The 99 greatest moments in 99 years of business Featured

10:00am EDT July 22, 2002

It's been quite a century, hasn't it? If you close your eyes, you can almost see it in newsreel fashion - cars being dragged down the Ford assembly line in the stop-time motion of old movie cameras; suited men selling apples during the Depression; workers muscling a dangling girder into place on New York's tallest skyscrapers; oily smoke rising from the Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor; subdivisions and suburbia; cloverleaf interchanges; Kennedy's funeral procession; civil rights sit-ins; soldiers in the jungle; nuclear missiles in Moscow's May Day parade; cheering traders on the NYSE floor; computers; the Berlin Wall; the SST; ATMs; IPOs; SUVs.

With all the focus on the coming millennium, we thought it reasonable to take one last look back at the Century of Progress.

We found it irresistible to do it with a list of the most important business moments from the last 99 years. We found it impossible to rank them-which is exactly what we did anyway.

1. 1913: Henry Ford installs a moving assembly line in his car plant. The frame of the car is pulled along the line by a chain, while workers stand on either side and assemble the car with parts delivered to them on moving conveyor belts.

2. 1991 The U.S.S.R. is dismantled, replaced by a centralized union of 15 countries. With only one notable exception-China-the economy becomes truly worldwide.

3. 1946: World's first electronic computer begins working in the U.S.

4. 1957: Soviet Union launches Sputnik into orbit. Within seven years, communications satellites make worldwide television broadcasts possible.

5. 1901: The discovery of huge oil deposits in Texas helps make gasoline more plentiful and less expensive, creating an economy that almost literally runs on petroleum.

6. 1913: Federal Reserve system is established, authorizing major reform of U.S. banking and finance, creating an international economic stabilizer.

71969: The Internet is born through a U.S. military agency as a security system to keep computers running in the event of a nuclear strike.

8. 1929: Stock market crashes on Black Thursday, ending post-WWI prosperity and setting a lasting benchmark of economic misery.

9. 1955: Passed by Congress largely as a Cold War defense measure, the first of the major highway-construction funding bills creates the Interstate Highway system.

10. 1919: First daily air mail service in U.S. runs from New York to Chicago.

11. 1981: IBM introduces the PC-the first widely used desktop computer.

12. 1901: Mass Production begins when Ransom Olds assembles cars with parts provided to the factory by outside suppliers.

13. 1914: Federal Trade Commission is established to supervise interstate trade.

14. 1935: Congress passes the Social Security Act.

15. 1903: First Pacific telephone cable laid.

16. 1919: The first scheduled, commercial airline service begins between London and Paris.

17. 1917: The U.S. declares war on Germany. As millions of men leave their jobs for World War I and war production accelerates, women join the work force. This creates a powerful influence on women's thinking after the war when they are forced out of jobs and back into the home.

18. 1914: Panama Canal opens for shipping.

19. 1955: America's two largest labor organizations, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations merge to create the AFL-CIO.

20. 1959: Integrated circuit is invented, reducing size, heat and resistance in electronic instruments.

21. 1972: The first e-mail is sent.

22. 1964: The Civil Rights Act creates the first nationwide affirmative-action laws, leading to hiring policies that ban discrimination based on race.

23. 1938: American Chester Carlson invents the photocopier. (Unofficial reports indicate the first photocopy of a person's rear end is produced Dec. 24, 1938.)

24. 1962: General Motors puts the first robot to use in a production line. The word derives from the Czech robota, meaning a serf. Organized labor sees it as an effort to cut workers; GM spins it as a way to make their lives better.

25. 1934: As fallout of the 1929 stock market crash, the Securities and Exchange Commission is established.

26. 1938: Chapter 11 reorganization added to the federal bankruptcy code.

27. 1947: Transistor is invented, enabling the first generation of electronic machinery.

28. 1988: The price of facsimile machines drops below $1,000; U.S. businesses snap up a million of them within a year, setting a new standard for fast response.

29. 1941: First commercial television broadcast airs under the watchful eyes of the FCC. With 15 hours of daily programming, The Columbia Broadcasting System reports Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor on TV, but across the country, only six stations continue broadcasting throughout the war.

30. 1970: The Women's Rights Movement takes a foothold in American society and gains strength throughout the decade. Rosie the Riveter gives way to a new force in the workplace.

31. 1938: National minimum wage is enacted along with a maximum work week, overtime pay, child labor restrictions and equal pay for equal work for women.

32. 1914: Clayton Antitrust Act is passed, strengthening federal anti-monopoly powers.

33. 1913: The 16th Amendment is ratified, providing a legal basis for the graduated income tax.

