It's been 100 years since we've seen anybody like Elon Musk - here's why that's so disorienting
- Tesla CEO Elon Musk is more like an old-school automotive entrepreneur than a modern-day business manager.
- His personality is consistent with what it always takes to start a car company, but it's unfamiliar to many because no one has started a major automaker in decades.
- If we had access to a time machine, we could go back to the early 20th century and find a lot more people who were like Elon Musk.
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If you had a time machine and could travel back to the turn of the 19th century, you'd find a world that still made great use of the horse - but that was newly captivated by a clattering new contraption, the motor car.
The automobile was the internet of the late 1800s and early 1900s, attracting a frenzied level of entrepreneurship, launching hundreds of new companies, and transforming a shipping center in the upper Midwest into Motown, the center of what would become the auto industry.
The car business is now very different. Ford and General Motors were each founded over 100 years ago. Upstart Toyota has been manufacturing cars since the 1930s. Even dashing Ferrari has been around since 1939, selling road cars since the late 1940s.
Automakers operate at a huge scale, across international time zones, employing hundreds of thousands of people while selling millions of vehicles annually. They can't be run by visionaries anymore because visionaries, while valuable, aren't good at keeping the giant machine humming.
This is why Tesla CEO Elon Musk is such a shock. His personality isn't so different from one of those determined entrepreneurs from the 1900s who wanted to stick a motor on a carriage and get people moving without having to hitch a horse. For grizzled industry veterans, Wall Streeters, and Musk critics, he can be tough to take.
But he's not usual, in the history of people who start car companies. In fact, he's true to type. Here's why:
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