On this day in economic and business history…
Before Henry Ford was a legendary industrialist, he was a tinkerer in his backyard workshop, trying to make an experimental technology into something marketable. The very first proto-Ford automobile, known as the Quadricycle, was completed and test-driven out of that workshop at 58 Bagley Avenue in Detroit on June 4, 1896. Ford was 32 years old.
Henry Ford’s story bears some key similarities to the early careers of computing-industry icons Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Like Gates, Ford was a born tinkerer, mastering intricate technologies (particularly watches) as a teenager thanks to some guidance from his father. Like Jobs, Ford leveraged his youthful interests into a job at one of his era’s prestige high-tech firms — Jobs worked for Atari, and Ford became chief engineer at Thomas Edison’s electrical-generation company after just two years on the payroll. It was the jobat Edison’s Illuminating Company that gave Ford the resources to work on the Quadricycle, which was little more than a four-horsepower engine on a basic frame attached to four bicycle wheels. The engine ran on ethanol, and its two-gear locomotion maxed out at 20 miles per hour.
Only three Quadricycles were ever built. Ford sold his earliest prototype shortly after testing, and it took him three more years to build a second, and another two years to build a third. Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F) was founded in 1903, two years after the last Quadricycle was completed — and after Ford’s two previous automotive corporate ventures had ended in disappointment. Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F) ventually reacquired that first Quadricycle and turned it into a museum piece, which you can still see today at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.
If you’ve ever enjoyed a soda — and who hasn’t at some point or another? — you can thank Joseph Priestley, a clergyman, chemist, philosopher, and all-around Renaissance man for inventing the process that give soda its fizz. Priestley’s invention is older than you might think. He published his research, including directions for making carbonated water, in a paper titled “Impregnating Water with Fixed Air,” which was finished on June 4, 1772.
Dedicated to the Earl of Sandwich (Priestley was a Brit), the paper explained how sulfuric acid would create carbon dioxide gas when dropped onto chalk. Priestley had begun his experiments in 1767 when he discovered that fermenting beer could infuse water suspended in bowls above its tanks with refreshing bubbles.
Although this process would revolutionize the drink industry that had for millennia produced little beyond alcoholic beverages for commercial sale, Priestley never capitalized on it. The first real effort to commercialize carbonated beverages fell instead to J. J. Schweppe, who founded Schweppes in Switzerland in 1783 and later moved the company to London. The Schweppes brand is now held by Dr Pepper Snapple Group Inc. (NYSE:DPS) in the United States and Canada, but in much of the rest of the world Schweppes products are made and marketed by either The Coca-Cola Company (NYSE:KO) or PepsiCo, Inc. (NYSE:PEP). The original soft-drink company is now thus controlled, to varying degrees, by the three largest soft-drink companies in the world. That market is now estimated to be worth nearly $500 billion in worldwide annual sales.