34. 1989: The Berlin Wall falls, Germany is reunified, communism is crushed and the European Market becomes a possibility.

35. 1906: Sears & Roebuck Co. opens distribution centers across the country to aid its growing mail-order business. In 1913, the company begins advertising installment payments, doubling sales in a single year.

36. 1950: Diner's Club introduces the first credit card.

37. 1972: President Richard M. Nixon visits China. Coca-Cola and McDonald's soon follow, beginning the effort to reach the world's largest untapped market.

38. 1935: National Labor Relations Act establishes the NLRB.

39. 1933: Congress passes the first legislation of the New Deal, with social and economic measures that range from bank regulation to welfare to government-sponsored job creation.

40. 1976: Electronic Data Interchange begins in the grocery store industry, enabling a computer-to-computer exchange of business documents-and money.

41. 1959: St. Lawrence Seaway opens, providing a direct water link between America's heartland and the world.

42. 1954: Ray Kroc buys out Richard and Maurice McDonald, owners of a small hamburger stand in California, to create one of the world's most influential corporations in everything from advertising to agriculture to franchising to international relations.

43. 1994: North American Free Trade Agreement takes effect after a notably rancorous process. While the extent of its impact is still being sorted out, it is destined to play a major role in reshaping world commerce.

44. 1967: The LCD is developed by James Ferguson at Kent State University's Liquid Crystal Institute (patented in 1971). You can now check your digital watch without pushing a button.

45. 1911: Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York kills 146 workers, leading to the formation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and anti-sweatshop laws.

46. 1989: Unprecedented borrowing and consolidation of the go-go '80s comes to an official end with the indictment (and eventual jailing) of Junk Bond King Michael Milken. Long-term result: a destructive focus on short-term gains at the cost of long-term corporate stability.

47. 1966: Truth-in-packaging law requires labeling of supermarket item contents.

48. 1977: William Gates and Paul Allen start Microsoft.

49. 1970: Clean Air Act leads to the f irst major curbs on pollution and eventually to the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

50. 1902: U.S. Census Bureau is established, a boon for advertising practitioners who quickly discover the possibilities of targeted demographic marketing.

51. 1978: The Uniform Commercial Code is enacted to simplify, clarify and modernize laws governing commercial transactions.

52. 1901: U.S. Steel Corp. is incorporated, eventually becoming the first billion-dollar multinational.

53. 1956: The first enclosed mall opens in suburban Minneapolis, signaling the decline of Main Street and the birth of a handful of trends, ranging from urban sprawl to Big Box retailing.

54. 1947: Taft-Hartley Act bans closed union shops and places other curbs on union activities.

55. 1906: American John Whitmore changes the function of accounting from historical record keeping to business planning, by applying standard costs based on advance calculations.

56. 1980: Deregulation begins in two major U.S. industries: banking and trucking.

57. 1979: Cellular phones are introduced in Tokyo, then Chicago. They are in widespread use by 1983.

58. 1900: Danish inventor Johann Vaaler invents the paper clip.

59. 1916: Railroad workers become the first class of laborers to try out the eight-hour work day.

60. 1943: Federal payroll withholding is instituted to help the middle class manage its new and rising tax burden. The actual result is runaway taxation because, heck, nobody really knows how much they pay to the government.

61. 1982: Under a federal antitrust ruling, AT&T relinquishes local phone service to eight regional "Baby Bells"-setting off a war of marketing and innovation called the telecommunications boom.

62. 1954: Peter Drucker publishes The Practice of Management, reasserting economic success as the common business goal among all workers at all levels, and launching him as one of the most influential business minds of the century.

63. 1946: The post-WWII environment of pent-up demand, stockpiled savings, rising wages and rampant inflation drives people to the bedroom and shopping. It's the birth of the baby boom and the first great age of consumer spending.

64. 1936: Dale Carnegie publishes How to Win Friends and Influence People. A lot of people could still stand to read it.

65. 1940: The Export Control Act provides presidential power to bar exports for reasons of national security.

66. 1970: Floppy disk invented by IBM.

67. 1904: Investigative reporter Ida Tarbell publishes the anti-monopoly History of the Standard Oil Co. The conglomerate is forced to split into independent entities seven years later. Direct descendants of the case: AT&T's breakup and today's Microsoft trial.

68. 1974: The Individual Retirement Account (IRA) is created to help those who aren't covered by a company pension. It gets credit for two major phenomena: the death of the pension, and the strength of the U.S. stock market.

69. 1948: First COLA-cost of living adjustment-is written into a contract between GM and the UAW.

