Book Review by Sapphire Ng
A Brief History of Entrepreneurship: The Pioneers, Profiteers, and Racketeers Who Shaped Our World (Columbia Business School Publishing)
Columbia University Press
Copyright October 2016
A Brief History of Entrepreneurship is an unbelievably enthralling and inspirational book, especially so for enthusiasts, practitioners and students of entrepreneurship and business. An inconceivably content-rich and educationally enriching book, the reader is sure to grow tremendously, or at least modestly, in one way or another, with the enhanced understanding of entrepreneurial history, and thus augmented appreciation of practices in the modern business world. This would indisputably be a highly recommended book, even for those who never envisioned laying their hands upon a book on entrepreneurship or history.
Personally, this is the book for me; a book which qualifies as the ideal read, in terms of depth and breadth of content, selection of details, style of writing, pace, and of course, the degree to which the book is intellectually-stimulating and satisfying.
The book covers the profound history of entrepreneurship across a varied spectrum of civilizations, including the Mesopotamians, the Phoenicians, the ancient Romans, the Islamic Empire, China's Song dynasty, and in the case of Britain, the British Industrial Revolution, and certainly, American entrepreneurship.
Certain pieces of information in the book are distinctly fascinating and immensely intriguing, especially those pertaining to the historical origins of currently well-known practices in commerce. A prototype of the initial public offering system was said to be first established by equestrian entrepreneurs in ancient Roman society; China experienced the “world's first incidence of hyperinflation,” attributed to the Song dynasty's official adoption of paper currency, the first in the world; commercial colonization, the shareholder-owned enterprise, passive equity, “credit contracts and other financial innovations,” and also the concept of the “middleman”—“a controversial fixture of Western commerce ever since”—originated in Mesopotamia.
Whilst the Dutch and British colonial joint-stock companies was said to have “foreshadowed the benefits and pitfalls of the modern system of large-scale entrepreneurship backed by a wide pool of investors,” the Song-era entrepreneurial practice of “collecting and tying”—with features such as “the clear separation of active management and passive investment”—was noted as bearing “striking resemblance” to familiar characteristics of modern equity investing.
Extensive research is undoubtedly an evident strength of the book. The author cites riveting examples and details such as the Phoenicians being the first to engage in predatory practices, and being the potential pioneers of the knockoff business that is ubiquitous today; the fact that the British government was the first to issue patents to inventors; or even the way the prime characteristics of economic mobility and labor specialization in the ancient Sumerian workplace have since become “two of the defining characteristics of urban capitalism.”
Absorbing details seemed inexhaustible in the book as the reader further learns about the civilization that invented the alphabet; the civilization granted the title of being “an influential pollinator” and whose commercial activities consisted of the “enduring legacies” of coffee and writing paper; the first society in the world “to enjoy the benefits of printed books;” the nation that gave birth to the three-way circuit of commerce, namely the “triangular” slave trade; or even the first non-black civilization to “systematically enslave” sizable numbers of black Africans.
The discussion of the history of entrepreneurship within the context of the British Industrial Revolution is certainly yet another engaging realm the book ventures into. The book covers notable British entrepreneurs such as James Watt, whose name gloriously came to represent Britain's Industrial Revolution; pottery magnate and pottery entrepreneur Josiah Wedgwood who invented the pyrometer, and who “mastered and in some ways originated” the corporate advertising approach of manipulating “product associations to tap into consumers' social aspirations;” or Abraham Darby, who paved the way for the works of iconic inventor-entrepreneurs of the Industrial Revolution.
Certainly when it came to the “quintessential entrepreneurial society” of the United States, the book inevitably discusses certain entrepreneurs familiar to the reader. Examples include inventor-entrepreneurs Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, investor entrepreneurs Warren Buffett and John Bogle—the founder of The Vanguard Group—, or legendary immigrant entrepreneur and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. Likely less familiar to the general reader, but nonetheless engaging would be the coverage of American weaponry entrepreneurs.
The variety of material covered in the book surpasses expectations. The ancient Roman civilization was discussed, for example, less so due to the significance of its entrepreneurial achievements, but more so to spotlight its incomparable distinction of being among “the least entrepreneurial civilizations not only of antiquity but of recorded history”—the Romans were notorious for their aversion to entrepreneurship. Similarly interesting, the “quintessential” Roman patrician entrepreneur was profiled, and explored through the epitomic figure of Crassus.
Disclaimer: I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley for this review.