Innovation from the Summer of 1927 – Part II
This is the second in a series of articles based on Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America, 1927, which takes a whirlwind tour through a series of major events that occurred in the summer of 1927. Bryson relays the story of the architect Harvey W. Corbett, whose ambitions were larger than physics would permit. Corbett, Bryson notes, “predicted that skyscrapers would rise hundreds of stories into the clouds and that people living on the upper levels would get their meals by radio, without explaining exactly how he imagined that would work.” While Corbett can be lauded for dreaming big, the fact that in 2016 we are still not close to achieving his goals suggests that perhaps he aimed too high. An innovator should think about the future with an open mind but should find ways to stay grounded so that the goals he or she sets remain attainable.
An alternative to the “dream big” approach is evident in a more recent innovation related to sports. Many fans of college football are familiar with the “Smurf turf” at Boise State University in Idaho. The artificial surface used for football and other sports at Albertsons Stadium at Boise State is a deep blue that has confounded television viewers since 1986 by making them wonder if their color settings were out of whack when they stumbled across a Boise State game on a sports channel. The turf is actually trademarked by the university and any organization seeking to install an artificial playing surface in a color other than green has to obtain permission to do so from Boise State. The innovation lesson from this field comes from the story of how the university became the first to install such a field in 1986. Sam Fortier, writing in the New York Times, notes that the school’s Athletic Director, Gene Bleymaier, was frustrated by the high price tag of a new field in 1986 (some $600,000 at the time). Bleymaier wanted to know why the new field was so important, especially since no one would notice the difference between the old field and the new field. On a whim, Bleymaier decided to install a field in deep blue to match the school’s colors (blue and orange), and a legend was born. This innovation was the result of asking a simple question of why does the field have to be green, and sometimes simple questions challenging orthodoxy can result in dramatic changes.
Returning to 1927 and keeping with the sports theme, another interesting lesson from that year for innovators concerns the legendary Babe Ruth of the New York Yankees. Ruth had a great season in 1926 with 47 home runs, 146 RBIs, and a batting average of .372. In the 9th inning of the final game of the World Series, Ruth made an ill-advised attempt to steal second base and was thrown out by 10 feet, which gave the series to the St. Louis Cardinals and ended the season. Ruth’s poor decision-making in the final game of the World Series overshadowed all the hard work he had done for over 100 games in 1926. Ruth could have retreated into a shell and focused on his failure on such a large stage, but he refocused himself on the upcoming season and went on in 1927 to have the greatest single season in the history of baseball in terms of his output. The lesson for the innovator here is to remain resilient in the face of failure, which we all know is a frequent companion in the innovation field. Just as even the greatest baseball hitter fails 2 out of 3 times, so, too, should an innovator not fear a lack of success in one’s efforts.
Another important name from the summer of 1927 is Graham McNamee, who became one of the most famous sports broadcasters in the history of radio. He got his start by walking off the street into the offices of radio station WEAF on Broadway in NYC and asked for an audition. McNamee got the job of doing promos and found his way onto the play-by-play for baseball games as an assistant to the sports reporter W. O. McGeehan. In their first game together, McGeehan decided he wasn’t cut out for the role of a broadcaster and left the studio, which meant that McNamee had to figure out how to finish the broadcast by himself. According to Bryson, McNamee was not a baseball expert. However, Bryson writes, he was “a born broadcaster. McNamee described the crowds, the weather, the air of excitement that was rippling through the park. He picked out celebrities. He made the listeners feel present and welcome, like old friends. People loved his broadcasts even if he didn’t always entirely grasp what was happening on the field. Sports columnist and author Ring Lardner wrote on one occasion: “I don’t know which game to write about, the one I saw today or the one I heard Graham McNamee announce as I sat next to him at the Polo Grounds.”
There are two innovation lessons from the story of Graham McNamee. First, there is no substitute for walking in the door with confidence. Despite the attention placed on the importance of innovation these days, an innovation practitioner still has to find ways to get time from colleagues, executives, and customers to work on projects and facilitate discussions. Had McNamee not stepped into the radio studios and boldly asked for an audition, he might have never become one of the most famous broadcasters in the country. Secondly, McNamee’s improvisation when he was thrust into the job of broadcasting a game by himself is an example of the type of thinking on one’s feet that is required of the innovation leader. McNamee didn’t have all the details of the sport at hand in his early broadcasts, but he found a way to make the broadcast enjoyable for the audience. The innovator should take this lesson to heart when leading a discussion and make sure that even if he or she doesn’t know all the details of a topic, at least make sure the discussion flows well and the participants come away from the meeting feeling as though their time was well-spent.
