11 February 2009

A Brief History of Silver Linings

With the economy in the tank, it can be tempting to lay low and wait for things to blow over. (Just ask your clients.) But history demonstrates that downturns can provide a perfect environment for innovation.

So whether you're into building on ruins, counter-cyclical start-ups, or just doing it because everyone says you can't, here are some examples of bust-era creativity to help inspire you during the dark days ahead.

1869: Thomas Edison patents the first practical stock ticker – just in time for the Panic of 1873. In the wake of the crisis, he introduces the light bulb and founds GE. Still, the company won't ridicule its own management culture—on a TV network it owns—for another 137 years.

1871: The Chicago Fire turns the Windy City to cinder, but creates a demand for high-rise, steel-construction towers, leading to the advent of the modern skyscraper.

1929: Sam Foster sells the first sunglasses on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, presumably to bankers who have arrived from New York and Philadelphia to throw themselves into the ocean.

1935: The country reels from the Great Depression, but the Federal Art Project funds the work of many important artists, including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning.

1938: At the tail end of the Depression, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard begin work in their storied garage near Palo Alto, launching what will become a global electronics brand. The same year, Chester Carlson, a patent attorney, makes the first photocopy in a makeshift lab in Queens, laying the foundation for Xerox.

1946: After spending the war years experimenting with cheap materials, Charles and Ray Eames introduce the Eames Molded Plywood Lounge Chair, often considered the most distinctive furniture design of the century.

1957: The Recession of 1957-1958 begins. Burger King introduces The Whopper. The public still not ready for "Subservient Chicken."

1970: As oil prices quadruple, Federal Express begins offering gas-guzzling service to 25 cities.

1970s: Although marred by stagflation, two separate energy crises, and the mustache, the decade sees the invention of the modem, the Internet, and the PC.

1981: The Reagan Recession leaves Americans wanting jobs and their MTV, which launches on August 1.

1982: In year two of the recession, the Advanced Mobile Phone Service–a subsidiary of AT&T–is licensed by the FCC. The following year, Illinois Bell launches the first commercial cell phone service.

1984: As unemployment and inflation relent, Apple and Ridley Scott show Americans a bright future – free of totalitarian gloom – in the one of the most famous commercials of all time.

1988: A year after Black Monday—the largest one-day percentage drop in the Dow—Nike and Wieden + Kennedy introduce the tagline "Just Do It."

1991: As industrial production falls and oil spikes, computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee introduces the World Wide Web as a medium for "high energy physicists to share data, news, and documentation." It soon becomes a place for high energy investors to share irrational exuberance.

2004: In the wake of the dot-com meltdown, open source servers slash bandwidth costs, making way for social networking sites, the explosion of online video, and Web 2.0. Pets.com dies, in other words, so Facebook can live.