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(wintercow: I have asked Michael Marotta to put together a few posts on his observations from living in Michigan, this is part 1 of a 2 part series)

Every Labor Day since 1961, several thousand Michiganders walk across the Mackinac (rhymes with Saginaw; honest) Bridge that ties the “U.P.” (Upper Peninsula) with the “Mitten” (Lower Peninsula).  The map of Earth at Night reveals a large bright corner of the Lower Peninsula, the multi-county region north of Toledo, Ohio, to the Saginaw-Bay City gateway to the “Thumb” where Paul Bunyan still cuts lumber.  On the other side of the Lower Peninsula, the area around Grand Rapids is less bright, seemingly a reflection of Chicago, which is accurate enough, economically.  Between them and spreading northward small cities and big towns sparkle – Battle Creek, Kalamazoo, Lansing, Midland, Holland, Traverse City, Ludington, Chesaning, Clare, Cadillac, … easily 20, maybe 30 in all.  The sprinkles contrast with the empty green of state and federal forests, small farms, and crossroads villages.  You need a special vista even on the ground to find the towns of the largely unsettled U.P.  Where once were copper mines now five state prisons provide employment.  Not exactly the waters around Devil’s Island or Alcatraz, the U.P. is no place for a city boy to be alone at night.

Everyone knows that Michigan exports cars.  We also export college graduates.  Statistically, up to 28% of all working adult Americans claim to have bachelor’s degrees.  In Michigan that number is solid.  Two Big Ten state universities dominate public visibility, but in addition, a network of small state universities dots both peninsulas: Wayne State, Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan, Central Michigan, Northern Michigan, and Michigan Tech, 15 in all.  Add to those up to 90 private colleges (depending on how you count “independent” campuses).  We also import students to fill those schools, which is another way to export education.  The inputs are impressive, but the lack of opportunity takes people away.

The decline of the automotive industry is neither recent nor novel.  From the earliest days, failures, mergers and acquisitions were the hallmarks of growth. Henry Leland acquired a factory where the chief engineer refused to market his untested product.  Displaced, Henry Ford took his car to a new workshop.  Leland later sold his Cadillac factory to General Motors.  Ford Motor Company acquired Lincoln.  Hudson merged with Nash to form American Motors; Packard merged with Studebaker.  The Duesenberg came and went.  Of course, only Ford and General Motors were truly Detroit firms.  Checker’s headquarters were in Holland, Michigan, on the west side of the state.  The Duesie was made in Auburn, Indiana, between Fort Wayne and South Bend.  Although Hudson was local to Detroit, Nash was in Kenosha, Wisconsin.  But Ford and GM proved to be the two largest automakers, and they made Detroit the automotive capital of the world.

In 1900, Detroit was a fair to middling Midwest city of 285,000 with a broad range of small factories, large shops, retail and wholesale trade, served by water and rail.  By 1930, the population had quintupled to 1.6 million.  The high pay and automated routine of mass production meant that you did not need a good education to get a good job.  By 1980, when UAW members were smashing Japanese automobiles for TV news cameras, three generations of Detroiters could not help their children with their homework – and saw no reason to.  Then, the jobs went away.

That easy generalization covers too much important and contrary fact.

Many Detroiters did value education; and their investment in it took them to the suburbs.  A large number were Catholics.  Founded in 1701 by the French, the fort, post, port,

St. Anne’s Church, and the town remained strongly French until the first wave of Irish immigrants in the 1830s.  The Potato Famine would bring more.   In 1830, Massachusetts was still collecting taxes for the Congregational Church.  So, Detroiters expected tax support for their schools, also.  It was not to be.  The anti-Catholic Know-Nothing political movement permanently segregated the parochial schools from the public schools.  It worked out well for the Catholics.  While blue collar work was always available, thousands became clerks, engineers, accountants, and lawyers.  Their wealth took them away from the city.

We all know Silicon Valley and Route 128.  Detroit was home to the Burroughs Corporation before it purchased Sperry to form Unisys.  Also, today Compuware is headquartered in a new building in the old Campus Martius in downtown Detroit.

Living in St. Louis, William Seward Burroughs (1857-1898) was granted five patents for adding machines in 1888.  The American Arithmometer Company grew steadily for ten years.  Burroughs passed away.  In 1905, company president Joseph Boyer changed the name of the business to the Burroughs Adding Machine Company and moved it to Detroit.  The company now employed 1,200 and sold 7,804 machines that year.

