For years, nobody in America made pencils better, and young Henry deserves much of the credit. His story isn’t just emblematic of 19th-century Yankee know-how. It also offers important lessons for business leaders today. For example: Imports spurred American firms to improve their products, to the benefit of American consumers and entrepreneurs alike.
The importance of innovation is almost too obvious to mention. But here’s a lesson that may be less apparent: Liberal arts graduates can be great at business. Thoreau was no STEM major. He was steeped in Greek, Roman, and Asian philosophy, as well as later thinkers including Descartes, Locke, Emerson, Coleridge, and Darwin. Thoreau’s story is instructive, Henry Petroski tells us in The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance, “because it is a reminder that innovative and creative engineering was done by those who were interested in a wide variety of subjects beyond the technical. Whether or not they had college degrees, influential early-nineteenth-century engineers could be a literate lot, mixing freely with the most prominent contemporary writers, artists, scientists, and politicians. And this interaction hardened rather than softened the ability of the engineers to solve tough engineering problems.”
By Daniel Akst: Yes, Henry David Thoreau was an industrial innovator. Read the full post - here.