Power Failure: The Rise and Fall of General Electric by William D Cohan - review by Martin Vander Weyer

Martin Vander Weyer

It Lost Its Spark

Power Failure: The Rise and Fall of General Electric

By

Allen Lane 816pp £35
 

What’s the point of business history? Devotees claim it’s as important as political or social history in providing an understanding of how humanity achieves prosperity and progress. Detractors reply, ‘Maybe, but isn’t it awfully dull?’ Those profit and loss accounts of yesteryear; those once great, now gone corporations that ‘left not a rack behind’; that procession of men in suits who ran them: who really cares?

It may be that US readers care more about business history than their British counterparts. Over here, this genre is such a minority interest that one can but admire the optimism of Allen Lane in bringing to our bookshops this breezeblock-sized history of General Electric, an American industrial conglomerate that’s not to be confused with the British corporate giant of almost the same name.

In its time, GE (the US company, as opposed to GEC, the British group that is chiefly associated with the career of the industrialist Arnold Weinstock) made everything from locomotives and aero engines at one end of the scale to toasters and dishwashers at the other. It was also involved in power generation, broadcasting and medical equipment manufacture. Its products are still ubiquitous in American life but the brand carries no special resonance today. Its time was the 20th century, not the 21st.

Power Failure nevertheless has many of the features that distinguish the best kind of business book from the dust-gathering remainder. At its heart is a tale of human genius, ambition, conflict and hubris involving a cast of big personalities, most notably Jack Welch, ‘the CEO of the century’,

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