May 2017

Of telephones and meeting needs.


An often quoted example of short-sightedness in business is that of the development of the telephone. In 1876, cash-strapped Alexander Bell and his financial backer, Gardiner G. Hubbard, offered to sell the patent of his new fangled invention, the telephone, to what became Western Union, the Telegraph Company which was the telecommunication giant of its day. They wanted $100,000.

The President of the Telegraph Company, Chauncey M. DePew, appointed a committee to investigate the offer. They rejected it. Its report reads in part:
"...we do not see that this device will be ever capable of sending recognizable speech over a distance of several miles.
...Hubbard and Bell want to install one of their 'telephone devices' in every city. The idea is idiotic on the face of it. Furthermore, why would any person want to use this ungainly and impractical device when he can send a messenger to the telegraph office and have a clear written message sent to any large city in the United States?
…Ignoring the obvious limitations of his device, which is hardly more than a toy. This device is inherently of no use to us. We do not recommend its purchase." And the Telegraph Company didn't.

In business, its not easy to pick the next big thing, and there are also plenty of stories of CEO's and companies that have put millions and sometimes billions into promising ideas that came to nothing, except sometimes bankrupting the company.
The lessons drawn from the above example are numerous, but often centre around a culture of willingness to take on risk and back an idea as it develops, knowing that there is no such thing as a sure thing, at least not without looking back in with 20/20 hindsight. In 1876 Western Union could have afforded both the initial £100,000 and then the cost and time of developing it further. It would have been a long game, but a winning game. I heard of a church that refused to spend a few hundred pounds in setting up a small coffee shop for mums to come after they dropped off their children at the school directly opposite. Those in favour couldn’t guarantee that the mums would come to a Sunday morning service.
Another church didn't want to sing any 'modern hymns' as all the attenders liked the old favourites, and they didn't have younger people anyway...

Many of the stories of Jesus in the gospels, shows Jesus approaching individuals in their circumstances. He approached Zacchaeus under the tree, the women in Sychar as she drew water, and blind Bartimaeus as he was begging in the street. He discovered their need and met it, and they responded. But only in a few cases do we know what happened after the immediate incident.
We may not invest in the next big thing and make our fortune. But courageously finding ways to welcome strangers and meeting them in a way that fulfils their needs is a start for a church and for Christians. It’s a long game with no guarantee of the results. But the final results we can leave to the God of the harvest, who is a far surer thing than a telephone patent.


May 2017