1927 was a big year for Henry Ford as well. Although the most frequently cited innovation by Henry Ford is the assembly line for mass production of complex items, namely the famous Model T automobile. A less well-known innovation from Ford has to do with the placement of the driver’s seat in the car. According to Bryson, before the Model T, “nearly all manufacturers placed the driver on the outer, curb-side of the car so that an alighting driver could step out onto a grassy verge or dry sidewalk rather than into the mud of an unpaved road.” Ford’s instincts told him that it would be better to allow the primary passenger in the vehicle, often the lady of the house, to enjoy this feature, so he switched positions and put the driver on the left and the passenger on the curb side. Ford noticed that this positioning also gave the driver a better view of the road and for drivers to communicate with each other (presumably in a friendlier manner than the road rage of the modern driver). As Bryson notes, “Ford was no great thinker, but he did understand human nature.” The driver side switch for the Model T soon became standard on all cars, at least in countries where cars drove on the right side of the road. The lesson here for the innovator is that something very simple, such as changing positions in a vehicle, can result in benefits beyond the immediate problem that is being solved. Likewise, changing one’s mindset to focus on something other than the primary entity in a problem (the driver), can lead to innovation.
The summer of 1927 saw massive popularity of movies, with huge demand on the part of the population for new content (sound familiar?). This led to challenges on the part of the content producers and as Bryson notes, “[s]tudios were churning out as many as four new films a week, a rate that was clearly incompatible with quality.” In one example, MGM filmed a beach scene in Paris, despite the lack of a beach or coastline in Paris (although the modern “Paris Plage” today has created a beach on the Seine with the installation of sand and umbrellas each summer). MGM CEO Irving Thalberg, when confronted with the question of how he could film a beach scene in Paris, stated that “[w]e can’t cater to a handful of people who know Paris.” The innovation lesson here is that it may sometimes be necessary to cater to a broader audience and be creative in developing new thinking rather than always aligning with a subset of the population that may have a different knowledge set than others. In other words, new thinking and innovation may require a suspension of disbelief and creativity.
Television came to America in this period as well. Its forgotten inventor, Philo T. Farnsworth, was plowing the field on his father’s farm in Idaho at age 15 and had a scientific breakthrough. According to Bryson, Farnsworth “had been reading Einstein’s theory on electrons and the photoelectric effect, and now it occurred to him that beams of electrons could be scanned onto a screen in a back-and-forth pattern exactly as he was plowing his father’s field, one line at a time in alternating directions.” For the innovator, the lesson here is the importance of engaging in new thinking in parallel with other activities. Presumably the extended period of time that Farnsworth spent in his tractor going back and forth allowed his mind to wander and think of connections between his actions and the problem he was trying to solve in terms of the photoelectric effect. While this doesn’t mean that innovators should all head out to their tractors, one can presume that Farnsworth might not have come up with the same conclusion had he spent all his time hunched over a desk reading the same scientific books over and over again.
While television was coming into existence in this period, radio was already in a position of prominence, but faced the chicken and egg problem that has challenged so many innovators over the years. This was the problem that David Sarnoff, founder of NBC, had to address. Bryson writes that “[c]ompanies that made radios didn’t care what people listened to, or whether they listened at all, once the radios were bought. David Sarnoff, remarkably, seems to have been alone in seeing that if there wasn’t anything worth listening to, people wouldn’t buy radios.” Sarnoff thus focused his efforts on creating content for radio, such as live broadcasts of sporting events, as a way to make sure there was sufficient demand to sell the radios he was producing. The lesson for the innovator is that in a chicken and egg scenario, the important this is to pick one and act rather than interminably waiting for the problem to solve itself.
Bill Bryson, One Summer: America, 1927 (New York: Anchor Books, 2014).
Sam Fortier, “A Paper Defense of the Home Turf,” New York Times (September 11, 2016).
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Scott Bowden is an independent innovation analyst. Scott previously worked for IBM Global Services and Independent Research and Information Services Corporation. Scott has PhD in Government/International Relations from Georgetown University.