Who really saved the whales?

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Winningreen Discourse                                                  

Who really saved the whales...and laid the groundwork for the most prosperous nation on earth

By Tom Randall

Date: January 10, 2011

Whales were not saved by Greenpeace, Ted Danson or any of the long-haired, scraggly bearded, Birkenstock-shod denizens of the environmental movement.  Whales would have disappeared from the planet long before these do-gooders came along had it not been for:

John Davidson Rockefeller, 1839-1937.  Rockefeller was one of six children born to a reputed vagabond father known as “Big Bill” who reputedly had sworn off conventional morality of the day, as well as constructive work.  Conversely, his enterprising sons, John and Bill, joined together when John was just 27 to build their first oil refinery in 1866.  One of their important products early on was kerosene; later gasoline became the best seller, powering the new horseless carriages (cellulosic ethanol was one of the early options carmakers tried but it was found to be too expensive and inefficient). 

However, it was the earlier big-seller, kerosene, that saved the whales.  Kerosene was cheaper and more efficient than whale oil that was commonly used in the lamps of the day.  Soon, kerosene completely replaced whale oil making whaling unprofitable.  In effect whales were saved by a rich industrialist and the free market.

As nearly everyone knows, John D. Rockefeller also started Standard Oil which became one of the largest corporations in the history of the world — apparently not too big to fail, however, since the government broke it up.  Fewer know that Rockefeller was also instrumental in developing pipelines to transport oil and refined products more cheaply.  Since there are now more than two million miles of pipelines in the U.S., it must have been a product worthy of continued development.

However, when it came to growing the country, no mode of transportation was as important than that promoted by:

Cornelius Vanderbilt, 1794-1877.  Vanderbilt borrowed $100 from his mother when he was 16 years old and bought a small two-masted sailing ship to ferry people and goods from Manhattan to Staten Island — the Staten Island Ferry.  After carrying people and merchandise to and from both coasts of Panama during the California gold rush, he realized the value of trains for crossing a country and began a series of railroads, including the New York Central.

A host of other entrepreneurs also got in on the booming railroad business, including Charles Crocker, Jay Gould, Henry Plant, Leland Stanford, and Charles Yerkes.  They became the driving force behind the industrial revolution and establishment of America as the preeminent economic power in the world.

But the meteoric growth of railroads might never have happened without:

Andrew Carnegie, 1835-1919.  Carnegie is another rags to riches story, beginning as a bobbin boy, messenger and telegraph operator.  He eventually worked his way up in the railroad car business until he had amassed $40,000 with which he bought farmland in Pennsylvania which grew nothing but oil derricks.  In the first year he made $1 million which he used to buy a steel rolling mill which was the beginning of Carnegie Steel.

Ever the entrepreneur, Carnegie took a gamble on a new steel making process and invested in one of Sir Henry Bessemer’s new converters. He was now able to make the high-strength steel needed for railroad rails and trucks for a fraction of the price of other methods.  He quickly invested in more Bessemer Converters, made more steel, bought more converters and...well, you get the idea.  J.P. Morgan eventually bought the company and formed U.S. Steel. 

Others who joined in the steel boom were Charles Schwab, Edward Harriman, Henry Frick and Henry Flagler.  Actually, the over-achieving Flagler was also a partner of Rockefeller in Standard Oil and a builder of railroads, particularly into the south, which accounts for his name being all over the state of Florida.

The interesting thing about those named in bold, above, is not just their innovation and courage and contribution to building the country — or the fact that they were generous philanthropists who are still giving long after their deaths — it is that they were called Robber Barons.

They robbed no one.  They created undreamed-of wealth, not just for the very wealthy, but for virtually all Americans then and for all time. 

Imagine if an ego-centric, Marxist president and his party had said back then, “The rich have to pay their fair share.”

Contact: Tom Randall
Winningreen LLC
Chicago, IL
Phone: 773-857-5086
e-mail: trandall@winningreen.com