Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: Britain and the American Dream (Peter Moore)

The concept of “liberty” as part of political practice had been an evolving process in England going back to the Magna Carta in the 13th Century. Philosophers and politicians ebbed and flowed with the idea of rights, particularly for white men with property but also gradually extending through the various classes of English society. Liberty became a cause for those coming to America in the 17th and 18th Centuries, whether to seek religious freedom or economic liberty through charting a new course in life. This “export” from Britain to America gradually shaped the concepts of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as espoused in the Declaration of Independence. Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: Britain and the American Dream, by Peter Moore, shows how those concepts evolved in America over the decades preceding its revolution.

Moore’s book centers around Benjamin Franklin’s relationship with English publisher William Strahan, as well as Strahan’s relationships with English philosophers and writers such as Samuel Johnson, Catharine Macaulay, and John Wilkes. These individuals, in many respects, helped shape the cause of liberty that the American colonies gradually adopted as their justification for breaking away from England. Interspersed with plenty of correspondence, the book artfully weaves in political events that help shape the gradual deterioration of relations between England and America. While Jefferson ultimately put those famous words to paper in 1776, it was the concept of these philosophers and writers that ultimately shaped American (and even English) thinking in the late 18th Century.

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness was a wonderful read – well-researched and full of insight. 


Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Virtuous Bankers: A Day in the Life of the Eighteenth-Century Bank of England (Anne Murphy)

The Bank of England was established as a private business in the 17th Century and operated as such until the 1940’s when it was nationalized. For centuries, the bank operated for the benefit of its shareholders and customers but became, much like the banks in the United States, an enterprise that was a great economic engine for Great Britain. But just what was a day in the life in the 18th Century Bank of England like? Anne Murphy shows us how this burgeoning financial institution operated in Virtuous Bankers: A Day in the Life of the Eighteenth-Century Bank of England.

Murphy discusses the various roles of bank employees - tellers, clerks, plate printers, and trustees - over the course of a typical bank day in 1783 or 1784. Much of this book is sourced on the notes from a Committee of Inspection that examined the bank’s finances and its operations in this timeframe, shaping a “day in the life” of banking activities.

Besides the basic financial roles of bank employees during the day, night watchmen patrolled the bank after hours and of course, someone had to clean up after the various horses and humans that needed to use the facilities outside of the bank during the day. Eighteenth-Century London certainly lacked the cleanliness and charm that it has today; however, it had all of the financial importance and hustle of a major global city. The Bank of England played a critical role in financing Britain’s growth, and Murphy captures how the bank operated over 200 years in great detail. Virtuous Bankers is a great read for anyone with a financial and history inclination.


Saturday, November 11, 2023

The Greatest Capitalist Who Ever Lived: Tom Watson Jr. and the Epic Story of How IBM Created the Digital Age (Ralph Watson McElvenny and Marc Wortman)

Thomas Watson Jr. was the 2nd generation CEO and leader of IBM, taking over from his father in the 1950’s and guiding the organization for nearly 20 years. Coined “the greatest capitalist in history” by Fortune magazine in 1984, Watson’s success at IBM helped drive the technological revolution that Microsoft, Google, and countless other companies have used to guide even more substantial innovation and wealth. The story of Watson’s life and his career are told in The Greatest Capitalist Who Ever Lived: Tom Watson Jr. and the Epic Story of How IBM Created the Digital Age by Ralph Watson McElvenny (Watson’s grandson) and Marc Wortman.

The authors chronicle the history of IBM and both Watson Sr. and Jr. over a several decade timeframe. IBM was born shortly before Watson Sr. was fired from NCR in 1914, renamed in 1924 from the original founding name of CTR (Computing-Tabulating-Recording). Watson Sr. guided the company until 1952, when he handed the reins to his son. For over 20 years, Watson’s leadership helped grow the company into a multibillion dollar enterprise and revolutionized IBM by pivoting the company into computers. While the move initially almost bankrupted the company, Watson’s leadership and executive team helped steady the initially turbulent period in the midst of the rollout of System360 and System370.

The Greatest Capitalist Who Ever Lived dives into Watson’s battle with his father while moving up through the ranks at IBM, along with his struggles in working with his brother Dick, also an executive with IBM. There were also diplomatic efforts that Watson undertook, helping provide guidance and advice to several presidents and serving as U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union in the 1970’s. 

McElvenny and Wortman do a great service in chronicling Watson Jr. through this book and any business-inclined individual would likely benefit from reading it.


