Saturday, February 18, 2012

About the last 100 years

The Model T Ford went into mass production in August 1908. That was about 100 years ago. Some time later, Henry Ford made a joke: “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black”. Russia was a largely agrarian economy, ruled by a Tsar (a monarch), and no one could foresee the changes that would happen over the next 100 years.

Think about what has changed in the last 100 years, and the kinds of things that changed, and the kinds of things that have happened in our lifetimes, or maybe, the lifetimes of our parents and grandparents. Think about the things that have remained the same. And think about our living memories of them.

I’ll say, my memory of events is helped out greatly because I’m writing this at a computer, and I’m able to search Google and Wikipedia to fill in some of the gaps in my memory. The folks living from, say, 30 AD to 130 AD may have benefited from a culture that prided itself on “living memory” and “oral tradition”, but the passage of those years saw some things change too.  

Maybe you have grandparents who remember the Model T, or who recall when Cadillac, Buick, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Chevrolet were all separate companies. In those days, Ford was in a monopoly position, but by the 1920’s, with a major consolidation of those brands, GM was able to overtake Ford as the largest automotive company. Wikipedia notes, “While Ford continued to refine the manufacturing process to reduce cost, Sloan was inventing new ways of managing a complex worldwide organization, while paying special attention to consumer demands. Car buyers no longer wanted the cheapest and most basic model; they wanted style, power, and prestige, which GM offered them”.

If you’re old enough, you may remember the Great Depression, and the days when Soviet Communism was promising the good life across all the political and social classes. You may also remember hearing about Stalin’s “Great Purge” and the deaths of millions of political enemies.

But Part of GM’s “complex worldwide organization” included dealing with a complex network of auto parts suppliers as well. During the 1950’s, GM grew to be the largest corporation in the US and the world, and it was one of the best run. Because of the variety among GM’s product line, it was possible to say that GM prompted an explosion of smaller, auto parts manufacturing companies. This growth in smaller companies fueled the economy for generations.

 There was, for example, a GM-owned metal stamping plant about a mile from where I grew up (using steel made just across the street). Friends of mine in high school, whose fathers worked at “Fisher Body” knew they had secure, well-paying jobs, which in those days, lasted a lifetime.

Some of us grew up during those years, knowing that we had a better economic system than the Soviets. But we grew up during those years, (a) fearing nuclear annihilation at any time, and (b) expecting that the world always would be involved in a US/Soviet Cold War.

Some of us have seen another business cycle in our lifetimes. I remember going to a computer store in 1981 and getting my first hands-on experience with one of the newly-released IBM PCs. The only thing I could do was to put a string of “Abort. Retry. Fail?” commands onto the screen. It was Henry Ford again: a computer will do anything you want it to do, so long as it’s “Abort, Retry, Fail”.

Smarter people than I am worked that all out. IBM had licensed a program called “DOS” from an unknown company named Microsoft.  By 1986, Microsoft raised billions of dollars through an IPO, and they used lots and lots of that money to help fund software companies that would use the Microsoft operating system.  Like GM, Microsoft managed to help a “complex worldwide organization” of software companies that operated on the Microsoft Operating system. It was a symbiotic relationship that enabled both types of organizations to prosper.

Not long after the PC revolution, the Soviet Empire collapsed, the Soviet Union itself went out of business, and now there is burgeoning unrest and corruption in the former Soviet states. The collapse of the Empire itself was very notable – fear of nuclear annihilation was minimized, and new global threats and alliances emerged.

I remember 1995, when Apple Computer stock was $25.00 per share, and the company was about to go out of business. In 1997, Microsoft itself invested $150 million in Apple, keeping it afloat. Now Apple is the big player, and Microsoft’s worst fears – that desktop computers running their operating system, are no longer the device of choice for a growing number of people.

Today, Russia is not a threat, though not an ally. Organizations like GM and Microsoft and Apple are all still in business, though they’re a lot different than they were 15 or 30 or 50 or 100 years ago. We all have devices in our pockets that people living 100 years ago would never have dreamed were possible. Today, too, I work for a company called Black Box. The company distributes the kinds of “black boxes” that make computer networks run and enables all our mobile devices to have wi-fi connections. And we’re almost back to Henry Ford: they can get them in any color they want, so long as they’re black.

100 years is a long time. Some things change, and some things remain the same. I’ve touched on some high points, but I’ve left out an incredible amount of detail. This is an interesting concept to remember when thinking about how much the early church changed (and which things changed) in its first 100 years. 


  1. The church has changed a lot in the last 100 years also. :)

  2. The point is to understand "original intent".