Joshua Kendall's America's Obsessives: The Compulsive Energy That Built a Nation profiles seven trailblazers from the last two centures who have made their mark in a variety of arenas, including business, information technology, politics, and sports.
When we think of obsessives, most of us picture neatness nuts like Felix Unger of The Odd Couple who never fail to make a bed without hospital corners—socially awkward nerds who are much more likely to be followers than leaders. But occasionally obsessives are able to transform their love of rules, lists, details, cleanliness and order into spectacular success. Take Steve Jobs, for example. The Apple co-founder was an innovator par excellence precisely because he couldn’t stop sweating the small stuff. As Ashton Kutcher, who stars in the Jobs biopic due out this summer, puts it in the trailer, “We’ve got to make the small things unforgettable.”
Here are three other obsessive icons who have also revolutionized their fields:
Henry J. Heinz - Before the 31-year-old Pittsburgh native started his eponymous company in 1876, the women who prepared America’s meals—back then, nearly all men stayed out of the kitchen—had to slave away endlessly. They had few dependable resources outside the home. The condiments then sold by grocers were often laced with lead or sawdust, which manufacturers tried to hide by selling their wares in brown bottles. Heinz, who got an early start in business by harvesting, grating and bottling his mother’s horseradish as a boy, created a whole new industry—mass-produced processed food.
“The Pickle King,” as Heinz was known during his lifetime—ketchup didn’t become the company’s signature product until the early 20th century—made cleanliness a synonym for his brand, selling his products in clear glass bottles. Heinz advertised his company as “the cleanest…Food Product establishment in the world;” to prove his point, he invited the public to tour his supersanitary workplace where his favorite motto, “A young man ought to be a clean, wholesome animal,” was plastered on the walls. This workaholic who was obsessed with counting and measuring—he carried a steel tape measure in his front pocket at all times—also ran roughshod over his competitors by becoming the first to tally pickles by machine rather than by hand. His patented Keystone Pickle Assorter enabled him to guarantee grocers an extra one or two dollars a barrel in profits because his pickles “were more uniform in size and exact in count than any other brand.”
Melvil Dewey - This contemporary of Heinz from Adams Center, a small town in western New York State, also began worshipping at the altar of order in boyhood. At five, he was already arranging and classifying the contents of his mother’s pantry in order to improve the efficiency of the household. As an adolescent, Dewey fell in love with the metric system, which he insisted could eliminate all the waste and confusion caused by America’s haphazard system of weights of measures. As an undergraduate at Amherst College, Dewey turned his obsession with 10s into an ingenious search engine—the Google of its day.
In 1876 when the twenty-four year-old librarian published the first edition of his Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) system, all of America’s roughly 1000 libraries, whether public or academic, were still in a state of total disorder. Each one relied on its own idiosyncratic classification system. For example, the books at his college library were arranged according to the shelf system, then the most common approach. Each volume had a number identifying the particular shelf on which it was placed. This approach, Dewey quipped, had one advantage—librarians who already knew where a book was located could easily find it in the dark. By dividing all human knowledge into ten classes, which are, in turn, subdivided into ten sections and ten divisions, Dewey’s system proved to be a huge time and space saver. The latest edition of the DDC—the 23rd—which was published in 2011, governs the arrangement of books in more than 200,000 libraries in nearly 150 countries.
Ted Williams - By definition, an obsessive is someone who loves to do the same thing over and over again. For Ted Williams, that activity was hitting a baseball. For the San Diego native who grew up in a family where neither parent was around much—his father was typically out carousing and his mother, a religious zealot, was busy riding the bus trying to save souls—home plate substituted for a real home. After school, the future Hall of Famer would go straight to the local baseball diamond and practice hatting until 9 p.m. when the lights went out. Of his childhood, Williams later noted, “When I wasn’t sleeping or eating, I was practicing swinging.”
Like the security blanket tethered to the fingers of Charles Schulz’s Linus, his bat was also a transitional object to which he turned for comfort. Before Williams, most hitters, especially sluggers such as Babe Ruth, didn’t think much about their craft. In contrast, Williams developed a thoroughly cerebral approach (which he codified in his influential treatise, The Science of Hitting, written after his playing days were done). His research took him to a physics lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he learned about the trajectory of baseballs upon impact.No detail was too small to escape his purview. He did a systematic study of every big-league park, learning about the slope of the batter’s box—in Fenway, it was a tad higher in the back, enabling him to plant his back foot more firmly—and the prevailing wind currents. More than a generation before stats geeks such as Bill James launched the field of sabermetrics, Williams was already compiling data. “Ted was his own computer,” Frank Malzone, the Sox All-Star third baseman in the late 1950s, told me. To get info on opposing pitchers, which he would record in a little black book, Williams would quiz not only veteran players, but also umpires (the latter practice has since been outlawed). “Lord knows I wasn’t much of a student,” the intellectually curious autodidact once noted, “but baseballically, I was a cum laude.”