Innovation, Activism, and One Gross Miscalculation


On this day in economic and financial history...

There is no question the economy has slowed down. I don't think we're headed into a recession, but there is no question we are in a slowdown. That's why we acted, and acted strongly, with over $150 billion worth of pro-growth economic incentives, mainly money going into the hands of our consumers.

These were President George W. Bush's words on Feb. 28, 2008, two months into the worst recession of the postwar era. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was 11% off its late 2007 peak that day, and it fell another 2.5% the following day as the market reacted. Reported GDP growth was just 0.6%, unemployment applications had spiked, and gas was rapidly approaching $4 per gallon.

The recession took the Dow 54% down from its 2007 peak by the spring of 2009 in the most volatile major bear market seen since the Crash of 1929. Unemployment remains elevated five years later, and the median American household net worth and income have declined to levels not seen in decades. Bush's $150 billion mini-stimulus didn't even begin to cover the cracks in the financial system, which destroyed more than $19 trillion in household wealth and resulted in the commitment of some $23 trillion in federal money to bailouts and recovery programs. Guarded optimism, in this case, was worth nothing at all.

Spinning up some profit
first produced nylon on Feb. 28, 1935. This synthetic derivative of petroleum was developed by Wallace Carothers in DuPont's experimental lab, ostensibly to be used as a replacement for silk in a multitude of products. It took three years to find a use for the new fiber, and its first application was in service of dental hygiene, as nylon was used to create the world's first artificial toothbrush bristles. By the time World War II came to the U.S., nylon had already revolutionized the fashion of women's stockings and become a popular choice for the manufacture of military fabrics, including parachutes and flak vests. Today, more than 5 million tons of nylon helps to create a wide variety of fibers each year.

The fine art of muckraking
Upton Sinclair's The Jungle was first published on Feb. 28, 1906, in the early days of modern American industrialism. It had been serialized the previous year in a socialist newspaper, providing many Americans their first real experience of the dangerous and disgusting conditions of the nation's meatpacking industry. The sum of Sinclair's investigation was too shocking for publishers, so he paid for the printing out of his own pocket. A modern review of the book by Jon Blackwell of The Trentonian helps to explain why it carried such weight:

An instant best-seller, Sinclair's book reeked with the stink of the Chicago stockyards. He told how dead rats were shoveled into sausage-grinding machines; how bribed inspectors looked the other way when diseased cows were slaughtered for beef, and how filth and guts were swept off the floor and packaged as "potted ham."

In short, The Jungle did as much as any animal-rights activist of today to turn Americans into vegetarians.

But it did more than that. Within months, the aroused -- and gagging -- public demanded sweeping reforms in the meat industry.

President Theodore Roosevelt was sickened after reading an advance copy. He called upon Congress to pass a law establishing the Food and Drug Administration and, for the first time, setting up federal inspection standards for meat.

Two key pieces of food safety legislation, the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, passed within months of the book's publication. The latter act set up what is now known as the Food and Drug Administration, which remains the government's best effort to prevent rats in your sausage and guts in your potted ham.

Goodbye to all that
The final episode of M*A*S*H aired on CBS on Feb. 28, 1983. The show's immense buildup had prompted CBS to sell commercial space at a higher rate than the Super Bowl charged that year, and that high price proved well justified. Nearly 122 million Americans tuned in to watch Hawkeye, Hot Lips, Klinger, Father Mulcahy, and the rest of the 4077th MASH unit close down their camp as the Korean War drew to a close for at least part of the finale's two-and-a-half-hour running length. It remains the most watched broadcast in American history by both ratings and audience share, although Super Bowl XLIV in 2010 finally bested its audience numbers with the help of an American populace that had grown 31% larger in the years separating the two broadcasts.

Unlocking the secret to life itself
James Watson and Francis Crick announced their discovery of DNA's structure in the Eagle pub in Cambridge, England on Feb. 28, 1953. It was a humble start to a transformative advancement in biology, as the two scientists had moved the discipline from indirect genetic observations to peering into, as Crick called it, "the secret of life." In decoding the double-helix structure of DNA, with its base pairs and replicable nature, Watson and Crick had set modern molecular biology on the path to directly manipulating these most vital elements of life.

Today, the term "genetically modified" has become commonplace in agriculture, which now grows more than 250 million acres of crops that have had their DNA combined with that of another organism. Monsanto is a leader in genetically modified seeds, as is DuPont. Both companies engage in extremely aggressive legal maneuvering to protect the proprietary nature of their products, which only adds to the controversy surrounding genetically modified food.

The next stage in molecular biology is now the direct decoding of that structure in ways scientists of the '50s could scarcely have imagined. Actually, James Watson could easily imagine it -- he was one of the early leaders of the Human Genome Project. Today, that project's legacy is most closely aligned with Life Technologies , which provided vital technical expertise and competitive pressure to get the first genome decoded ahead of schedule.

Print me an industry
The first Hewlett-Packard Deskjet was introduced on Feb. 28, 1988. This was the world's first single-sheet desktop printer and, more importantly, the first inkjet printer to sell for les than $1,000, which opened the door to making at-home printing affordable for millions. This first Deskjet only printed in black and white and managed only two pages per minute, but HP continued to develop the printer, and by 1991 the company released a color printer for just $100 more than the original 1988 model. By 1997, HP had entry-level Deskjets available for only $149, and a year later, HP announced that it had sold more than 68 million Deskjets in the printer's first decade on the market.

Two decades later, the Deskjet had an installed base of more than 240 million people and remained the world's best-selling printer. Many of these printers cost their users less than $100. HP's commitment to printer progress has transformed this peripheral from an expensive accessory to a must-have component. Will 3-D printers be next to make the leap from oddity to commodity? If HP ever tries its hand at that market, it just might happen.

Sizing up HP?
The massive wave of mobile computing has done much to unseat the major players in the PC market, including venerable technology names like Hewlett-Packard. However, HP is rapidly shifting its strategy under the new leadership of CEO Meg Whitman. But does this make HP one of the least-appreciated turnaround stories on the market, or is this a minor detour on its road to irrelevance? The Motley Fool's technology analyst details exactly what investors need to know about HP in our new premium research report. Just click here now to get your copy today.

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