The Road to a Better America


On this day in economic and financial history ...

One of the world's legendary technology firms went public on Nov. 11. 1915. The Computing Tabulating Recording Company listed just over $6 million in stock on the New York Stock Exchange that day. Never heard of them? Sure you have. Shortly after its public offering, the company changed its name to International Business Machines (NYS: IBM) .

Within two decades, IBM would join the Dow Jones Industrial Average (INDEX: ^DJI) , where it occupied a place from 1932 to 1939. By the time it was added, IBM had grown from a company that earned $376,000 in profit the year before its IPO to one that earned $7.4 million the year before it joined the Dow. By that point, IBM was manufacturing 88% of the tabulating and statistical machines (early calculators, essentially) in the United States, according to an investing report in the Chicago Daily Tribune.

Despite the company's growing dominance, the Dow removed IBM in 1939 and wouldn't reinstate it until 1979. This was a huge mistake, as IBM's shares gained a staggering 22,000% from removal to reinstatement. It was during this index-free period, in 1967, that IBM became the world's largest company by market cap, with an inflation-adjusted value of more than $192 billion.

It's a little dusty in here ...
The 1930s were not a fun decade for millions of Americans. There was a crippling depression, the looming threat of fascism, and the dangers of polio. To top it all off, starting on Nov. 11, 1933, a significant amount of dry North Dakota topsoil decided it would rather explore life as a cloud, creating the first of many incidents that would later become known as the Dust Bowl, or the "Dirty Thirties."

The dust cloud of Nov. 11 killed at least two people as 60-mile-per-hour winds blasted it from North Dakota clear into Chicago. The dust storm blackened the evening skies and impeded enjoyment of the World's Fair being held in the city, sending hundreds to the hospital because of dust in their eyes. More than 6,000 tons of dust fell on Chicago as a result of the Nov. 11 storm.

Over the next several years, the Dust Bowl storms would affect 100 million acres of farmland, forcing the migration of more than 2.5 million people by 1940. More than $2 billion in inflation-adjusted land value was lost during the Dust Bowl period, and approximately $14 billion in inflation-adjusted government aid was given to those who had lost their farms. Other effects, including lost crop revenue and the damage to many local Great Plains economies, is likely to have been an order of magnitude larger.

Get your kicks
Dust Bowl migrants were lucky to have Route 66 to travel on. The iconic American byway was originally commissioned on Nov 11, 1926, and soon stretched from Chicago to Los Angeles. Route 66 became an important artery of Dust Bowl traffic during the 1930s, and it also became a vital corridor during the American war effort during World War II.

Route 66 wasn't fully completed until 1928, and large stretches of the pre-interstate road remained unpaved until 1938, at which point it became the first fully paved highway in the United States. The federal government's Civil Works Administration and Works Progress Administration supplied much of the labor and resources to pave Route 66 during the 1930s, putting many thousands to work in the process.

Phillips 66 (NYS: PSX) , a recent spinoff from ConocoPhillips (NYS: COP) , derives its name from Route 66 -- and the 66 miles per hour that a car using Phillips gasoline reached during a 1927 test run. The original Phillips Petroleum was a fixture along Route 66 from its earliest days, with black-and-orange Phillips 66 shield logos designed in homage to the road's highway signs.

Route 66 also features heavily in the Disney (NYS: DIS) -Pixar movie Cars, which had the working title Route 66 during its early development. Cars has since become the crown jewel of the Disney-Pixar merchandising stable, with estimated total related sales of almost $10 billion, in addition to a $462 million global box office take and $251 million in domestic DVD sales.

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Fool contributor Alex Planes holds no financial position in any company mentioned here. Add him on Google+ or follow him on Twitter, @TMFBiggles, for more news and insights.The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney and IBM. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a synthetic long position in IBM. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

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