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Those who compare Bill Gates with the early twentieth century tycoon John D. Rockefeller are many. These two men made their fortunes by exclusively exploiting a key-industry; both were accused of illicit business conduct; both launched fiery battles against the USA federal government to keep up their monopolies.
Such a comparison is not quite right maintains the historian of technology Tom Standage in an article of his in the Feed magazine, under the title “what Great Bill can learn from uncle Thomas Alva”. It makes more sense to compare Bill Gates with another great figure of the last century, Thomas Alva Edison.
More than a century ago, Edison set the technology patterns of his era and was acknowledged as the most famous technologist of the century. Yet, it is Edison’s dark side (the one we are not taught at schools, the ruthless means he employed to crash his rivals and become the absolute master of numerous markets) that has a lot in common with Gates.
Both experienced a premature adolescence and had the ability to anticipate any market norms before they were even created. Both set off making use of other people’s inventions. Edison made a fortune improving the operation of machines invented by others, while Gates accomplishments were initiated when he started selling the MS-DOS that had been produced by people other than him. Both got married to ex-employees of theirs, they paid little attention to their looks and were never trapped in the luring temptations lying in their riches.
However, what bears the most striking sameness can be found in their business practices. Like Gates, who missed the Internet revolution and has today launched a virulent attack to impose his own patents, Tomas Edison missed the chance of becoming part of the alternating current revolution. He had set his horses after the direct current, and when the world was presented with Nicholas Tesla’s alternating one, the kind of electric current that could be carried over long distances without any losses whatsoever, Edison set out on a marketing and public relations war that knew no ethical bounds.
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He offered to build-free of charge-the electric chair that was to be used in executing the condemned to death prisoners, so that there would be substantial proof to the danger lurking in the alternating current. His friends held meetings in which they killed little animals with the help of the “dangerous” alternating current. Edison himself had put out posters in which he warned the public about the so-called “Westinghousation”, in an attempt to present the name of his rival company as synonym to electric shock.
Edison knew very well that the high frequency alternating current presented great benefits regarding energy transference over long distances. On the other hand, direct current, the kind of current he had been trying to sell, could not be transferred, and for that reason every single village would have to operate its own power plant. He would care less though, since he was the main supplier of the necessary components to build these plants.
He manifested the same obstinacy as soon as the gramophone industry got started, when he tried to impose his own model of cylinders in the place of the gramophone records we are familiar with.
Yet, the move that was mostly typical of Edison (very similar to Gates’ s tactics) was his effort to control the film industry. Edison was in possession of the largest number of patents in the film industry. “The protection of his literary property being his sole aim” he brought to trial all the film producers who had been using film cameras and projectors that had been manufactured by rival industries. Finally the case reached the USA Supreme Court, which overruled Edison’s appeals on the grounds of his contribution to the birth of the moving pictures, which could by no means be identified with the very invention of cinema itself.
Mad with rage Edison resolved to make use of his hold over the market to smash his rivals. In 1908, along with the most prominent film producers of the time, he founded the Motion Picture Patent Company. This company compelled filmmakers to sign contracts that would enforce them to use only the filming apparatus produced by Edison, or else George Eastman (whose company later merged with Kodak) who was also member of the company would not provide them with film rolls!
More terms were included in the agreement, terms, which nowadays would seem unreasonable. For instance, no movie was allowed to be shot if they exceeded an allotted 20-minute-time! Apart from that it was not allowed for the actors’ names to be included in the ones of the contributors to the films, as Edison feared (and we was justified in that point) that if they shot to fame they would charge iniquitous sums of money to act, and that would amount to higher production costs for the industry as a whole!
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Most filmmakers gave in to Edison’s demands. The rest were exposed to… “a healthy business conduct” by hired bouncers. All protest derived from practices like the one mentioned above, was answered by Edison himself and by his hired pens, who focused on: “the Motion Picture Patent Company has brought on stability in a shattered market bringing all this unjust as well as unfair war to an end and has set forth a model on which everybody works”. These are the very same words used by the Microsoft public relations people when they are called up to defend the Windows monopoly. In spite of all these, the Motion Picture Patent Company was dissolved after a complaint lodged by William Fox (the person who founded the 20 th Century Fox company).
It goes without saying that all these efforts made by Thomas Ava Edison are buried deep in history books. What we all have learnt at school has to do with the fervent, eccentric inventor who contributed so much to humanity. This is partly due to the big campaign the astute businessman had subtly launched to provide for his posthumous fame. Dozens of articles had been fabricated to show off the personality of this “great technologist” and then were carefully planted in the press at the time. Edison handled his public image in such a masterly manner that one of his biographers later wrote: “ the personality he presented the public with was his greatest invention ”.
Bill Gates is deservedly following his predecessor’s footsteps. The biographical profiles of his, composed by Barbara Walters, the book under the title The Patway to the Future written by Nathan Myhrvold and Peter Rinearson, not to mention his column providing answers to readers which is published in dozens of newspapers all over the world, are nothing but a head start exposing a genius of Gates, accessible to the common folk. Gallup polls seem to justify this communication strategy of his. In a survey conducted by the Forbes magazine, 73% of the Americans believe that the Microsoft is “one of the best enterprises in the United States”, they hold its managing director in great estimation and finally they are convinced that the business promotes innovation.
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Agreement expressed by the author of the article.
It’s a beautiful, moral world, a world made for angels the one we live in. Every time we seem to be touching the past, we come across the lies we have been served at school. Mr. Edison lives with us as the good old man who offered the electric lamp, the phonograph and the motion pictures to humanity. He turned out a ruthless businessman who used to hire bullies to beat or shoot his rivals. Pablo Picasso has been famous just for being an ingenious artist. In reality he was a “sadistic bastard who used to beat his (numerous) wives whose body bore scorches from his cigarettes”. Arthur Koestler was the rebel against the Stalinist regime, author of the book entitled The Naught and the Infinite. He was proved to be a serial rapist.
There had always been a worldwide conspiracy of silence regarding all the geniuses in history. The world had turned them to flawless, lifeless, marble statues. Their work, their spirit would cover every shadow in their personality, everything that would unveil their flaws. That was the attitude expressed by a society wishing to exalt them to the skies. A society that created heroes used to excruciate posterity.
Yet, how important is to us the fact that we are aware of Einstein’s insensitivity to his kins’ afflictions? Is it just that we are striving to look through the keyhole of history, or is it that we are just struggling to fit all these Great people in our own size? Are we in pursuit of the so called “yes, but…” that would justify our own pettiness? Things are not just like that! Any detail conveyed through history ought to be conveyed as a whole. The educational role of the past cannot be carried out in half-truths. We ought to learn history the way it really is. If we don’t, we are doomed to lose ourselves in its obscure corners…
By Pashos Mandravelis.
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