Wednesday, July 18, 2012


“When you go to build a cathedral, you must build your foundation strong.” Robin Longstride in Ridley Scott’s version of the Robin Hood story. Or you can go with Sir Isaac Newton. “If I have seen further than other men it’s because I’ve stood on the shoulders of giants.”

The president made a speech the other day. Rush Limbaugh excerpted about three sentences from the whole thing and issued one of his over the top fulminations. Oh, Rush, the gift that just keeps giving, like dysentery. 

“I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together." (Ok, maybe he was speaking off the cuff and wasn't as clear as he could have been)

The president didn’t say businesses don’t succeed on individual hard work and creativity. He did say that you have to have a strong foundation to build on. And a profound appreciation for all the hard work that went into building those foundations. That pyramid of strong shoulders we stand on.

Some early human realized that you could use scrap rock with sharp edges to cut pieces off a critter. The first brick in the foundation came when somebody, somehow realized he/she could recreate that edge on demand. That you could shape those rocks, put them on the end of a long piece of wood and have a more reliable weapon than a sharpened stick.

Lightning starts fire. Humans made it semi portable. More bricks went in when several somebody’s figured out how to make it reliable and portable. How DO you get from rubbing sticks together really, really fast to making fire? How DO you get the idea of putting a piece of string (after you’ve invented string), gut or tendon between the ends of a piece of wood and using it to shoot another piece of wood with a stone tip at something, preferably dinner.

Domesticating animals for meat, milk, hides and fleece. Love to know how that happened. When did some bright man or woman (Probably a woman, men still hate to take out the garbage) notice that the wild grain they’d been gathering was growing near the camp’s rubbish tip?

Weaving? How did we get to that? Watch spiders spin their webs? But spiders don’t use looms or spinning wheels. What Neolithic genius fastened a piece of hide to a stick and used it to catch the wind to help move his raft along? And who the heck was the unsung genius somewhere in the Med who came up with the Lateen sail. That triangular steering sail that lets a ship tack against the wind?

Wheels? And some folks saw the Central American natives as backward because they put wheels on their kid’s toys but didn’t use them the way Europeans did. And did I also mention they lived in either a jungle or steep mountains or both. Even the northern Europeans used the sea, rivers or man made rivers when they could.

The biggest improvements in the last thousand years haven’t been in how we do the jobs but where we get the power to do them. From animals walking in circles to power millstones to water wheels to internal combustion engines. Same job, different power source. And what genius figured out how to use a series of wheels and gears to turn the round and around motion of a water wheel into up and down or back and forth to power sawmills, lathes, trip hammers the whole foundation of industry. Actually, what genius realized he could put two really big wheels together with flat pieces of wood between and harness the power of a river in the first place. All Watt’s engine did was make it possible to have your factory someplace besides the edge of a river or canal. As long has you could get fuel you could keep the engines going. 

The president’s speech might have been better written but it was said in praise of the foundation builders. The ones who provided the tools for the bright, hard working business builders we have now.

Cross posted in Women On

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