The capitalists behind the Big Bang of America's economy

Strikes. Land grabs. Genius. Greed. It was quite a show.

Picture a grand exposition in London, 1851. The sun-never-sets era is well under way, imperial imperiousness in full bloom.

The biggest concern among the hosts, amid their 12,000 fountains and their exhibition halls of iron-and-glass: that "foreign rogues" will pocket Britain's trade secrets. Special scorn is reserved for the colonials who will surely show up.

The Americans come, but it's not industrial espionage that they have in mind.

On the same day that the schooner America trounces the British cutter Aurora in a race around the Isle of Wight (the first America's Cup), an American at the show picks the "unpickable" British Bramah lock - then cheekily puts up $1,000 for any British locksmith who can crack his own machine-made locks.

It is just one sideshow in a stunning display of might from across the pond. Cyrus McCormick has just torn up the local competition with his reaper. Samuel Colt has shot it to pieces with his repeating-firearm exhibit.

Decades earlier - for reasons including abundant resources and few barriers to business - the stage had already been set for a period of explosive growth in American invention and enterprise that would surge after the Civil War, when the Connecticut River Valley became the Silicon Valley of its day.

With The Tycoons, Charles R. Morris presents a portrait of a critical time for a nascent economic superpower though the dazzling - sometimes dubious - interactions of a key young foursome of players named Carnegie, Rockefeller, Gould, and Morgan.

The book is neither a straight-up celebration of their hardball capitalist skills nor a scoldingly instructive laying bare of the uncaring opportunism that too much power can bring out.

Instead, it manages to be a little of both.

Morris displays a cultural diarist's careful attention to detail that makes a reader feel like a time traveler plopped down among men who were by turns vicious and visionary.

Some passages are a little too close to caricature. "[Jay] Gould was barely five feet tall, even smaller than Carnegie, but with none of Carnegie's voluble energy," Morris writes in a typical characterization. "Instead, he made a wan, silent, somewhat hunched figure. During times of crisis he would usually sit calmly and quietly, betraying tension by tearing small bits of paper."

Another gold-hungry investor is described as having "nostrils quivering with the scent of money."

But Morris's stark depictions of me-first, monopolistic behavior aren't hard to believe for anyone who follows modern-day corporate news. As the stakes rose, the behavior of many in this class of young tycoons took on a bare-knuckles dimension whenever their worlds - gold, railroads, oil, livestock, banking - overlapped.

Egos flared. There were takeovers and alliances, strikes and land grabs, some played out in the public eye and others in backroom skirmishes.

Drama ran high. J.P. Morgan gave Andrew Carnegie a deadline for the completion of the great St. Louis Bridge that Carnegie's crews beat by only hours, averting bankruptcy.

Strike-breaking steel magnate Henry Frick, shot and stabbed by anarchist Alexander Berkman, wrestled down his attacker, held him for guards - and then stuck around the office doing paperwork and writing a press release indicating that his firm's labor policies would remain unchanged.

Such individual fanaticism aside, there were collective national triumphs.

By 1876, more than halfway through what Morris calls "a most peculiar decade" because of its huge but stutter-step growth, an exposition in Philadelphia would showcase something called the Corliss engine.

With it, America was symbolized by a monumental machine that one writer at the time, Morris recounts, called "an athlete of steel and iron with not a superfluous ounce of metal on it; the mighty walking beams plunge their pistons downward, the enormous flywheel revolves with a hoarded power that makes all tremble...."

An etching of the Corliss, Ulysses S. Grant standing beside it, is among the book's most interesting illustrations (others include a photo of a 70-horse plowing team on a North Dakota farm and one of a 2,000-passenger Ferris wheel in Chicago in 1893).

Morris also tracks the roots of more ominous outgrowths of fast economic and population growth, such as the rise of factory farms and exploitative management structures.

And he chronicles the gung-ho societal aspirations triggered by the speed of business. For example: Ivory Soap, an accidental product, becomes an early megabrand for a culture that would ultimately become largely defined by consumerism.

Morris's scope is ambitious. Some sections demand close reading for their complexity. But "Tycoons" covers ground that is essential to understanding the foundation of a national economy.

It shows how business hardball can veer into self-aggrandizement. It peers back with clarity at nothing less than the Big Bang of the American boom.

Clay Collins is on the Monitor staff.

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