker. He was clever at forging political connections and after the war, amid a massive expansion of government spending, Yerkes was in the right place to divert some of the river of public funds to his own pocket. Exposed, he spent seven months in jail before cutting a deal and being pardoned.

Yerkes moved to a rapidly growing Chicago and won control of the North Chicago City Railway Company. He expanded and modernised the streetcar network and became fabulously wealthy. In 1899, his Chicago franchises were due to expire and he turned to building the London Underground, in what was then the largest city the world had ever seen, with a dense population but appalling transport system. Unsure about the project, Yerkes took a cab over the proposed route of the Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway until he stood on top of Hampstead Heath, the great spectacle of the metropolis laid out below him. “This settles it,” he declared.

He put together financing. Construction was under way when he died in 1905. “With an indomitable will, a brilliant mind and a complete indifference to any weak scruples of conscience, he founded his fortune,” wrote the New York American. “But while Yerkes was rolling up this fortune... he was building up Chicago.”

Willingness to take risks; vision; lust for profit; personal rivalry; great schools, or just plain smarts. The qualities that make genius are various and remain elusive. Whether these qualities remain the preserve of the US will be the 21st century’s story.

Billy, Alfred, and General Motors: The Story of Two Unique Men, a Legendary Company, and a Remarkable Time in American History
by William Pelfrey
Amacom ₤16.99, 336 pages

The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer
by David Leavitt
Weidenfeld & Nicolson ₤16.99, 320 pages

Broken Genius: The Rise and Fall of William Shockley, Creator of the Electronic Age
by Joel N. Shurkin
Macmillan ₤19.99, 400 pages

Robber Baron: The Life of Charles Tyson Yerkes
by John Franch
University of Illinois Press ₤29, 376 pages

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