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Archive for September 8th, 2009

The Invention of the Wheelbarrow Is What Made the Great Castles and Cathedrals Possible

Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

by: Geoff Ficke

Virtually every modern household has a basic wheelbarrow stored away. The use of the wheelbarrow is ubiquitous in construction and basic home chores. The design, form and function of the wheelbarrow has not appreciable changed for 700 years. And yet, this simple tool is one of history’s great advances in creating labor productivity.

No one knows who invented the wheelbarrow. The Chinese used crude, primitive sorts of wheeled carts, similar to the modern unit, as early as the 1st century. It wasn’t until the 13th century, however, that the type of wheelbarrow we now recognize and utilize was known to be in common use.

The forward and centered placement of the wheel made the modern unit more practical to use. One man could leverage and control much more weight with the new version. Historically it took two or more men, using flat stretchers to move heavy material loads. This made construction very labor intensive and slow.

Use of the wheelbarrow was an efficient new method of speeding the construction of the great edifices constructed all over Europe in the Middle Ages. It is quite possible that many of the architectural wonders we enjoy to this day would look very different, and have much smaller scale without the employment of the basic wheelbarrow. Notre Dame, St. Pauls Cathedral, or Windsor Castle would most assuredly not be the wondrous edifices that amaze and thrill us if not for the simple, but essential use of this mundane tool.

The invention of the wheelbarrow resulted from the simple rearrangement of already existing components. The wheel existed. The barrow existed. The principles of leverage were well known. Nevertheless, these elements were not co-mingled in one unit and perfected to become the useful advance in labor saving and productivity that we use to this day until someone creatively addressed this need.

The 21st century presents the creative, entrepreneurial class many opportunities to address and solve real needs. There has never been a better time for the commercialization of new products and services. All over the world inventors, engineers and companies are striving to discover answers and solutions to health, energy, resource, agriculture and material needs. The rate of innovation accelerates each decade. The world is a better place for this bustling outpouring of energy, courage, investment and creativity.

The simple wheelbarrow is a metaphor for progress. This most basic of tools has performed yeoman work for centuries. This invention is a model for modern inventors. Identify and solve a basic need that is present in your personal, social or work universe. Answering real needs with simple solutions can provide the path to fame, fortune and personal satisfaction.

The consumer is the ultimate beneficiary. Life is improved each time a new product is introduced that offers better features and benefits than are currently available. A modern truism is this: “Never the greatest, only the latest”. Novelty and fresh takes on old products are always in demand.

Our Demise is Greatly Overstated The United States’ Future is Incandescent

Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

by: Geoff Ficke

As we slog along under the full weight of the current financial calamity, there is much weeping and gnashing of teeth about the future of the United States. Many of our countries fiercest enemies and critics are gloating over their perception that our wave has crested and we have entered a period of steep decline as an economic, military and cultural power. Amongst the citizenry, there is a palpable sense that the country is on the wrong track. In reality this has ever been so.

The 19th century Canadian politician Wilfrid Laurier once famously spouted, “the 19th century was the century of the United States. I think we can claim that it is Canada that shall fill the 20th century”. Oh really! Now I love Canada and Canadians. They produce wonderful comedians like Jim Carrey, John Candy and Rick Moranis, great hockey players, the moose hunting is amazing and Labatt’s is a terrific brew. The Canadians prospered nicely in the 20th century, but by any measure Mr. Laurier’s observation was classic balderdash. He is but one of a long chorus of critics that prematurely dismissed American prospects to their regret and embarrassment.

The current President of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev has blamed the United States solely for the global financial crisis, assigned blame for Russia’s thuggish unilateral military invasion of tiny Georgia on American policy and stated that America would descend to second tier status as a global power. This from the leader of a country with a declining population, staggering levels of alcoholism and drug abuse, clepto-capitalism, a military hobbled by desertion and archaic weapons systems, declining productivity and a complete lack of innovation. How bright is the future of the average Russian eking out a living in Vladisvostock?

There are always doubters and cheerleaders fueling the notion that America is in decline. The Soviet and Eastern European Communists, for 70 years predicted they would overcome us. Nikita Kruschev famously shouted at the United Nations, “we will bury you”. Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda believed that we would never stand and fight; shedding blood and treasure, just to preserve our freedoms. Hussein is dead and Bin Laden is hiding in a cave as a result of their misjudgments and fundamental misunderstandings of our resolve.

