A list of once-great, now closed Philadelphia manufacturing giants

Philadelphia is old enough a city that its business community has lived many lifetimes.

Though its Quakerly tradition shunned ostentatious consumption, there are old roots. In 1732, The Rowland Company became one of the first incorporated businesses in the country (and it still operates in Philadelphia). 1881, Wharton became the first college-level business school. The Philadelphia Contributionship(1752) is the country’s oldest property insurance company; Rawle & Henderson (1783) is the oldest law-firm and (since relocated) D. Landreth Seed Company (1783) is the oldest seed companies (George Washington was a customer).

Philadelphia’s global clout declined in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Many of its prominent manufacturing businesses did not adapt to a changing world. Out of my own curiosity I’ve started a running tab of some of the more prominent closures from that time.

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The Changing World Order: Why Nations Succeed or Fail

Empires rise and fall in predictable ways that follow long-established patterns.

An emerging power invests heavily in education, infrastructure and trade to create wealth, which it protects by strengthening its military. Elsewhere the current leading power grows decadent with rising wealth inequality, in-fighting and fading investments until the emerging power confronts it – and wins. War and revolution start the cycle anew.

That’s among the biggest themes from the high profile 2020 book from Ray Dalio, the founder of one of the world’s largest hedge funds: Principles For Dealing With The Changing World Order Why Nations Succeed And Fail. It’s part of the “principles” series that includes extensive independent research that Dalio’s team maintains here. He intends to look at the longest historical period possible to find patterns that can inform what happens next.

Most pressingly, he argues we’re at the late stage of the American empire, when the United States will continue to decline from its role as the world’s global hegemony and cede that position to China. I’ve been disappointed that much of his coverage has not challenged him on what seems a very big conflict of interest: Dalio is heavily invested in China, an authoritarian country that does not protect criticism, and he has been careful to avoid criticizing the party. In short, the book’s biggest flaws may be that he pulls his punches against China. Still, by using his own determinants and data, he paints a stark picture of unassailable patterns over the last 500 years up until today that looks like this:

Below I share my notes from reading the book for my future reference.

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FREE SPEECH: its history and future by Jacob Mchangama

Free speech has a long history. Long enough that we know the pitfalls so well that they have nicknames.

There’s Milton’s Curse to describe the tendency for emerging leaders to defend free speech, only to walk backward once they are in power. More recently, we added the Streisand Effect, nicknamed after Barbara Streisand’s failed 2003 attempt to keep photos of her Malibu home off the internet. Her failed resistance generated far more attention.

This long, fragile and volatile path for free speech is the focus of the new book Free Speech A History from Socrates to Social Media by Jacob Mchangama. It is thorough, important and enjoyable. I recommend it. Below are my notes for my future research purposes.

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Capitalism & Freedom

Is capitalism the cause of differences or the reason why those differences are so small?

Influential Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman (1912-2006), who is a champion or a scourge depending on your political persuasion, long argued the latter. First published at the height of the Cold War in 1962, Friedman argued in “Capitalism and Freedom” that economic freedom is an essential component of political freedom, and that a capitalist system is the best way to promote both. This book serves as essentially the foundation of his status as a kind of public intellectual, though even his critics must acknowledge he went beyond punditry — he won the 1976 Nobel Prize in economics due to his scholarly work on monetary policy.

Attacks of capitalism often confuse what that economic system causes with what it exposes. As Adam Smith wrote and Friedman quotes: “There is much ruin in a nation.”

I read a 2002 edition, but when it was originally published the book was the beginning of a movement that led to Friedman’s bestselling Free to Choose (first published in 1980 alongside a PBS series of the same name) and is often associated with the Reagan Revolution. Friedman’s work heavily influenced conservative American politics.

In this earlier book, Friedman argues that government intervention in the economy, such as through regulation and redistribution, is detrimental to individual freedom and economic prosperity. He also advocates for the privatization of certain government services, such as education and healthcare.

