Foolish Book Review: "An Empire of Wealth"

This past summer while on vacation, I picked up a copy of John Steele Gordon's An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power. It was a fascinating and refreshingly easy read, and as the title might suggest, it offered a rich economic history of the United States.

After I finished the book, I didn't think I would have much use for it in the future. To my surprise, though, I have consulted An Empire of Wealth on a number of occasions since then. The reason is quite straightforward: I believe history can provide a good deal of insight into the future, and because the book deals with the rise and fall of a variety of economic industries, I think there is much in it that investors will find useful.

History teaches patience
For instance, did you know that the first locomotive pulled out of Glamorganshire, Wales, on Feb. 21, 1804? This information isn't terribly enlightening on its own, but what is interesting is that a generation later -- by 1830 -- only 23 miles of railroad track had been laid in America. It is a vivid reminder that some technologies take time to mature.

I can't help thinking of this analogy when considering the field of nanotechnology. In 1989, two researchers at IBM (NYSE: IBM  ) provided the first demonstration of nanotechnology when they purposely fashioned 35 xenon atoms into the shape of the IBM logo. It is now almost 18 years later, and in spite of the hype, the field still doesn't have a great deal to show for itself.

But here's where a little lesson in history could prove profitable. By 1840, the number of miles of railroad tracks had grown to 2,818. Two decades later, the number had spiked to more than 30,000 miles, and 20 years after that, the number had tripled again to more than 90,000 miles.

Late last week, promising nanotechnology company Nanosphere (Nasdaq: NSPH  ) went public. It is already trading about 40% higher, in large part because of its potential to transform the field of molecular diagnostics. My advice, however, is to think of the field of nanotechnology today as being where the railroad industry was in 1830, when there were only 23 miles of track -- it is only going to grow larger from here on out. The patient investor could be handsomely rewarded.

Technology changes behavior
Another lesson I gleaned from the book is that technology changes people's behavior in unexpected ways. I'll use the railroad as an analogy again: Once rail travel became widespread and affordable, people began vacationing in more distant locations. In short, the railroad helped spur the creation of the tourism and vacation industries. It also decimated the clipper-ship industry by reducing the time it took to travel from the East Coast to the West Coast. (Before the railroad, it took 89 days to sail around the tip of South America.)

In the same way that railroads made vacationing in more distant locations possible, I believe that emerging technologies such as voice recognition technology, which companies like Nuance Communications (Nasdaq: NUAN  ) and others are developing, could also increase foreign travel by minimizing language barriers.

And just as the railroad disrupted the clipper-ship industry, I think it is possible that the emerging field of rapid prototype manufacturing -- the ability to print out physical objects using inkjet-like printers -- could disrupt a number of today's more traditional manufacturing companies. To the extent that this happens, it could be great news for rapid prototype manufacturers such as Stratasys (Nasdaq: SSYS  ) and 3D Systems (Nasdaq: TDSC  ) .

Change is inevitable
Finally, the most important lesson I took away from An Empire of Wealth is that change is inevitable. For example, the price of oil is now hovering at more than $90 a barrel. Considering that, it's difficult to fathom that when Edwin Drake first discovered it, the idea that oil pumped from the ground would someday become a prominent source of energy was "widely regarded as a ridiculous idea."

Today, solar energy meets only one-tenth of one percent of the world's energy needs. From this perspective, it is also easy to dismiss solar's potential. But just as oil production grew from 2,000 barrels in 1859 to 6 million barrels in 1900, is it not possible that solar -- or some other energy source such as wave power -- will follow a similar trajectory? To the degree that solar does, companies such as Suntech Power (NYSE: STP  ) and First Solar stand to benefit. If wave power catches on, it could be a similarly positive development for companies staking out early positions in the field, such as Ocean Power Technologies and General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) .

Foolish final word
I would be remiss if I didn't offer one word of caution. In 1903 alone, 57 new automobile manufacturers came into existence, producing cars that ran on electricity, ethanol, gasoline, and even steam power. Most of those companies went bankrupt. The same thing is likely to happen to many of the companies operating in the fields of nanotechnology, solar power, and other emerging industries today. Of course, there are also going to be some big winners.

It will be a difficult business separating those winners from all the losers. While An Empire of Wealth is not intended as an investment book, it might just help the prudent investor find winning stocks -- with the extra efficiency the cotton gin provided to farmers who were previously picking cotton by hand.

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