3 historical innovations and the businesses they birthed

Innovation has been a driver in business for just about as long as business has existed.

From the invention of the wheel (and the first appearance of tire salesmen on cave wall paintings), all the way up to the modern web browser (and the appearance of flashing ad banners and obnoxious pop-ups) businesses large and small have found a way to make a profit off of a good invention.

Innovation has no copyright – it can come from anyone, anywhere at any time, and this is the beauty of it.

Sometimes, as with the invention of the steam engine, it can take years or decades before a clever entrepreneur figures out the right angle.  At other times, the invention itself is the business (think Edison and the lightbulb, or Edison and the telephone, or Edison and the phonograph, or Edison and the stock ticker, or Edison and the, oh you get the point).

Here are three of my favorite innovations through history and a note about the businesses each of them spawned.

1. Vodka (1430)

According to popular lore, Vodka was first distilled in the 15th century by a Monk in the Kremlin in Moscow. Prior to this, no one had distilled an alcoholic beverage of similar quality, clarity, and flavor.

Of course, the Russian aristocracy wanted to keep it to themselves and for several centuries it was only available in limited quantities and at great cost. By the mid-18th century, the Empress had decreed that vodka distilleries were the exclusive purview of the government and in the latter half of the 1700s taxes on Vodka sales were responsible for up to 40% of the Czar’s revenue!

Meanwhile, the distillation of Vodka spread like wildfire to neighboring countries. For instance, large-scale vodka production in Poland dates to the 16th century and the Ukrainian word  Horilka (or Vodka) appears in written form as early as 1562.

By 1863 the government had given up the monopoly and opened production to all comers; an industry was born, prices plummeted, and by the early 20th-century Vodka represented almost 90% of the alcohol consumed in Russia. Today the vodka business is massive, with global consumption in 2008 logging in at over 512 million cases! Drink up, friends…

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2. The steam engine (70 AD)

“Place a cauldron over a fire – a ball shall revolve on a pivot.”

That early description of steam power was the start of a revolution in human ingenuity and the precursor to a multitude of inventions. Over the centuries, steam engines drove everything from temple door openers, to early organs, to oven spits for roasting meat, steam “pistons” used as heavy-duty mortar and pestles for milling, and (most importantly) for powering ships.

Beginning as early as the 16th century when Blasco de Garay moved a 200-ton ship across the harbor at Barcelona, up to the steamships of the early 1800s and Robert Fulton’s great enterprise. By 1807, Fulton was making successful (and profitable!) commercial steamship runs between New York City and Albany; the 150-mile journey could be made in as little as 32 hours!

Today, the modern shipping industry in the US alone (and its spiritual offspring, the railroad and trucking industries) has revenues of over $187 billion and employs 1.5 million workers. Yikes.

3. The Zoetrope (180 AD), the Zoopraxiscope (1879), and the Kinetoscope (1888)

These technological cousins were critical to the development of the modern film industry and were each considered to be great innovations when first introduced.

The Zoetrope is a turntable device that creates the illusion of motion through a series of drawings on the inside of the cylinder which is viewed through vertical slits. The cylinder spins, the viewer looks through the slits, and the drawings appear to magically “move.”

The modern Zoetrope (left) was invented in 1834 and was in many ways the inspiration for Edward Muybridge’s Zoopraxiscope. Muybridge used photographs shot in sequence with multiple cameras lined up to capture movement (most famously of the running horse below, to prove that, yes, all 4 of the horse’s hooves were simultaneously off the ground) and he developed his machine to project those images in “motion.”

Thomas Edison came next with his Kinetoscope, the first truly modern film projector.

Edison and his employee William Dickson, had developed an early film camera, which exposed frames in sequence; he had bettered Muybridge’s approach of multiple cameras) and their first versions were built into cabinets with a light source projecting the flickering images into a viewing “scope.”

The invention ultimately led to the commercial production of the modern film projector. Add sound, color, and a third dimension, and bam! Avatar! (not to  mention over $892 billion in revenues in the US).

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