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3 Huge Changes in the American Business Landscape

Wednesday - 5/1/2013, 5:33am  ET

The Louisiana Purchase Expositions, also known as the St. Louis World's Fair, first opened to the public on April 30, 1904. It was one of the two most important expositions in American history, next to the Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893, and like the earlier event, the St. Louis Fair introduced the American public to a wide range of new technologies, foodstuffs, experiences, and cultures. In fact, the St. Louis Fair was an introduction to consumer culture for millions of Americans living through the early days of a transformation from agrarian society to industrial titan of the world. Nearly 20 million individuals experienced the dawn of a modern America across the 1,200-acre site, with exhibitions featuring the likes of:

  • An ice-skating rink with daily "snowstorms" (this was in late spring).
  • A motion picture theater.
  • Massive displays of electric lighting (only 3% of American homes had electricity).
  • A modern air-conditioned building (one of the first in the world).
  • A self-contained mechanical refrigerator.
  • The third modern Olympic Games (held entirely within the Fair).
  • A sort of "shopping mall," with hundreds of booths in a central location.
  • More than 100 automobiles (there were only about 8,000 registered autos in the U.S. in 1900).
  • Waffle-style ice cream cones, hamburgers, hot dogs, peanut butter, iced tea, and cotton candy -- all of which were not yet widespread in the U.S.
  • Dr Pepper, making its first major promotional push.

The fair was hailed by newspapers across the nation as "the greatest achievement of ancient, medieval, or modern times ... the greatest of all expositions ... the last great exposition within the lives of the present generation." While it cannot be given sole credit for spreading the mantra of consumerism across the far-flung nation, the St. Louis Fair undoubtedly helped speed the dissemination of these many new technologies, products, and attitudes.

One simply has to look at the composition of the Dow Jones Industrial Average at the time of the fair and afterward: Every single one of the index's 12 components was then a materials stock, engaged in refining some product of the earth into another intermediate product ready for final assembly. A decade after the Fair, two notable consumer-focused companies had emerged on the Dow's roster: General Electric and General Motors , each of which would remain Dow cornerstones well into the 21st century. Two decades after the Fair, the Dow had expanded to 20 components, and nine of them produced or sold finished goods (or services) to the American public.

By this point the auto industry had already experienced its own bubble period (and a subsequent bust that saw GM ape the performance of many dot-coms in the 1990s), and "tech" stocks like GE and its spinoff RCA were enjoying their own megabubble known as the Roaring '20s. During this period the consumer culture that took shape in turn-of-the-century St. Louis would reach its frenzied apex, propelled to ever-greater heights by another development eagerly adopted by the public: consumer credit. Air conditioning, automobiles, movies, department stores, mass-produced foodstuffs, and stock in all manner of companies were pursued by millions as the nation urbanized and grew wealthy on paper -- but as we know in our own time, the expansion of credit can have disastrous repercussions when the cost of debt exceeds the value of its underlying assets.

To the Web (and back)
On April 30, 1993, 89 years to the day after the St. Louis Fair exposed 20 million Americans to a new way of life, CERN did the same thing (in a far more understated fashion) when it released the World Wide Web onto the public domain. In doing so, CERN -- the European Organization for Nuclear Research, which also happened to have a world-class software-development team -- ensured that the Internet would be broadly compatible with any major operating system that could run a Web browser, and thus opened the floodgates to a new era of communication.

The World Wide Web actually began in 1989, when Tim Berners-Lee proposed a new way of managing the complex protocols then in use on the infant Internet. A year later, Berners-Lee had developed some of the Web's defining features, including the URL, HTML (hypertext markup language), and HTTP (hypertext transfer protocol). Berners-Lee also conceptualized the Web browser, which would later become one of several keys to the Internet boom once enterprising developers (and one giant software company) began creating their own. However, until CERN placed the rights to these developments in public domain, the World Wide Web was just one of several competing technologies that might have only carved out a portion of a slowly growing user base. Because CERN's open-sourcing occurred shortly after the fee-restriction of the competing Gopher protocol, it was perfectly timed to attract legions of technologists in search of something that could spread -- and spread it did.

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