Sunday, July 17, 2016

Entrepreneurs and the Mythical Big Dream (Weathermakers 2016)

Today is the 114th anniversary of modern air conditioning, courtesy of Willis Carrier.  It was on this day in 1902 that Carrier signed a set of design drawings that would become the world’s first modern air-conditioning system, installed at the Sackett-Wilhelm printing plant in Brooklyn. 

This year also happens to be a milestone of sorts because it's the first anniversary on which no American alive today was alive then; the country's oldest supercentenarian, Adele Dunlap, was born on December 12, 1902, a few months after Carrier's design was installed.  The gentle passage from current event to history is complete.

Over the course of Adele Dunlap's life, the global HVAC market has grown to more than $90 billion annually.  It’s responsible for untold productivity--including keeping the Cloud up and running so you can read this blog post.  It’s also made millions of people more comfortable and happier—including me as I write this post on a 92F New England day. 

In Weathermakers to the World we trace this remarkable story, the full trajectory of modern air conditioning from Brooklyn to the Vatican, the Sun Belt to Singapore.

But Who’s Your Daddy?

Willis Carrier is called the Father of Air Conditioning, in part, because of this famous 1902 design.  But he really earned his claim to fatherhood in 1911 when he gave to the entire industry a decade of intellectual capital in the form of his Rational Psychrometric Formulae, and a series of foundational equipment designs.  Carrier and his engineering teams had come so far, so fast--and saw so much opportunity they couldn’t possibly address--that by 1911, if they really wanted to lead an “industry,” they had to invent an industry by putting some competitors in business. 

That’s one way to build a $90 billion legacy.


There’s lots of back-and-forth about the real “birth date” of modern a/c.  Alfred Wolff has supporters, as does John Gorrie.  But I always felt this particular debate was more about maternal rights.  In a world marked largely by evolution, precisely “when” an innovation is born leads to all kinds of colorful debate.

Paternal rights are something entirely different, though, and being a father myself, I have some perspective on this topic.  Like most fledgling dads, I was pretty much kept to the sidelines during the birth of our three children.  I was there, of course, but duly warned to keep my hands in my pockets and not touch anything.  The real moment of fatherhood came when the nurse handed me our newborn and said, “Prop up the head.” 

Prop up the head.

Whenever my wife handed me one of our babies she would say, “Be sure to prop up the head.”  That to me became the shorthand for fatherhood, the ultimate elevator pitch for dads: Me?  What do I do?  Oh, I prop up the head.

By my estimation, when Carrier taught the industry how to design and build modern air conditioning in 1911, he was doing nothing less than propping up the head.  So, while there's no better year than 1902 to celebrate the birth of cool, dry air-on-demand, by my estimate it was on December 8, 1911 that Willis Carrier really became the Father of Air Conditioning.

When Entrepreneurs Think Small

In the immortal words of Steve Jobs, Willis Carrier would go on to put a “ding in the universe,” literally improving the lives of billions of human beings.

Now, if you’re tuned into the current “dominant entrepreneurial narrative” coming out of Silicon Valley, you’ll know that dinging the universe is what all young entrepreneurs must aspire to do.  Today’s drill goes something like this: Quit school.  Move West.  Hack some code.  Dream big.  Put a ding in the universe. 

"Modern" air conditioning was distinguished from all of the
fan-and-ice solutions that came before it by its
ability to cool, dry, clean, and direct air in a "scientific" way
--that is, by measuring and responding to its environment.
The funny thing is, history suggests that the stuff that eventually puts a ding in the universe usually starts as a very hands-on, practical, bounded problem.  In fact, for every successful entrepreneur who started by dreaming big, there are a thousand whose first dream was exceedingly small.  Carrier’s design of the first modern air-conditioning installation is a perfect example. 

“One summer’s day in New York,” the company’s PR Engineer Esten Bolling wrote in 1921:
Mr. Walter S. Timmis, a consulting engineer now known far and wide, walked into Mr. Lyle’s office and told him that he was building a print shop over in Brooklyn and that it would be necessary to dehumidify the air in order to prevent the paper stock from shrinking or expanding between successive multi-color impressions.  Of course, Mr. Timmins did not say ‘dehumidify,’ because Mr. Carrier had not yet evolved the word, but that’s what he meant. . .Mr. Timmis’s chief concern was the summer season. . .the extremely high Relative Humidities peculiar to Brooklyn summers presented a more serious problem.  So serious, indeed, that many printers would not attempt fine color work during the summer season. 
The problem, according to one of Carrier’s partners, was that “the dimensions of the paper changed, wavy edges jammed the feeding mechanism, and the ink refused to dry fast enough.”

To be precise, Timmins added, Brooklyn’s August and September could produce air saturated with as much as nine grains of moisture per cubic foot.  Optimal printing required five.  Timmins said a variation of 1/175th of an inch in paper size could throw off the register (or alignment) in multicolor work.  Paper sometimes had to be run through the press without ink simply to season it, and presses were sometimes held up for several days in hopes that atmospheric conditions would improve.

