The Ed­war­dian era was a time of der­ring-do and big mis­takes, writes Adrian Mur­doch

The Herald Business - - Lessons From History -

ED­WAR­DIAN Eng­land – and it al­ways seems to be Eng­land – has had a long-last­ing ef­fect on the Bri­tish con­scious­ness. Of­fi­cially stretch­ing from the death of Queen Vic­to­ria un­til the death of her son Ed­ward VII in 1910, more com­monly the Ed­war­dian tea party ran from the ju­bilee of Vic­to­ria in 1897 un­til it was rudely bro­ken up by the ma­chine guns of the First World War.

De­scribed by Gra­ham Greene as a pe­riod of “bi­cy­cles and Ger­man bands and golden cham­ber ware, of Nor­folk jack­ets and the deer­stalker cap”, this mo­ment in time stretch­ing barely a decade and a half ex­ists in peren­nial aquatint. It was a time of Ber­tie Wooster and Richard Han­nay. For many, like Ru­pert Brooke, ar­guably the last Ed­war­dian poet, the church clock did stand at 2.50 and there was lim­it­less honey.

It was also a time of jin­go­is­tic pride in Bri­tish world power. For busi­ness it was a time of en­ter­prise and der­ring-do. It was the height of em­pire. It was also a time, though, of ques­tions. The so­cial and po­lit­i­cal bases that had pro­vided the Vic­to­rian age were grad­u­ally eroded. As HG Wells de­scribed in Kipps, new op­por­tu­ni­ties for so­cial mo­bil­ity be­gan to emerge. It was the great era of the in­ven­tor in the garage, all of which pro­vides use­ful lessons for mod­ern busi­ness.

1) Lis­ten to your ac­coun­tant

Bri­tain proved re­sis­tant to the in­ven­tion of the mo­tor car. In 1905, for ex­am­ple, the Mar­quis of Queens­berry ap­plied for a gun li­cence, say­ing that he needed some­thing with which to shoot peo­ple who drove across his land (it was granted). That changed when Charles Rolls and Henry Royce went into busi­ness to­gether. But it was Ernest Clare­mont, the forgotten third part­ner, who kept the busi­ness to­gether. While the other two dreamt of world dom­i­na­tion, it was Clare­mont who fo­cused on the busi­ness model and on try­ing to turn a profit. It worked and R-R be­came the most fa­mous mar­que in the world.

2) You can win if you come sec­ond

For­get Nikola Tesla; it was Guglielmo Mar­coni who changed the face of telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion when he tested the trans­mis­sion and re­cep­tion of Morse Code on Sal­is­bury Plain in Eng­land in 1896. The fol­low­ing year, the Ital­ian born in­ven­tor formed the Lon­don-based Wire­less Tele­graph Trad­ing Sig­nal Com­pany and by 1898 his fac­tory in Chelms­ford was em­ploy­ing 50 peo­ple. While Tesla died, forgotten and in penury, Mar­coni’s place in his­tory has been as­sured as he de­vel­oped uses for wire­less tech­nol­ogy: on ships, transat­lantic com­mu­ni­ca­tion and build­ing the first ra­dio sta­tions.

3) Don’t rely on un­tested tech­nol­ogy

Robert Fal­con Scott was the poster boy for the Ed­war­dian era and the per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of the great Bri­tish fail­ure. If you are go­ing to fail, then do so in style. His ill-fated trips to the Antarc­tic have passed into leg­end. But what has proved re­mark­ably re­silient is the leg­end sur­round­ing his ship, the Dundee-built Dis­cov­ery. In fact, to jam, jute and jour­nal­ism should be added jer­ry­built. It was the Wang Com­puter of its day.

Al­though the Dis­cov­ery’s wooden hull was called cut­ting edge, it leaked so badly on the 1901 trip that the term “Dundee hull” be­came com­mon­place in naval cir­cles… and not in a good way. The crew com­plained about the de­sign, the work­man­ship and the fact that it leaked so much that food and equip­ment were ru­ined. Scott didn’t use it for his sec­ond trip.

4) New com­mu­ni­ca­tions bring new prob­lems

Much like the cur­rent chal­lenges posed by the in­ter­net and blog­ging, Ed­war­dian so­ci­ety had to cope with mass com­mu­ni­ca­tion. It was the golden era of the news­pa­per, helped by the use of the tele­graph. The Star, for ex­am­ple, founded in 1896, man­aged to sell 142,000 copies of its launch is­sue. It was also the birth of tabloid jour­nal­ism and an in­ter­est in celebrity for celebrity’s sake. The Daily Mail, which also launched that year, was dis­missed by the prime min­is­ter as “by of­fice boys for of­fice boys”. It needs no fur­ther com­ment than that the first is­sue car­ried a fea­ture on the rise in crime. But with greater lit­er­acy and de­mand for news, the is­sue of pub­lic ac­count­abil­ity be­gan to grow.

5) Don’t ig­nore the com­pe­ti­tion

While Bri­tain basked in the sun­shine, the US was qui­etly work­ing away. In 1900 Amer­i­can steel pro­duc­tion was twice that of Bri­tain. Even as those like Andrew Carnegie were giv­ing money away as qui­etly as a man fall­ing down a flight of stairs hold­ing a sil­ver tray of cham­pagne glasses, the US was pulling ahead. The world’s first man­age­ment con­sul­tant, Fred­er­ick Winslow Tay­lor, and his the­o­ries of sci­en­tific man­age­ment had a huge im­pact on mak­ing in­dus­try in the US more ef­fi­cient. Bri­tain re­sisted his ideas of a part­ner­ship be­tween a trained and qual­i­fied man­age­ment and a co­op­er­a­tive and in­no­va­tive work­force. The rest, as they say, is his­tory.

Time for tif­fin: the early 1900s are of­ten por­trayed as one big jolly tea party presided over by Ed­ward VII (top right)

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