What lessons can a 19th-century astronomer and aviator teach us about finding new business opportunities?
Back in the late 1990s, when I was working full time for Micro Publishing News magazine, one of our sales guys told me of a conversation he had with a cab driver. When the cabbie asked him what he did for a living, our sales guy said, “I sell space.” Ad space, he meant, but the cabbie said, “Space…you mean, like the air?”
Lots of people sell space. Magazine page space, web page space, real estate, and so forth. But there was one guy who once sold time. Sure, lots of people sell time; anyone who charges by the minute or hour is technically selling time. But in the 19th century, Samuel Pierpont Langley set up a lucrative business selling not time in general, but the time.
Langley (1834–1906) was an American astronomer, physicist, and aviation pioneer. He was the inventor, in 1878, of the bolometer, a device for measuring infrared radiation—a miniature version is used as a detector in thermal cameras, which you may be familiar with from all those ghost-hunting shows where they are more often than not used incorrectly. Anyway, born near Boston, he attended Boston Latin, and, after high school, Langley went west, young man, where he plied his trade as a civil engineer and an architectural draftsman. He returned to Boston after a few years and began to pursue his first love, astronomy, landing a job at the Harvard Observatory.
He bounced around a bit, and, in 1866, Langley was named director of the Allegheny Observatory at the Western University of Pennsylvania in Pittsburgh. The observatory was only five years old at the time, run mostly by amateurs, and was in a bit of shambles, both physically and financially. Langley was its first professional administrator and one of his first tasks was to prepare a budget, a novel concept for the observatory at the time. However, as we can all sympathize, in order to prepare—or, actually, to execute—a budget, one needs money, of which the observatory had very little. So to raise funds, Langley hit upon an ingenious business idea, the kind of million-dollar idea we all wish we could think up.
To understand his idea, let’s back the truck—or, that is, the train—up a moment.
In the middle of the 19th century, if the band Chicago had released the song “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” the answer would have been a resounding “no!” Clocks and watches were hand-wound and tended to be wildly imprecise. Observatories only sporadically transmitted the correct time since, for the vast majority of people, precision timekeeping wasn’t really necessary. The correct time was strictly on a need-to-know basis, and few people really needed to know it.
However, that all changed with the coming of the railroad. Railroads ran on a schedule, but that so-called schedule was more of a vague suggestion than something you could, well, set your watch to. (Insert your own Amtrak joke here, by the way.) As rail traffic increased, the inaccuracy of time telling became not only a hassle for passengers who had no idea when to show up at the station (again, insert your own Amtrak joke here), but it was also a serious safety hazard. If, say, the watches of the train engineer and a switch operator differed by even a few minutes, two trains could end up on the same track, with disastrous results. What was to be done?
Langley had an idea. He ran an astronomical observatory, and one of the essential functions of an astronomical observatory was to determine the correct time. (See also Greenwich Observatory and, as we all know, Greenwich means time. Ahem.) So Langley created a subscription service whereby he sold the correct time to the railroads. He would astronomically work out the exact time and transmit it by telegraph to subscriber railroad stations twice a day.
The railroads were ecstatic and gladly paid for the service, while Langley was able to keep the observatory going as well as fund a major astronomical research program. By one estimate, over the next 20 years he raised $60,000 (in 19th century dollars and not, as Dr. Joe would say, adjusted for inflation), until 1883 when the U.S. Naval Observatory began providing the time signals for free. Other observatories also started funding their activities selling time-subscription services. Langley’s system also led to a time standard that became known as the Allegheny Time System and was the model for the Standard Time Zones we use today.
Langley would go on to become a pioneer in the field of aviation and, in fact, both the NASA Langley Research Center and Langley Air Force Base—among other places and things—are named after him.
I love the Langley story because it is a great illustration of how being able to think creatively can help us see opportunities where perhaps no one else can.
In our 2010 book Disrupting the Future, Dr. Joe Webb and I illustrated this basic point using a quote from Michelangelo: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” In many industry sales seminars and workshops—in our own industry as well as others—we are often told that there are opportunities out there that have yet to be found. The implication is that finding a lucrative new business is rather like a scavenger hunt, you’re looking under rocks or behind the couch for “opportunities” that someone (Who? A mischievous business sprite?) has hidden.
That’s really not the best way to think about it. Nothing, no opportunities, are “hidden.” They’re actually out there in plain sight—if you know how to see them. No one set up a chaotic timekeeping system for Langley to come along and do something about. In some sense, he was in the right place at the right time—and with the right time. But other times and other circumstances provide no fewer opportunities to look around, look creatively, and see opportunities.
In Disrupting the Future, we advised print businesspeople to think like a sculptor:
Great artists like Michelangelo weren’t looking for hidden statues; rather, they and only they saw the art “trapped” inside the rock. Once they “saw” the statue in their mind, it simply became a mechanical task of carving away the rock to “let it out.” It seemed like creativity to others, but to them it was an expression of what they had already seen that others did not (Webb and Romano, 2010).
Any innovation, any successful enterprise, has been the result of someone looking into the “stone” of the marketplace, seeing the “statue” of an idea that no one else has had, and “carving away” the resources needed to develop it and bring it to market. Sure, like Langley, those ideas are often—to keep belaboring this pun—timely, but that is actually reassuring. Given how quickly things change, there will never be a shortage of good ideas waiting to occur to someone.
Tom D. Crouch, A Dream of Wings: Americans and the Airplane, 1875–1905 (London, 1989), pp. 42–45.
“Samuel Langley: Aviation Pioneer,” originally published by Aviation History magazine, now at HistoryNet.com, June 12, 2006, http://www.historynet.com/samuel-langley-aviation-pioneer.htm.
Joseph W. Webb, Ph.D, and Richard M. Romano, Disrupting the Future: Uncommon Wisdom for Navigating Print’s Challenging Marketplace (Harrisville, R.I., 2010), pp. 162–163.
“Samuel Pierpont Langley,” Wikipedia, last modified on October 15, 2014, accessed on October 30, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Pierpont_Langley.