The book was published during a time of Cold War tensions and the rise of socialist and interventionist economic policies in the United States and around the world. Friedman has lasting influence. For one, his description of monetary policy having “long and variable lags” has been often referenced to this pandemic era. In 1970, his ‘Friedman doctrine’ that companies existed to maximize profit for shareholders came to define the modern era, and experienced a revival 50 yers later.

Read my notes from the book below.

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The Greatest Invention: notes on language and writing

Writing is one of humanity’s greatest inventions, and both it and language evolved in predictable ways. They are related but distinct.

That’s a theme from this year’s March 2022 book “The Greatest Invention: A History of the World in Nine Mysterious Scripts” written by Silvia Ferrera.

Below I’ve captured my notes for future reference.

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J.C.R. Licklider and his Dream Machine of personal computing

We interact with computers to help us think.

Both in the transactional sense that these machines can help us solve math problems or search across a vast array of indexed information, and in the deeper sense that we can patter our own behaviors around how a computer solves a problem. This wasn’t always inevitable.

Before the invention of the keyboard, computer mouse and graphical interface, and certainly before the government-funded creation of the internet, computers were seen charitably as oversized and expensive calculators. They may seem today like an appliance that is as valuable to our quality of life as an indoor toilet or a heating system. It took vision to make the change.

The people (yes, especially a particular man) behind that vision is the focus of The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal, a 2001 book by science journalist M. Mitchell Waldrop. The book tells the story of J.C.R. Licklider (1915-1990) and his role in the development of the modern personal computer. Licklider, a psychologist and computer scientist, was one of the pioneers of the concept of “interactive computing,” which envisioned a future in which computers would be accessible and easy to use for individuals, rather than just large institutions.

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Lenape Country before William Penn

The Lenape people controlled their territory, and they meaningfully shaped the society that developed in present-day Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey.

So argues the 2016 book Lenape Country Delaware Valley Society Before William Penn written by Lehigh University professor Jean R. Soderlund. A prevailing narrative is of a relatively weak and minor subgroup of the Alqonquian people but this book argues something more nuanced.

Other big themes: early Swedish settlers remained primarily trading partners with the Lenape, which contrasted with the Dutch and the English who over time seemed more interested in colonizing, though the English Quakers were on the whole far more peaceable than the Chesapeake, New Amsterdam and New England regions. The Lenape themselves shaped this reality.

This is a rich social-political history of the earliest recorded details of Lenape life. I strongly recommend buying a copy if you love history and the details of indigenous and European engagement. As is my custom, I share notes from my reading below for my future reference but please do pick up a copy.

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Spaces between words weren’t common until the 7th century

From the Economist:

A book seems such a simple structure that it feels less invented than self-evident, the innovations behind it hard to see. Yet every chapter in its progress was slow, bound on either side by centuries of sluggishness. Turnable pages didn’t really arrive until the first century bc; the book form didn’t take off properly until the fourth century ad. The separating of words with spaces didn’t get going until the seventh—verylateforsomethingsouseful. Finally things accelerated: first came the index, in the 13th century, then Gutenberg, then, in 1470, the first printed page number. You can still see it in a book in the Bodleian Library.

Newspapers were once the big tech platform companies everyone hated

This is adapted from a Twitter thread.

There are many parallels between early newspapers and today. Like then, today big tech platforms are vilified for taking creative destruction to a more harmful end to civic discourse.

Then partisanship and misinformation gave rise to the modern concept of editing. Perhaps something akin is happening again.

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Notes from Scene on Radio’s ‘Seeing White’ in 2017

Ahead of an Antiracist seminar that several coworkers and I are attending, organizer Kim Crayton recommended attendees listen back to the popular 2017 podcast season of Scene on the Radio ‘Seeing White.”

Though it’s several years old, I appreciated listening in greater detail and with fresh eyes. It’s as timely today as ever. Here I will share notes for me to return to, but I strongly suggest you listen to the entire excellent 14-episode series on “whiteness,” the historical construct of race and its implications today.

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