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Electricity and the Gold Rush

Electricity and the Gold Rush

The early days of the internet, and in particular the booms of the late nineties and mid noughties had lots of strong parallels with the Californian Gold Rush of 1850s. 300,000 men and women from all walks of life arrived by land and sea, and in less than ten years they shipped $600m of gold out of California. The phrase “abandon ship” originated in California harbour, as the 150,000 prospectors who arrived by ship simply wouldn’t wait for the ships to tie up in harbour, and so just jumped overboard.

These forty–niners were wild speculators, giving up not just manual and low paid jobs, but leaving professions in medicine, law, finance and commerce to go in search of huge personal wealth.  They bore an unbecoming swagger in their search for gold, pushing Native Americans off their land and leaving environmental damage which took decades to repair.

The problem with a gold rush is that when it’s over, it’s over.  When the last nugget of gold is mined from the ground there can be no gold rush II.  All that is left is the hangover, and the regret which can only come when you’ve gambled high on black and the ball has landed on red.

Sound familiar?

Unfortunately the early days of the internet resembled the gold rush more than many in the internet industry would like to admit.  Many speculated high, leaving well paid professional jobs in search of over hyped positions and massive personal wealth.  When the busts arrived just after the late 90s and mid 00s, they were left with nothing.

Thankfully, along the way the internet industry learned some manners and realised they were going to have to build and run successful businesses the way that successful businesses had always been built and ran, with sound planning for growth, a focus on profit, and well serviced customers.  And so, for the last decade, the gold rush speculators in the internet world have been gradually replaced by the electricity innovators.

Edison is credited with inventing the light bulb, but more accurately he should be credited with mass producing the first commercially viable light bulb, in 1880.  Such was the impact of the invention (allied with its efficient mass production) that a frenzy similar to the gold rush, ensued.  As a result the US Government sanctioned massive infrastructure investments to bring light to homes all over America.  Roads were dug up, cables were laid, and many new homes were built with light already wired.

America had discovered not electricity, but the electrically powered light bulb.  It was light which drove this infrastructure investment, not electricity.  However this immediately spawned an energetic era of innovation and invention.

Though it’s hard to comprehend, early inventions included the on / off switch, so that the bulb owner didn’t have to screw it in and out each time it was to be used.  It was at least two decades later before electricity was delivered to homes not through light switches hanging from the ceiling, but through generic sockets fitted to the wall.

This was in response to the frenzy of innovation which saw the invention of the skinner hoover (bombed dreadfully) leading to the vacuum hoover (massive commercial success); the electric tie press (commercial failure, people decided they would rather just not get their ties crumpled in the first place); electric fan (huge success); the toaster and ultimately the washing machine. These early appliances set the environment for the wholesale manufacture of electrical goods, and ultimately computer goods, which fill our homes today.

The mindset between the two eras of frenzy couldn’t be more contrasting, one typified by the search for excessive personal wealth at all costs, and the other driven by a desire to exceed, excel, improve, innovate and make life better.  There was no such thing as the last nugget of electricity, as the only barrier to the future was creativity.

As we look on the dawn of a new decade we have nothing holding us back but our imagination.  In the midst of the worst recession in recent decades the challenge is clear for a new generation of internet entrepreneurs, to dream and to create the future, driven not by the desire for massive personal wealth, but rather because they know that good is never good enough.

To take the analogy to its conclusion, we haven’t even reached the stage on the internet where the generic electric socket has reached the wall.  We’re not even at the end of the beginning yet.

Let’s do it!

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth formed Fathom in 2011 and has been in the business of design performance for over two decades.

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