Location: Brooklyn, New York
In a world full of faddish business opinions, Ron Chernow offers actual wisdom. That’s because his ideas about money and power — and about the characters who accumulate both in massive quantities — are based on meticulous research. A business biographer and historian who focuses on the turn of the 20th century, Chernow is the author of four books, including “Titan” (Random House, 1998), a New York Times best-seller about the life of John D. Rockefeller Sr. Recently Chernow talked with Fast Company about how we can divine the future by studying the past.
“There are many parallels between what’s going on today and what went on 100 years ago: the explosion of new industries and technologies, regulators dealing with the antitrust challenge posed by the rise of giant corporations, people coming to terms with the philanthropic distribution of their colossal fortunes.
“One difference is that billionaires today aren’t as secure in their fortunes. In the oil industry under Rockefeller’s tutelage, there was a major technological development maybe every 10 years. In the Information Age, there seems to be a product revolution every six months — which creates an atmosphere that is very exciting, but also feverish and anxious. John D. Rockefeller Sr. slept much more soundly at night than Bill Gates does today.
“When Rockefeller started Standard Oil in Cleveland in 1870, the search for oil was still a haphazard business — at that point, the entire industry was concentrated in western Pennsylvania. Rockefeller had a fanatical, almost religious faith that oil would be discovered somewhere else and would be an enduring industry — and, in the 1880’s, oil was along the Ohio and Indiana border. That oil, unlike the oil in western Pennsylvania, had a high sulfur content and a rotten-egg smell. The stink kept people from using oil-based kerosene. So Rockefeller hired a chemist named Herman Frasch to remove the sulfur from the oil. That was the first major application of scientific research in the oil industry. Today we see the institutionalization of science: Bill Gates spends $2.5 billion dollars a year on R&D. These days, unless you devote an enormous amount of time to anticipating the future, you won’t have any future.”
Curtis Sittenfeld (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Fast Company staff writer.