I’m currently reading The First Tycoon by T. J. Stiles. It’s a Pulitzer-prize winning book that tells the story of Cornelius Vanderbilt. From a humble beginning, Vanderbilt became the first tycoon in America. He was the precedent to other tycoons like Rockefeller and Carnegie.
It’s an eye-opening book for me. I didn’t know much about the world of the early 19th century so I learned a lot. A big lesson for me is not to take our modern world for granted.
You see, we have so much convenience these days compared to those days. Transportation is a clear example. Here is an excerpt from the book (emphasis mine):
And transportation was a problem that deeply troubled merchants and lawmakers alike. The nation’s road network could best be described as barely in existence. In 1816, a Senate committee found that it was as expensive to move a ton of goods thirty miles overland as it was to bring the same ton across the Atlantic from Europe.
Can you imagine that? Moving a ton of goods just thirty miles overland cost as much as bringing them across the Atlantic! I was surprised when I learned this. Well, I guess I take our current road network for granted.
In addition to cost, another problem with transportation back then was convenience. Here is another excerpt:
John Lambert described how in upstate New York goods were carried in narrow, four-wheeled wagons, each drawn by a team of two horses. “It is a very rough method of riding,” he complained, “for the wagon has no springs, and a traveler ought to have excellent nerves to endure the shaking and jolting of such a vehicle over bad roads.”
Compare that to our cars nowadays. You barely feel that you are moving!
Another surprise for me was communication. Again, from the book:
News traveled only as fast as people, whether by messenger, the mail, or the shipment of newspapers. When George Washington died on December 14, 1799, for example, the news took seven days to travel the 240 miles from northern Virginia to New York.
Seven days. Today you can get live reporting from across the globe!
The conclusion? Sometimes we focus so much on what we don’t have that we forget to appreciate what we have. Reading this book opens my eyes to appreciate what we have today. I appreciate the convenience we have. I also appreciate the opportunities we have. We have a lot of things to be grateful for.