70. 1967: National Commission on Product Safety is established, the forerunner of the current Consumer Product Safety Commission.

71. 1916: Brearly invents stainless steel.

72. 1920: Prohibition goes into effect, providing history's most compelling demonstration of the power supply and demand.

73. 1935: Capitated rates for health care are foreshadowed when Dr. Sidney Garfield charges public works laborers near Los Angeles 5 cents a day for prepaid care. He does the same during WWII for 30,000 at the Kaiser Shipyard, and in 1945 founds Permanente Health Plan-later Kaiser Permanente, the first HMO.

74. 1938: Owens-Corning patents fiberglass.

75. 1972: The electronic pocket calculator is invented. Early models sell for $100 but quickly come down in price, introducing the defining characteristic of the computer age: quantum leaps in the performance-to-cost ratio.

76. 1997: United Parcel Service management loses in a strike by its workers-the most stunning union victory in the most talked about and surprising strike since PATCO. It may have taken 16 years, but momentum once again shifts toward organized labor.

77. 1981: President Ronald Reagan decertifies PATCO, the union of striking air traffic controllers, signaling the lowest moment for organized labor in nearly 35 years (see #54).

78. 1973: Bar code is invented, bringing new efficiency to inventory control, retail theft prevention and other costly systems.

79. 1920: The earliest recorded traffic jam in (where else?) New York City creates the ultimate excuse for missing planes, meetings and other important business engagements.

80. 1970: Kinko's is founded on the campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara. Becoming the first nationwide chain of photocopying and business services, it's a vital component in the creation of a class of "telecommuters" and "home office workers."

81. 1912: The unsinkable Titanic goes down, shaking our faith in the infallibility of industrial know-how-and setting us up 85 years later for the most over-budgeted, overhyped, overconsidered movie in cinematic history.

82. 1989: Stephen Covey publishes The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, turning the business self-help movement into a mass market.

83. 1965: Ralph Nader publishes Unsafe at Any Speed., detailing safety defects in cars and leading to federal regulation of auto design under the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966.

84. 1928: Alexander Fleming's development of penicillin makes the workplace safer and healthier, and allows new confidence against the daunting threat of the microscopic.

85. 1917: A "medical service bureau" is organized to provide care for lumbermen outside Tacoma, Wash. It becomes the first Blue Shield plan and creates a standard of employer-sponsored independent health care.

86. 1911: John D. Rockefeller (1839 to 1937) retires, marking the end of a 50-year career, during which he built an entire industry and created a community service standard by which all have since been measured, having donated more than $500 million to public and charitable causes.

87. 1938: Hungarian Lazlo Biro invents the first ball-point pen.

88. 1906: Upton Sinclair publishes The Jungle, exposing poor working conditions in the industrial era-leading to increasing regulation and concern over worker safety.

89. 1973: The first of two oil embargoes during the '70s awakens America to a potentially crippling dependence on foreign resources. The result? The Alaska Pipeline, short-term panic and long-term denial.

90. 1970: Monday Night Football premiers on ABC, and pro sports officially becomes an industry.

91. 1920: DuPont patents plastic foam (Styrofoam), making it possible to send fragile goods back and forth across the country, not to mention keeping your coffee warm while you sneak out for a cigarette.

92. 1996: Mammal cloning is successfully accomplished with a sheep named Dolly-the first step toward a biogenetics industry that many expect to be a leading economic force in the next century. More important, can the perfect worker be cloned?

93. 1983: First cited instance of a computer being infected by a program intended to cause harm-a virus.

94. 1965: Warren Buffett buys Berkshire Hathaway, starting on a legendary investment run that ultimately makes him one of the richest men in America.

95. 1998 Asian Monetary Crisis arises, demonstrating the true global nature of the economy.

96. 1976: Stephen Jobs and Stephen Wozniak found Apple Computer Corp.

97. 1951: Bette Nesmith invents an opaque white paint to cover typing errors, and names it Mistake Out-later, White Out.

98. 1970: Boeing rolls out the 747, the first jumbo jet, doubling passenger capacity over previous generations of airliners and allowing a flight range of 6,000 miles.

99. 1946: George D. Edwards elected first president of the American Society for Quality Control, formalizing the practice of shared information about manufacturing quality standards.


This list was produced through a highly unscientific process that involved research, interviews and collective thinking to develop a master roster of events. That roster was distributed to approximately 30 high-level executives and business owners - in Greater Cleveland, Akron and Stark County - who were asked to rank the events in order of importance.

Their votes were combined and the scores tallied, resulting in this reverse-order ranking.

If you believe any events have been omitted or given unfair consideration, please let us know. You can write to:

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