London, June 25 — The prospectus of the company which is to give to New York its motor cab service has just been issued. The concern is to be called the New York Motor Cab Company Limited. It is organized under the English laws and has a capital of £303,000 dividing into 300,000 preferred participating ordinary shares of £1 each and 60,000 deferred shares of 1s. each.
— by special cablegram to The New York Times, June 26, 1907
As it happened, the New York Motor Cab Company Limited never did operate any taxis in the Big Apple. Before it could load even its first Renault on a steamer bound for the New World, it was absorbed by Harry N. Allen, a N.Y. entrepreneur (he and his brother were the East Coast distributors of Mercedes and De Dietrich cars.)
Allen took a bit of the French word taximetres (the trade name of a French product used to calculate horse cab fares), added the last syllable of motorcab, a word frequently used by British and other European automobile transportation providers, and copyrighted his creation as taxicab. Not surprisingly, he named his new firm the New York Taxicab Company.
Beginning with 65 16-horsepower French-made Darracqs in late 2007, almost 100 years to the day before America’s first VLJ air taxi took flight, Allen’s cab company eventually operated more than 600 bright red hacks on the streets and avenues between the Bronx and the Battery. (Legends that New York Taxicab was the first company to paint taxis yellow are unsupported in contemporary accounts. That honor apparently goes to John D. Hertz, who entered the cab business in 1910; 98 years later the identical yellow is still the official color of one of John D’s later endeavors, Hertz Car Rental.)
Rapid expansion or not, Allen’s company was toast by about 1911, a victim of labor unrest, competition from companies like Hertz’ Yellow Cab and Morris Markin’s Checker and, perhaps (the historical record is unclear on this), undercapitalization.
The firm was started with $3 million Allen raised from international venture capitalists and this might simply have not been enough to fuel growth, weather strikes and survive the cut-throat pricing that came with new companies entering the market.
Does the moral of this story about America’s first motorized ground taxi operator have any applicability to DayJet, America’s first airVLJ taxi service, filing a Chapter 7 liquidation petition on November 14? (One day, coincidentally after DayJet’s embattled aircraft supplier, Eclipse Aviation, missed making payroll — a shortfall made good the following week.)
You bet it does. Because the moral is that first guys (like the proverbial “nice” ones) sometimes finish last. Lewis and Clark, as it happens, made it back from their monumental “Journey of Discovery.” Many other pioneers, in business as well as wilderness treks, are not so lucky.
Take Ferdinand Magellan, the world famous Portuguese explorer widely credited with being the first man to circumnavigate the globe. Which he might well have become except for one little mishap.
After 18 months at sea, after having successfully put down a mutiny by three of the five captains under his command (all of whom he executed), after surviving the scurvy and starvation that claimed many of his crew during their four-month crossing of the Pacific, Magellan was killed trying to intervene in a skirmish between rival bands of warring tribesmen. The captain with the distinction of leading the two ships and handful of survivors of the Magellan expedition back to Spain to complete the first circumnavigation of the globe was Juan Sebastian del Cano, who apparently had the good sense to stay out of “domestic disputes” while anchored among what three hundred years later would be known as the Philippine Islands.
Or consider brothers Frank and Charles Duryea. Their 1896 startup, the Duryea Motor Wagon Company, was the first American automobile company. The initial model featured a one-cylinder engine and a three-speed transmission that propelled it down the wagon trails of the day at almost eight miles an hour.
Going into what can honestly be described, in terms of the auto industry as it existed in the 1890s, mass production, they managed to clone 13 of the cars — virtually identical and featuring largely interchangeable parts — before their investors turned off the tap and forced the company’s sale.
More recently there was Adam Osborne, who, among many other things, invented the portable — fondly dubbed the “luggable” because of its 28-pound form factor — computer and the bundled software package. When he died in Kodaikanal, India, not far from where he was born 64 years earlier, in 2003 almost no one in the technology or business worlds paused for an instant in homage or even remembrance.
Pioneers, inventors, visionaries. Many, such as Adam Osborne, sink like a stone in the seas of history. Others — the Edisons, the Columbuses, the Wright Brothers, the Salks — leave historical records engraved on the same rocky substance. A third group, which includes the likes of Ferdinand Magellan, never live to complete the journeys for which they later become famous.
But no matter how history eventually treats the New York Taxicab companies and Osborne Computer companies of the 20th Century and the DayJets and Eclipses of the 21st, the innovations they forged, the hidden passages they uncovered, the unknown seas they charted, were and are all pathways to a better tomorrow.
As for Vern Rayburn and Ed Iacobucci, the prophets — respectively — behind Eclipse and DayJet, perhaps they can find some small solace in the words of Adam Osborne: The most valuable thing you can make is a mistake — you can’t learn anything from being perfect.