American uber-leftists like Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky travel the world trashing the United States. The capitalist system that has enabled the country to prosper and made the Moore’s and Chomsky’s rich, is continually denigrated and blamed for every perceived malady we face. Capitalism is not perfect. It simply is the greatest engine for economic prosperity ever yet developed.

Why will America emerge from our current difficulties with a brighter, stronger future outlook than so many of our critic’s project? Simply put, America has the ability to adapt and re-invent itself like no other country or culture in history. We are more receptive to immigrants than almost any other country and they constantly infuse the land with energy, creativity and continually stir the stew that makes the United States so unique. Our society is the most fluid in the history of the world. New ideas are always emerging. America’s unique vitality separates us from most other countries that have static state centered economies.

There is no place on earth, at any time in history, where entrepreneurial activity is so valued and pursued as in America. This constant blast of creativity bears fruit in so many beneficial ways. Through hard work, novelty and inventiveness, utilizing the capitalistic economy, rule of law and property rights, entrepreneurs have the potential to build enterprises that provide products and services, profits, employment and social benefits that make America uniquely dynamic. Times are tough, but the will to succeed is irrepressible.

Another reason the future for America is so bright in my estimation is our ability to laugh at ourselves. This country has many sourpuss types, doomsayers, negativists and self-haters. However, these “nattering nabobs of negativism” are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of Americans that revere the country, appreciate her innate precious goodness and have the ability to laugh at our collective foibles and faults. This is a trait of which we can, and should be proud. It is a trait that is found almost nowhere else in the world.

We have survived wars, depressions, natural disasters, and terrorism. The fiscal difficulties we currently confront are in large part self-inflicted. We have not been diligent in demanding that our government act prudently over the last 75 years. We spend too much and save too little. We want much more than we need. We confuse greed and envy with comfort and safety.

The country also just elected a black man, a minority, to be President of the United States. This could only happen in America. Could a North African rise to such heights in France? Could a Turkish immigrant achieve the equivalent office in Germany? Could a Filipino laborer rise to these heights in the Middle East? Of course not! This country, its values and opportunities, is the beacon of hope that ordinary people all over the world aspire to emulate.

This is a wonderful time for each of us as citizens to take stock of our personal and societal situations and adjust to a reality that is based on real needs, not the irrational pursuit of materialism. We must demand that politicians stop bribing us for our votes with promises of benefits that some future generation will be saddled with paying for. This is the best possible time for Americans to reflect, adjust and re-energize this wonderfully dynamic country.

The Art and Modern Importance of Roman Cement

Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

by: Geoff Ficke

Cement is the most widely used building material in the world and has been for thousands of years. The historical record confirms that the ancient Persians, Assyrians and Babylonians used cement in the binding and affixing of mud bricks. The Egyptians also used cement in construction. It was the Romans, however, that perfected the production of slaked cement that made many construction advances possible.

The basic materials that the ancients used to make cement were readily available, then as now. Sand, water and rocks, the basic ingredients in cement, are essentially found anywhere in the world. The first great advance in the evolution of the production of cement was the Roman invention of the pozzalana technique. The Romans found that volcanic ash from Mount Vesuvius, when mixed with slaked lime; sand and water produced an amazingly versatile type of cement. It was easier to work with and delivered much greater strength than previous blends.

Many of the monuments and buildings so gloriously built by the ancient Romans, standing to this day, benefited from the perfection of pozzalana cement. Hadrians Arch, the Forum, the Roman Baths, the Appian Way, the Church of Constantine and many more edifices were strengthened utilizing this simple, but essential construction product. The proof of the utility of pozzalana cement is on display every where you look in modern Rome. Ancient walls of pozzalana cement as thick as 12 feet have been discovered at a number of Roman archeological dig sites.

Amazingly, the secret of pozzalana cement was soon lost and was not re-discovered until the 18th century, when the scientific age of discovery was in full bloom. The lost recipe for Roman cement was re-invented and continued in use until Portland cement was perfected in the 19th century. Portland cement is the gold standard product for building material to this day.

