Good And Evil May 15, 2009Posted by Chuck Musciano in Book Reviews.
Tags: History, Leadership, Project Management
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The stakes were high for the 1892 World’s Fair. Dubbed the Colombian Exposition, the fair was intended to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the new world. Coming on the heels of the spectacular World Exposition in Paris in 1889, symbolized by the new Eiffel Tower, chances were not good that the Colombian Exposition could never, ever top what the French had pulled off.
Nonetheless, various US cities fought fiercely to host the event. After much politicking, Chicago won the rights to the fair in 1890, tasked to create an entire global event in less than two years. Other cities, most notably New York, were sure that Chicago would fail miserably, embarrassing the US in the eyes of the world.
The citizens of Chicago proved them wrong. Their herculean efforts to create the 1892 World’s Fair are chronicled in Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson. His scrupulously researched book provides a glorious view not only into the vast project of the fair, but of daily life in 1890s Chicago. For those of us who manage large projects, there is definite sympathy for the team of architects and engineers who struggled against all odds to deliver, on time, the greatest fair in history, ultimately topping the French and cementing the US position in the eyes of the world.
Beyond the appeal to project managers, any fan of history will relish the endless number of things that originated with the 1892 fair. Juicy Fruit gum, Shredded Wheat cereal, AC power, and the Ferris Wheel? All debuted at the fair. A young draftsmen dismissed by the architects for refusing to adhere to their designs? That would be Frank Lloyd Wright. A carpenter who helped create the fantasy structures of the fair who later regaled his children, Roy and Walt, with tales of the project? That would be Roy and Walt Disney; each stroll down Main Street in DisneyWorld today is an echo of the same walk down the Midway of Chicago in 1892.
But what of the evil? With the fair as a backdrop, the most prolific serial killer in US history preyed on visitors to Chicago. H. H. Holmes came up with a clever idea: he built a hotel near the fair, offering rooms to the many young women who came to Chicago seeking a career amid the excitement of the fair. Charming and charismatic, Holmes wooed these arrivals to the city, who seemed to disappear at an alarming rate.
The hotel occupied the top floor of his building, with his personal residence and shops on the floors below. Few knew that the basement included a 3000° kiln and airtight rooms outfitted with gas jets. Holmes was a busy man; estimates of his handiwork range from 25 to 200 victims.
Erik Larson does a marvelous job of weaving these two stories together, contrasting the lofty aspirations of the White City of the fair with the dark evil lurking literally next door. The technology and social structure of the Gilded Age that made the fair a success also allowed Holmes to operate with impunity. Larson brings an immediacy to the book that makes it difficult to put down; his almost off-hand recounting of the present-day echoes of the fair is a delight.
This book is worth your time, if only to provide parallel views into worlds we will never inhabit: the fantasy of the fair, Chicago society in 1892, and the mind of a psychopathic killer. Both are fascinating and in their own ways remind us that things, good or bad, are never really what they seem.
Book Review: Unlocking The Sky January 14, 2009Posted by Chuck Musciano in Book Reviews.
Tags: Aviation, Book Reviews, Software
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Everyone knows the story of the first airplane flight: working tirelessly in their Ohio bicycle shop, Orville and Wilbur Wright develop the first modern airplane, which they successfully fly on the coast of North Carolina in December of 1903. They go on to refine their design and earn their rightful place as the fathers of modern aviation.
Right? Wrong. Following their initial success, the reclusive Wrights continued their work in Ohio but shared absolutely nothing with fellow aviators of the day. Although the Wrights borrowed extensively from those who preceded them, they spent the rest of their lives litigating against anyone who dared to build any other aircraft. Their secretive nature impeded early aircraft development and nearly ruined the true father of modern aviation, Glenn Curtiss.
Seth Shulman shares the story of Glenn Curtiss in Unlocking The Sky. Detailed and well-written, the book recounts a crucial phase of modern technology in an accessible and compelling fashion. Truthfully, the book is hard to put down and is easily read in an evening or two.
Glenn Curtiss began his career as a motorcycle designer, building fast small engines that propelled him to a world land speed record of 136 MPH in 1907. At that time, lightweight engines were the real key to aviation success, delivering enough thrust to push early inefficient aircraft into the sky. With no formal education, Glenn Curtiss found himself designing and building the first modern aircraft, far exceeding the achievements of the Wright brothers. He made the first publicly announced (and witnessed) flight in 1908, covering a kilometer before a panel of judges, and set the world speed record in Rheims, France a year later in 1909.
His achievements incensed the Wrights, and they spent the rest of their lives trying to destroy Curtiss. Using a few patents that had been inappropriately interpreted by the courts, the Wrights sought to bankrupt Curtiss and regain control of aircraft development throughout the world. The Wrights went as far as to force the Smithsonian to remove references to Curtiss from their history of aviation as a prerequisite to displaying the Wright Flyer in the museum. (The Flyer was initially displayed in the British Royal Museum for years until the Smithsonian acquiesced to Orville Wright’s demands.)
Beyond the excitement of early aviation and the drama of the Wright litigation, Shulman’s book offers other lessons to modern developers one hundred years later. Although Shulman did not set out to write a book about open versus proprietary software development, anyone versed in the field cannot help but draw conclusions between the distressing behavior of the Wrights and the open, collaborative nature of Curtiss. Curtiss believed in sharing everything he learned so that the dream of manned flight would be realized and enhanced. The Wrights sought to contgrol and protect even the smallest details of their airplanes to extract as much profit as possible.
Certainly, the Wrights represent the most restrictive approach to technical development. Curtiss, while making seminal contributions to the field of aviation, never fully capitalized on the value of his inventions. Readers seeking to find a happy medium between the two will certainly enjoy learning more about early aviation as they read this compelling, fascinating book.