In 1906, the Ford Motor Company created “The Burroughs Special” a businessman’s car with an integrated rack to hold an adding machine.  Detroit and Burroughs were destined for a long and profitable relationship.

Overall, through the next eighty years, right up to the merger with Sperry to create Unisys, Burroughs was always an aggressive buyer of small firms.  Their goal was not to restrict competition, but to acquire technology.  The same motive led them to hire as consultants researchers whose names stand out in the history of computing, among them Irven Travis, Edsger Dijkstra and Donald Knuth.

The Great Depression motivated banks to invest in machinery that made their operations both cheaper and more reliable.  By 1935, the company touted over 400 different “standard” models, a near-miracle of specialized production that would not be mimicked by other industries until the 1980s.

In 1952, Burroughs fabricated the memory for ENIAC, developed at the Moore School of Engineering of the University of Pennsylvania.  The company won a contract for SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment), the air defense program of NORAD running on MIT’s “Whirlwind” computer which was built by IBM’s Lincoln Laboratory for the Office of Naval Research.  SAGE boasted magnetic core memory, video displays, algebraic programming language, the ability to run simulation programs, and parallel processing, as well as one of the first computer networks.

Burroughs did not begin production of its own computers until 1964.  Even at its best of times, the company only garnered about 3.5% of the market, one of computing’s “Seven Dwarfs” under the shadow of IBM’s 73.5% market share.  Even so, the company’s decades of selling hundreds of varieties of calculators, primarily to banks and other financial businesses, gave it a loyal following.  By 1976, sales exceeded $2 billion; and 50,000 people were employed.  Ten years later, Burroughs paid $4.78 billion for Sperry.  The president of Burroughs and new CEO of Unisys was former Secretary of the Treasury W. Michael Blumenthal.

In many ways the opposite of Burroughs, Compuware is nonetheless a product of the information revolution that the older firm helped to create.  Whereas Burroughs clove closely to its main line of calculators until it was a late entry into computers, Compuware launched into unrelated ventures in professional hockey, as soon as its principals were comfortable being millionaires.  As a nineteenth century company, Burroughs was unimaginable without products to sell. When Peter Karmanos, Jr., Thomas Thewes and Allen B. Cutting launched Compuware in 1973, they really no idea where their business would take them.  In the words of the official company history: “Their vision [was] to help people do things with computers by providing their clients with professional technical services, allowing them to focus on their own core businesses.”  Helping people “do things with computers” is not a business plan that William Seward Burroughs would have recognized.

They began by outsourcing programmers, taking on odd jobs and subcontracting work for major firms in the Detroit area.  By 1977, Compuware had a product, Abend-AID.  For over 30 years, Abend-AID has proved itself to be Compuware’s reliable income stream with over 8,000 installations worldwide.  “Covisint” is an identity management tool first installed at over 6,000 suppliers to General Motors back in 2004.  Today, it is marketed to pharmacies.  Compuware now employs 4,275 people worldwide with 84 offices in 30 nations.

Detroit is not famous for computer hardware and software.  Michigan is not famous for Saran Wrap, or Styrofoam, products of Dow Chemical, headquartered in Midland.  Battle Creek is home to both Kellogg and Post.  Grand Rapids was a center for furniture and still headquarters Steelcase.  Also in Grand Rapids is Amway.  Each of these has a story as big, broad, complex (and quirky) as the automotive industry.  Perhaps what unites them is actually what separates them.  Urbanist Jane Jacobs suggested that cities are the true geographies of culture, commerce and innovation.  Nations (including our 50 states) are large, but irrelevant.

2 Responses to “Guest Post: Michigan Before and Beyond Detroit”

  1. Harry says:

    Thanks, Michael. I did not know that history. Well-written.

    I would be interested in your thoughts, being a Michangder, about how happy you and your neighbors are about heating your homes next winter, and whether your and their views are congruent with the attitudes of the Sierra Club.

  2. Harry says:

    Without question, Michigan, and our country, is replete with vast human resources. There is no reason why it should not prosper.

    Except for the U of M football team, which deserves all the bad luck in the world. A good friend and his wife are MSU graduates, and I am a vicarious Penn State fan. May they all be shunted into Lakes Huron, Superior, and Huron, and the backfield into the Soo Canal.

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