Sir Charles Henry Augustus Frederick Lockhart Ross, 1872-1942: Loaded for Bear

Read at any length about the Vietnam war and you will come across accounts of American GIs ditching  their M-16 rifles in favor of Kalashnikovs, a weapon better suited to abuse and jungle life.   It’s not the first nor probably the last time this sort of thing has happened.  Back in World War One, there was a similar problem with the Mark III Ross rifle, the brain child of  Sir Charles Henry Augustus Frederick Lockhart Ross.

Ross was born at Balnagown, Scotland, one of those Downton Abbey type estates, encompassing 350,000 (eventually 366,000) acres and 3,000 tenants.  He inherited the Baronetcy at age eleven,  making the lucky pre-teen the largest landowner in Scotland.  Continue reading

Isaac Merritt Singer, 1811-1875: A Thing for the Ladies

For trivia buffs, Elias Howe is famously  the inventor of the sewing machine. *

So why do all the machines seem to be named Singer?

Short answer is because it’s not personal, it’s business.  Like fast food, the real money is not in inventing, it’s in marketing, preferable to the great middle.   Isaac Singer, like Ford, figured out how to bring machinery to  the masses and to make it pay.

He worked as a machinist but his first love was the stage, and had his talent been for the latter rather than the former, this story might have turned out rather differently. As it was,  he found himself  by circumstance tinkering on various machines, making small improvements on this and that.  At age twenty seven, he patented a rock-drilling machine, making him $US 2,000 – extremely good money back in the day. So what did he do with it? Continue reading

Wilson Mizner, 1873-1934: “God help those who do not help themselves.”

America really has degenerated as a breeding ground for Class A scoundrels.  Bernie MadoffKen LayCharles Keating? Small men in both ethics and actions, but mostly in their lack of style.  Put them up against a Wilson Mizner and they shrink to the D list specimens they are.

Mizner was old school.  He was the youngest son of an old line California family from  Russian Hill.  A beautiful place, but it was not for him.  Money and comfort were all well enough, but Wilson was man of restless intelligence and a need of excitement, and there was little of that where his parents lived.  His preferred venues were the dives and hells of the Barbary Coast where there was always something interesting going on.  At six foot four and over two hundred pounds, he was able to handle himself.  With a little help and guidance from some of the area’s shadier people, he was soon able to handle others as well.

He worked as a saloon singer despite a terrible voice (women didn’t mind; but then, they weren’t really listening so much as watching), played the shill to a patent medicine salesman, and organized illegal prize fights.  When gold was discovered in Alaska (1897), he and two of his brothers followed the call of the wild.  It didn’t take him too long to realize, like Levi Strauss, that the real money, the easy money, was not in the river beds, but  in the miners’ pockets.

Unfortunately for the miners, Mizner had fewer ethics than Strauss. Continue reading

Charles Tyson Yerkes, 1837-1905: “Buy Up Old Junk, Fix It Up a Little, and Unload It Upon Other Fellows”

Or, how to make a fortune in public transportation.

Yerkes is one of the Robber Barons who tends to be forgotten amongst the Carnegies and Mellons and J.P. Morgans and Rockefellers of the Gilded Age. For one thing, he died nearly broke and the only hard asset legacy he left is the Yerkes Observatory – high tech in its age,  quaint now.

Forgotten or not, his life was the stuff of scandal, full of material worthy of a novel. Theodore Dreiser found Yerkes so irritating that he wrote three: The FinancierThe Titan, and The Stoic.

Well, who reads Dreiser much any more?  (Kind of surprising, given his taste for the rich and seamy.) Continue reading