For almost 1500 years builders were limited because an ancient method of improving simple cement was lost. We know that many of the inventions of the ancient world went extinct as well. Bathing and personal hygiene became rare, directly contributing to advance of disease and the great Plague.

Running water and sanitation systems, common in ancient Rome, were lost and did not reappear until the late middle ages. Agriculture techniques, brewing spirits, military organization and strategy, road building and trade routes were lost for centuries as well.

Today we take much for granted. We assume that things will always be convenient, food prevalent, choices abounding and affordable. The lesson of history is that this is not necessarily so. Societies do recede. Knowledge can be lost. We must protect and value our freedoms, knowledge, science and creativity.

Today, in a good portion of the world, the populace lives much as the most backward ‘burgher of the Dark Ages lived. Subsistence farming is prevalent. Clean water is not available. Hygiene is unknown. Basic medical care and drugs are not to be found. These populations do not choose this bleak existence, they have simply never known anything else but the horrid grate of endless poverty, ignorance and hunger.

In other areas of the world, owing to religious or societal mores, there is no desire to live a modern lifestyle. The whole goal is to live as if the year were 908 rather than 2008. In too many instances, unfortunately and dangerously, these populations not only wish to live lives of physical deprivation but they want the rest of us to be forced to accept their hatred of modernity and be forced to share their aversion of contemporary comforts.

The inventions that the Romans perfected and left for subsequent generations were soon lost. The world went into a period of darkness. Creativity and science went into torpor. It could happen again. It could happen to us if we let down our guard and allow our advances and knowledge base to wither and decline. It will happen if some fanatics have their way and can force their ideology on peoples not appreciative of their freedoms. Freedom isn’t free and gains can easily be lost.

How Modern Banking Is Inter-twined With an Ancient Military Order

Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

by: Geoff Ficke

The world is currently fixated on the international credit crisis and the role banking has played in this debacle. We take it for granted that commerce flows quickly and accurately across borders and frontiers. A resident of Maine can purchase a tank of gas at home, or in Italy with the same credit card. The purchase will be accurately debited to their account, their credit limit will be adjusted and the merchant will receive an electronic transfer of the charge into their account almost simultaneously. This type of commerce happens many millions of times each day and we take its simplicity for granted.

The history of the rise of organized banking is a bit more plodding and evolves from a most unlikely source. Today our knowledge of the Knights Templar is garnered mostly from popular culture such as the Indiana Jones movies. The history of this iconic fighting force, and their evolution into the first international commercial group of the middle ages is as amazing a tale as can be told in any fictional movie or novel.

The Knights Templar was formed after the initial Christian victory in the First Crusade to take Jerusalem from the Muslims in 1099. Pilgrims from all over the Christian world wanted to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Holy Land. However, travel at that time was exceedingly dangerous. The Knights Templar was first organized as a monastic order to protect the pilgrims as they traveled. They took a strict vow of poverty.

Over the next 200 years the order flourished and developed into a renowned fighting force. With their sturdy mounts, white hooded tunics displaying the Red Cross, and shiny armor, they lead the way into numerous battles against the enemies of Christendom. The vow of poverty was strictly enforced, but many royal and noble families delivered their sons to the Knights Templar to curry favor with the Papacy of the Catholic Church.

The Knights Templar enjoyed favored status with popes and archbishops from all over Europe and North Africa, for their reverence, gallantry and honesty. They were often rewarded with alms, farms, lands and livestock. Their power grew as the public recognized the special relationship they enjoyed with the clerical hierarchy of the Church.

Many pilgrimage makers came to depend on the Knights Templar to hold their valuables in safekeeping as they made the difficult journey. The order created secure safe storage facilities at strategic locations along the most used routes. They developed a type of written chit that verified that they held certain monies and valuables owned by the bearer. Upon arrival in the Holy Land, the bearer could visit a Knights Templar outpost, present their receipt and receive monies, bullion or goods in kind, the equivalent of that left behind in the order’s care.

This was the first form of bank cheque and was probably the earliest form of organized international banking. The system evolved as the Knights Templar gained vast new riches, even though they were still vowing to live a life of poverty. Previous to their development of rudimentary banking products most trade was accomplished by crude barter. They became the richest entity in the world at that time and began to suffer the increased scrutiny of their historic protectors in the Catholic Church.

