Saturday, November 20, 2010

The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, by T.J. Stiles (2009)

I am reading The First Tycoon, which received the National Book Award for history for 2009.

T.J. Stiles's major theme is that Cornelius Vanderbilt embodied the entrepreneurial spirit (good and bad) of the United States in the antebellum period. 

Vanderbilt was born in 1794 on Staten Island. His youth was spent learning his father's trade -- operating a sailboat ferry in the waters around Manhattan.  This formed the foundation of Vanderbilt's lifelong connection to transportation: first with sailboats and carriages, then with steamboats, and finally with railroads.

My sense from Stiles is that Vanderbilt had a unique combination of (1) technical/mechanical skills and (2) business/banking/capital skills.  In other words, he understood both the technological and the financial aspects of his trade. 

486.  Is this kinds of similar to Bill Gates in the 1980's/1990's?  Is Gates the pre-eminent businessman of our time because he mastered both the technology and the business of computers and software?

487.  Who will become the Cornelius Vanderbilt/Bill Gates of "green energy": the person who becomes the symbol of an entire field of business, based on mastery of the technology and the trade?

488.  What will be the next great innovation in transportation?  Is it more likely to be the electric car or is it more likely to be a (re-) turn to rail // mass transit?

One aspect of Stiles's book that's interesting is the brevity of the contracts that memorialized Vanderbilt's agreements and transactions with other businessmen.  In contrast to today's contracts, these guys got to the point.  I assume that the book will show the ways in which, over the course of Vanderbilt's career and life, the legal structure became more complex.

Vanderbilt and his wife Sophia had many children (ten?); I haven't gotten a sense yet of how focused he was on his family, although it's hard to imagine he had much time for them, given his drive to excel in business.

A very interesting scene just occurred: in 1833, Vanderbilt went on his first train, on the new Camden & Amboy from New York to Philly.  The train ended up wrecking and Vanderbilt was very seriously injured.  I am curious to see how he goes from this (presumably traumatic) experience to becoming a railroad magnate.

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