This was the product at risk in 1902,
multi-colored "Judge" magazine.
Consequently, that was the very real, very specific problem handed Willis Carrier in 1902: How to remove four grains of moisture—about four drops of water--per cubic foot from the air.  It was a dream so small it could fit in a thimble.

Dreaming Big: The Stuff of Fairy Tales

Now, skip ahead about a century.  The COO of Facebook, an uncommonly sober Silicon Valley technologist, has just laid out an exuberant challenge to Barnard seniors in a 2011 graduation address: “The one thing I’ve learned working with great entrepreneurs—Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, Larry Page and Sergey Brin at Google—is that if you want to make a difference, you better think big and dream big, right from day one.”

Think big and dream big, right from day one.  That’s apparently how you put a ding in the universe.  That’s today’s dominant narrative.  So, since she dropped the names, let’s test the theory.

Take the “big dream” of Google.  As grad students at Stanford, founders Page and Brin had no real interest in creating a business.  Author John Battelle says that neither was really sure he wanted to take on the stress of operating a start-up.  Incorporated in September 1998, Google still had no business model (much less a big dream) nine months later. 
These reluctant entrepreneurs remained suspicious of mixing advertising and search; in fact, their stated goal was never to put advertisers ahead of users.  It was when they were finally talked into doing precisely this, of course, that the “big dream” was born.  It was, as ESPN’s Chris Berman might say, a case of bumbling, stumbling, fumbling down the field to a touchdown.
Likewise, Mark Zuckerberg’s original vision for Facebook was “an online directory for colleges.”  His big dream was to move from serving 800 to 2,000 U.S. colleges.  “There doesn’t necessarily have to be more,” Zuckerberg said.”
Moving air conditioning from the factory floor
to consumers, especially the world's movie-goers,
was just another reason Willis Carrier would become
the Father of Modern Air Conditioning.
Such a puny motive simply cannot survive today’s dominant narrative.  According to entrepreneur and journalist Antonio Garcia Martinez, CEO Zuckerberg has today completely rewritten the script, having become like L. Ron Hubbard and Joseph Smith.  He is the “keeper of a messianic vision that. . .presents an overwhelming and all-consuming picture of a new and different world.” 
An employee’s start date at Facebook is, for example, “celebrated by the company the way evangelicals celebrated the day they were baptized and found Jesus.”  When someone departs the company “everyone would treat it as a death, as if you were leaving the current plane of existence and going to another one.”  Zuckerberg, Martinez wrote, “found the church of a new religion,” and early Facebook employees all have a story about when “they saw the light and realized that Facebook wasn’t some measly social network like MySpace but a dream of a different human experience.”

Larry and Sergey and Zuck, oh my!  There was apparently a time when these Masters of the Universe were scarecrows, cowardly lions, and tin men, just like you and me.  Obviously, their businesses became wildly successful--but to say they began as big dreams is revisionist history and pure fantasy. 
Ironically, Netscape--the mother of all big dreams and the company that launched the dominant narrative in 1995 when its profitless IPO was valued at $2.9 billion—well, Netscape was conceived originally as an online gaming network for Nintendo 64.
Just Prop Up the Head
So what are we to think?  The companies that define today’s dominant narrative began as small dreams and with sometimes reluctant entrepreneurs.  Their big-dream creation stories are fairy tales—and maybe shouldn’t be foisted on a bunch of impressionable new entrepreneurs who might actually be trying to tackle small but real, practical problems.
Willis Carrier put a ding in the universe not because he dreamed big on day one, but because he solved a real problem and then spent a lifetime propping up the head of the technology and industry he loved.
It’s maybe a good reminder to entrepreneurs (and fathers) everywhere: Do you really want to put a ding in the universe?  
Prop up the head.

Sources

Susannah Mushatt Jones was born July 6, 1899, but died on May 12 of this year.  She was the last American alive when Willis Carrier signed his design drawings on July 17, 1902.


The Weather Vein 6:21:10-11, Carrier archives.

L. Logan Lewis, The Romance of Air Conditioning, Carrier Archives.

In remembrance of cartoonist Michael Crawford,
who just passed away.

He knew what I was really going for with this post.
“New York Chapter Discusses Control of Atmospheric Conditions in Printing Establishments,” The Heating and Ventilating Magazine, December 1914.

“Transcript and Video of Speech by Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer, Facebook,” Barnard College Commencement, May 17, 2011, New York City.

John Battelle, The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture, New York: Penguin Group, 2005.

Alexia Tsotsis, “2005 Zuckerberg Didn’t Want to Take Over the World,” TechCrunch, August 13, 2011.

Antonio Garcia Martinez, “How Mark Zuckerberg Led Facebook’s War to Crush Google Plus,” Vanity Fair, Summer 2016.

P.S.--Couldn't resist.