History Repeats

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

You may have heard that a plot to bomb a political rally in England failed last year. (The story is in the news now because the bombers just pleaded guilty and will be sentenced next month.) The plot failed, not because of sharp police work, but because the rally ended early and the bombers arrived after everyone had left. They were caught because they had failed to properly fill out the online paperwork for insurance on their car, and it was impounded after a traffic stop; their weapons were found when the car was inspected at the impound lot several days later.

Let me make one thing clear: I am not suggesting that the British police missed something they should have found or that anything improper was done. As I understand it, at least one of the plotters was under surveillance due to his associations with known terroristic groups, but did not do anything that triggered any alerts. No intelligence agency has the resources – in money or staff – to watch every suspect 24 hours a day. I’m rather glad for that. Given unlimited time and money, an intelligence agency is going to suspect – and pursue – everyone.

I bring this up because I saw an interesting parallel.

Let’s turn the clock back to World War I. In 1915, there were several major uses for the industrial chemical phenol. Among them were: a component in the military explosive trinitrophenol, the salicylic acid used in the manufacture of Aspirin, and the plastic used in Edison Diamond Disc phonograph records. Prior to the American entry into the war, Germany went to great lengths to keep phenol out of the hands of the American military.

With the British phenol supply dedicated to supplying the British military with trinitrophenol instead of available for trade, Edison found himself with a shortage. His solution was to open his own phenol production facility. Given the economies of scale involved, he had far more phenol available than he needed for his record company, so he started looking for a buyer. In stepped a dummy corporation covertly funded by the German government and fronted by one Hugo Schweitzer. The corporation bought Edison’s phenol on behalf of the German-owned Bayer company who owned the patent on aspirin. The caper – known today as “The Great Phenol Plot” – ran smoothly for some time.

Unfortunately for the Germans, Heinrich Albert, one of the officials involved in funneling money to Schweitzer was under investigation by the US government his part in the German propaganda effort. An alert Secret Service agent grabbed Albert’s briefcase when he carelessly left it on the train. The details of the plot were revealed, Edison began providing his excess phenol to the US military, and at the end of the war, Bayer lost their trademark on the term “aspirin” as part of the war reparations.

So what’s the key happening here? Despite the fact that a key figure was under investigation for a related matter, the plot was exposed due to a simple, everyday mistake on the part of the key figure.

I’m sure these are not isolated events. People make mistakes, and the more complicated a plot becomes, the more chances there are for a single mistake to bring the whole thing down in pieces.

What I find most interesting about this example of history repeating is that it intersects with another repetition.

Edison’s disc records were designed to be compatible only with Edison record players, but the disc format produced arguably superior sound quality to the competition – and the discs and players were more expensive than the competition’s. Anyone else see a modern likeness in Apple’s approach to selling music? Their implementation of the aac format was designed to be played only with Apple equipment (iTunes and iPods), but produced arguably better sound quality than mp3 – and the hardware is significantly more expensive than competitive equivalents. Is there a “Germany” in this analogy? I don’t think it’s a major stretch to assign that role to China, with Foxconn playing the role of Bayer…

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