By the 14th century, the church moved to disband the Knights Templar and martyred many that were captured. The order became a secretive underground society and rumors of their activities and continued existence are legend to this day. The locations of the lost gold, silver, jewels, art and religious artifacts that the Knights Templar acquired and hoarded in their many adventures is also the stuff of fables and lore. The lost Holy Grail, and all of the fabulous tales attached to this famed relic from the Last Supper, is often connected to the Knights Templar.

The commercial activity that the simple, novel creation of a system for verifying bank guarantees is actually the Knights Templar’s greatest contribution to mankind. This simple transactional device has proven far more valuable historically than their military conquests and reputation for living pious lives. It is certainly not what they are best known for. But it is an invention that has positively effected commerce and productivity to this very day.

In a World of Mass Market Indifference There Is Still Room for Bespoke Quality

Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

by: Geoff Ficke

One of the most illuminating professional experiences of my life was my first visit to the elegant center of British Bespoke male haberdashery, Saville Row in London’s exclusive Mayfair district. I was a young man, just starting my career in the international cosmetic business and, while knowing of the worldwide reputation for excellence of English hand tailored gentleman’s clothing, I had never experienced this level of quality and artisan craftsmanship. I was building my wardrobe from off the rack suits purchased from American department stores.

On my very first visit to London in the early 1970’s, I was most anxious to window shop the famous little alley known worldwide as Saville Row. Tucked inauspiciously behind the much more commercial and busy Regent Street, the languid pace and understated elegance of the short street was a shock. It seemed almost as if the tailors and shop proprietors were trying to avoid successful commercialization. The shops were small, signage was petite and inauspicious and window displays were presented as simply as possible. The full focus was on the vast array bolts of cloth in endless colors, patterns and weights, classic tailoring and quality bespoke customization.

I was mesmerized but dared not enter a single establishment. The next day, at breakfast, my English distributor asked what I had done and seen during my free day in London. I described my walking tour of the amazing cities streets and my fascination, in particular, with Saville Row. My agent asked if I was going to make an appointment for a fitting with one of the tailor’s. “Of course not”, I replied “Saville Row level of bespoke tailoring is a little out of my range”.

For the next hour my agent became my tutor on the fine points of owning a quality British gentleman’s suit of clothing. He insisted that it was not a daunting experience or pretentious for a young American to enjoy what English gentlemen took for granted when assembling their wardrobes. More importantly, while the bespoke suit may cost more initially, it will provide much better value because the superior custom fit, quality fabric and hand craftsmanship will insure that the suit will wear much longer and provide a much better fit than any off the rack garment ever could. He suggested we make an appointment with his Saville Row tailor, and so we did.

The term “bespoke” is so very British. It simply means “to be spoken for”. In other words a bespoke suit is built solely for a specific client’s unique body shape and personal preferences. Saville Row tailors keep meticulous records of every client’s sizes, styling preferences, cloth and color choices and accessories. Each fitting is treated as the most important fitting the tailor will ever perform, because it actually is!

My first bespoke suit was tailored for me at No. 1 Saville Row, the famous address of Gieves & Hawkes. This, most famous, and typically British institution traces its origins to the late 1700’s. The firm is the holder of numerous royal warrants and has served customers ranging from Napoleon Bonaparte, to Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin, to David Beckham. After 250 years in business in London, Gieves & Hawkes still tailors less than 1000 suits each year.

The shop has had many offers to mass produce a line of suits and sportswear that could be sold internationally in huge volumes. The owners have stringently avoided taking this route. The Gieves & Hawkes brand, so assiduously and painstakingly nurtured and harvested for generations, is not to be tinkered with.

We live in a world where millions of consumers can, and do, enjoy the fruits of mass production, economies of scale and international distribution logistics that make these products affordable and readily available. This is a blessing for all of us. However, it is a comforting thought, that old world, hand crafted, prideful products, such as the bespoke tailored gentleman’s clothing lovingly sewn by Gieves & Hawkes, and other Saville Row firms are still on offer to those who wish to choose quality over quantity.