Wednesday, November 8, 2023

One Fine Day: Britain's Empire on the Brink (Matthew Parker)

The British Empire reached its peak in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, covering large swaths of the world’s land footprint. The English also boasted arguably the world’s best and most formidable navy in the years leading up to World War I. September 29th, 1923 marked the British Mandate for Palestine taking effect after League of Nations approval. Matthew Parker uses this date as the basis of his book One Fine Day: Britain’s Empire on the Brink.

One Fine Day is a global walkabout through the British Empire in late 1923: the challenges it is facing and the events that are slowly developing that will eventually cause the Empire to fall apart over the next several decades. The British Empire at this point had 14 million square miles of real estate (including its independent dominions in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand) and 460 million people were subjects of King Geoge V. However, there were many challenges: developing nationalist movements in India and numerous African and West Indies colonies are given significant coverage. A story of the exploitation of Ocean Island’s (also known as Banaba) natural resources shows one element of the dark side of British business interests in this era. 

Parker pays great attention to the economic issues facing Britain and the world during this time, much of it aftershocks of World War I disrupting the economic order of the late 19th Century. The author also pulls in observations from Orwell and Forster, both of whom were working in India at various points and writing about their experiences in Asia. One Fine Day is a fine book, full of detailed and insightful stories about an Empire that was about to undergo a dramatic reduction and transformation in its next several decades.


Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Murderabilia: A History of Crime in 100 Objects (Harold Schechter)

With podcasts developing like My Favorite Murder and Serial, the popularity of the true crime genre seems to have had a comeback in recent years. Although with older books such as Helter Skelter and In Cold Blood, I'm not sure it ever really wasn't popular.

Harold Schechter's Murderabilia: A History of Crime in 100 Objects is an interesting look at 100 true crime cases in a few pages each. Of course there are the standard cases most people have heard of like the Black Dahlia and the Manson murders. But there are some cases that may have been infamous in their time but are probably more obscure to modern-day people.

Schechter begins each case with an image of an object that has to do with it (such as the shotgun used in the Clutter family murders). I thought that more could have been woven in about each object in the case (sometimes it's barely mentioned), but all in all, I did find Murderabilia a worthwhile book for true crime readers.


Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Once a Giant: A Story of Victory, Tragedy, and Life After Football (Gary Myers)

The 1986 New York Giants were one of the best Super Bowl champions in history, winning all but two of their games and only losing those two games by a combined eight points. The Giants’ first championship since the 1950’s set the stage for another Super Bowl championship four years later. Gary Myers’s book Once a Giant: A Story of Victory, Tragedy, and Life After Football is an account about how these football players and coaches bonded off the field and have continued to maintain strong friendships over 35 years after their Super Bowl championship.

Myers interviews a number of Giants players and coaches, including head coach Bill Parcells and star players Phil Simms and Lawrence Taylor. These interviews cover their time as teammates as well as their lives after football. For many of them, the toll of playing the game and the repeated hitting that is a part of the sport caused nagging long-term effects that included some former players contemplating suicide. Through it all, many of the 1986 Giants have been able to confront and survive these challenges together.

Once a Giant is a great read for Giants fans. The book is balanced, enjoyable to read, and provides several good laughs from some of the anecdotes.


Thursday, October 5, 2023

Ice: From Mixed Drinks to Skating Rinks -- a Cool History of a Hot Commodity (Amy Brady)

Many of us have the ability to get an ice cube on demand from our refrigerator or are within a reasonable drive or walk to get ice cream from a stand or grocery store. The ability to chill and produce frozen concoctions of some sort is one of the modern conveniences that has had a long, winding evolution to get to its current state.  Author and historian Amy Brady chronicles the frozen journey in Ice: From Mixed Drinks to Skating Rinks – a Cool History of a Hot Commodity.

Brady’s book is a mostly entertaining story of how ice evolved from a regional means of keeping things cold to how we use ice today - not just keeping items chilled but also a key ingredient in any chilled drinks and desserts, as well as the year-round recreational pursuit of skating in an indoor rink. Ice shares the invention and technological advancement of ice making and refrigeration and the good (and bad) that resulted from it. Early pioneers in the field of artificial ice making were scoffed upon and ridiculed for their attempts at “playing God” while their technology was eventually co-opted and used in further advancements in refrigeration that became more widespread.

Some individuals who are prominent in the history of America’s ice trade and evolution of ice aren’t included in the story - many in Washington, DC, and in Ohio may know of Mike Uline’s business interests in both the production of ice and the indoor arena that had his name on it in our nation’s capital. However, other unique and even entertaining stories are included. Ice has played a powerful role in transforming American life and our economy over the centuries and Ice (the book) captures much of that story in an effective way.