Have Fire, Need Business Plan

An inventive look at entrepreneurism throughout history

Illustration by Paddy Mills

Keith Twitchell spent 16 years running his own business before becoming president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans. He has observed, supported and participated in entrepreneurial ventures at the street, neighborhood, nonprofit, micro- and macro-business levels.


The history of humanity is also the history of entrepreneurism. The very evolution of our species was propelled by entrepreneurs.

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While many significant discoveries and inventions did not initially contain entrepreneurial elements, once the entrepreneurs stepped in, important advances and refinements took place. For instance, let’s start our exploration of this subject with two of mankind’s most vital early developments: fire and the wheel.

It was less the discovery of fire itself than someone figuring out how to control fire that was critical to early humans (and obviously this remains on ongoing process). Fire led to cooking, which led to two more things: First, nutrients released by heating foods expanded the mental and physical capacities of our evolving species. Second, cookbooks became popular; the first one known to anthropologists appears on a cave wall in France and is called “Mrs. Oog’s Guide to Caveman Cuisine.” Researchers speculate that Mrs. Oog monetized her work by charging admission to her cave; the large number of chicken bones found in the cave suggest a poultry-based entry fee.

Over time, demand grew to create fire and an unusual entrepreneur stepped in: Satan himself, known firemaster. The first matches were called “lucifers,” presumably a reference to the product designer. Matches led to lighters. There are rumors that a new flame-producing technology will debut soon, but the devil is in the details.

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Unlike fire, the wheel was clearly a human invention. Many anthropologists attribute the first to an early man named Foord, who not only developed the product but also a method of reproducing them in large quantities. Advances in the wheel led wealthier cavepeople to upgrade every three years, while the less affluent settled for purchasing theirs from Honest Thag’s Used Wheels.

Surprisingly, there is a considerable time gap between the invention of the wheel and the invention of roads, which did not appear on a large scale until early Roman times. This development was monetized promptly by the invention of the tollbooth.

Language was another key propellant of human advancement. While most scholars believe that language simply evolved in most early societies, another school of thought suggests that at least some languages were invented. As an example, researchers cite French, whose inventor appears to have been paid by the letter — hence the vast number of silent characters in the typical French word. Similarly, the inventor of German was apparently paid by the syllable.

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As more and more languages surfaced, certain entrepreneurial individuals figured out that learning more than one language could lead to income opportunities translating between the two tongues. The fine art of interpretation is how world leaders today can hold post-summit news conferences and claim completely different results from the same conversation.

As entrepreneurism and commerce became more embedded in human society, simple bartering for goods and services became less tenable, and the concept of “money” emerged. Early forms of currency included shells, seeds, beans and beads. Everything from salt to cattle was used for money, though making change became a new challenge. Eventually this led to coinage, which led promptly to counterfeiting — ancient fakes have been dated back more than 2,000 years, and I am actually not joking!

Advances in financial instruments led from money to checks to credit cards to cryptocurrency. There are now approximately 2,000 forms of cryptocurrency and making change between them is a lot like making change between cattle and salt.

All this commerce required transportation in order to move goods. Seafaring merchants, trading via their sturdy ships, became some of early history’s wealthiest individuals. Among the most popular seagoing commodities were grains, metals and wine. The latter cargo, unfortunately, also caused quite a few shipwrecks, as evidenced by the large number of empty wine amphorae discovered among the ruins of virtually all ancient wrecks.

As our species continues to evolve (hopefully), entrepreneurs will undoubtedly play vital roles with new inventions, services and connectors. From the first wheel to landing on Mars, the road goes on!


Writer Keith Twitchell’s blog, “Neighborhood Biz,” appears every Thursday on BizNewOrleans.com.

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