Capitalism’s only existed for 500 years or so.
In that time, some businesses have shaped human society more than others, whether by subjugating continents and controlling commodities or giving us microwaves and cheeseburgers.
Here are a few of the ones that have shaped our modern world.
At one point in history, the British East India company accounted for half the world's trade, mostly through dominating the spice trade.
Other items on the state-sanctioned company's resume: It began the British domination of India and started the Opium Wars in China.
The results were truly historic, Asia Times reports:
In 1700, India and China accounted for 47% of world gross domestic product while Western Europe's share was a mere 26%. By 1870, the Asian giants slumped to a combined 29% of world GDP and Western Europe leaped to 42%. The East India Company was the primary device for this reversal of world scales.
The British East India Company also helped shape the U.S. The British Parliament signed the Tea Act in 1773 to get rid of the millions of pounds of tea that the East India Company had stored in its warehouses by selling it to the American colonies, where they had a monopoly on tea.
Vexed by the taxation without representation, the colonies promptly held a Boston Tea Party.
You know the rest.
In 2008, for the first time in human history, the majority of people lived in cities.
If cities are to grow denser -- that is, taller -- they need elevators.
The company that made elevators friendly is called Otis, founded by the American industrialist Elisha Otis.
'Before Otis' invention, buildings rarely reached seven stories (elevators were considered just too dangerous to implement),' ArchDaily writes. 'But it was Otis' elevator that would allow for the creation, and proliferation of, the skyscraper -- an explosion that would for ever alter the 20th and 21st century skylines.'
Thanks to Otis, our biggest cities are stuffed with skyscrapers:
• Hong Kong has 1,268
• New York has 595
• Tokyo has 411
• Chicago has 293
• Dubai has 249
John D. Rockefeller cofounded Standard Oil in 1870. He'd become the richest American in history, with an estimated net worth of $US440 billion.
The money came from leading a monopoly of the most valuable commodity in the world. By the 1880s, Standard Oil controlled the refining, distributing, and the rest of the oil industry.
On May 15, 1911, the Supreme Court broke up Standard Oil, on the grounds that the mega-corporation violated the Sherman Antitrust Act. The result was 34 separate companies, with descendants including ExxonMobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips.
That breakup is a big part of the history of journalism, since it was hastened by muckraker Ida Tarbell's mammoth 'The History of the Standard Oil Company.'
A year after he invented the telephone in 1876, Alexander Graham Bell started the Bell Telephone Company. It was soon acquired by American Telephone and Telegraph Company, which you know as AT&T.
It became a monopoly: If you were making a call in the 20th century, it was probably through AT&T.
The company became the center of American telecommunications, presiding over a telephone monopoly until 1984, when the government broke it up, like Standard Oil before it.
The descendants of old-school AT&T -- also known as Ma Bell -- are the so-called Baby Bells, like Verizon, Bellsouth, and Southwestern Bell.
Thomas Edison and three others founded General Electric in 1892. Edison had lots of companies beforehand; GE allowed him to put his eggs into a singular basket.
In the first half of the 20th century, GE transformed American domestic life. In 1905, GE brought toasters and electric ranges into American homes. In 1917, GE introduced 'the first hermetically sealed home refrigerators.' In 1930, the first electric washing machine. In 1935, GE lamps lit the first nighttime baseball game. In 1938, GE invents the fluorescent lamp. In 1942, the first American jet engine. In 1954, the dish washer. In 1957, the first nuclear power plant. In 1958, the can opener.
In short, most of your appliances sprang from GE.
That level of sustained innovation is unparalleled: GE is the only company from the original Dow Jones Industrial Average -- started in 1896 -- that's still around.
In 1896, Henry Ford went into the workshop behind his house in Michigan and built his first gasoline-powered vehicle. At the time, he was an engineer for the Edison Illuminating Company in Detroit.
We have two major inheritances from Ford.
In 1908, Ford introduced the Model T, fulfilling his dream of making a car that the middle class could afford. By 1918, it would account for half the cars in America. Ever since then, the auto industry has competed in making the top 'economy' car.
The other is organizational -- Ford was a pioneer in mass production, using interchangeable parts and the assembly line to allow for the economies of scale that consumer goods companies strive for.
We can thank Xerox for the devices we spend our days with -- researchers at its famed Palo Alto Research Center invented the mouse, the desktop computer, and the graphic user interface, which freed computing from the medium of text.
In one of the great failures of corporate leadership, the leaders of Xerox didn't think the graphic user interface was that big of a deal, allowing upstarts like Apple and Microsoft to make the most of it.
Still, the company mostly laughed to the bank.
'While Xerox never commercialized all the wonderful technologies at PARC,' writes Arun Rao in 'The History of Silicon Valley,' 'the company did earn billions from these innovations, and so made its money back many times over.'
Although Pan Am folded in 1991, the airliner changed the world by making flying cool. As Fortune writes:
When the Beatles invaded America, they stepped off Pan Am flight 101 at JFK. James Bond flew Pan Am between New York and London (in Live and Let Die). When 2001: A Space Odyssey debuted in 1968, it was obvious whose logo would have to be on the vehicle that took tourists into orbit.
In that way, Pan Am established the aspirational slickness that companies like Virgin have been riffing on ever since. The luxury was a business practice, Fortune continues -- Pan Am always bought the first editions of new planes, like the Boeing 707 and 747, which created incentives for manufacturers while keeping Pan Am aggressively elite in the eyes of the flying public.
If you want to recall those days, watch the Pan Am TV show.
Employing 1.9 million people, Ronald McDonald's empire slings burgers to 70 million customers a day in over 35,000 restaurants in 100 countries.
There's about 13 billion servings of French fries involved in all that.
Beyond making fast food a very big thing, McDonald's has become a greasy envoy of American culture.
'The hamburger is symbolic of our society,' fast-food industry scholar David Hogan said in an interview, 'and McDonald's is of course the ambassador and marketer of that concept.'
It's also become a stepping stone for incredibly successful people, from Jeff Bezos to Rachel McAdams to Jay Leno.
Google started in January 1996 with Larry Page and Sergey Brin at Stanford. Today, Page and Brin rule an empire that determines the way we find information, how we communicate, and what we watch -- among other things.
Google rules web search. It's pulling somewhere around 114 billion requests a month, for a 65% market share of global search, and 500 million times a day, Google Search gets a query it's never seen before.
In September of last year, Android passed 1 billion device activations.
A feather in Google's cap, YouTube is entrenched in the way we watch videos now: 1 billion people visit YouTube every month and 100 hours of video are uploaded every minute.
Beyond being arguably the hottest company on earth, it's also the leader in the way we lead organisations, with super-popular classes like Search Inside Yourself.
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