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100 Events That Changed Business: 1900-2000

60. The California asbestos lawsuits: October 1978.

Workers at Todd Shipyard and Long Beach Naval Shipyard in Southern California file a class-action suit seeking all profits -- estimated at $1 billion -- made since 1938 by 15 of the nation's major asbestos manufacturers. The largest asbestos manufacturer, onetime Dow component Johns Manville, would declare bankruptcy in 1982. By 1995, despite thousands of settlements, the total number of suits would be about half a million, and claims wouldn't be over.

But most of the money would go to the lawyers, not the victims. Soon, class actions would become a staple of American law, giving victims of dangerous products legal recourse (or giving greedy trial lawyers a way to get rich at the expense of blameless companies, depending on which side you're on).

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59. Wall Street's fixed commissions end: May 1, 1975.

Pushed by the Justice Department, the Securities and Exchange Commission ends the price-fixing practice by brokers of charging 1% on all transactions. Wall Streeters argue that the Four Horsemen will gallop up Wall Street at any moment. And it briefly seems like they might be right. By the end of 1975, 35 brokerage firms disappear, though most of them are pretty dinky.

But guess what: Volume soars. (Price down equals demand up. Economics is funny that way.) In 1975, in the middle of a sucking bear market, average daily volume on the New York Stock Exchange is about 20 million shares. In 1999, that figure would be 823 million.

The end of fixed commissions brings about Charles Schwab, the giant of discounting, which by 1998 would record $2.74 billion in revenue and $348 million in net income and a market cap in 1999 of about $46 billion, more than Merrill Lynch. And don't forget the online brokers, which will make everyone who touches a computer rich beyond his or her wildest dreams.

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58. Morgan consolidates U.S. Steel: 1901.

J. Pierpont Morgan's creation of U.S. Steel takes robber barony to a whole new level. Morgan adds several small steel companies to his own steel holdings and persuades Andrew Carnegie to sell his massive company to the new trust, which at a capitalization of $1.4 billion is the world's first billion-dollar company. U.S. Steel (today known as USX-U.S. Steel Group) controls 65% of U.S. steel output and further focuses the kind of negative attention on giant trusts that leads to the trustbusting of the early 20th century.

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57. Calpers promotes shareholder activism: 1984.

The California Public Employees Retirement System, the nation's largest public pension system, in 1984 officially turns its sights on the boardroom. It fights back against cushy poison pill antitakeover plans and directors' willingness to dole out greenmail -- buying corporate raiders out at a premium to the market price.

Calpers begins pressuring underperforming companies, including Gillette, Avon and Texaco. In the early 1990s, it begins publishing an annual list of "focus companies," the biggest losers in its portfolio, pushing board members to produce better results or risk a "no" vote at re-election time. In doing so, Calpers becomes a symbol of shareholder activism: If you're mad as hell (and own enough stock), you don't have to take it anymore.

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56. Eisenhower signs the act creating NASA: July 29, 1958.

Those dang Russkies put that gosh-darn Sputnik into orbit and we have to do something. So President Dwight Eisenhower inks the National Aeronautics and Space Act, creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Over the next 40 years the U.S. space program would put a man on the moon and contribute to advances in computer science, weather research, communications technology and lots of other good stuff. Total cost: a mere $14 billion annually (and far too many photo ops for John Glenn).

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55. ADM becomes the world's largest linseed oil maker: 1923.

The newly formed Archer Daniels Midland has nine mills and 334 linseed oil presses, on its way to becoming a price-fixing agribusiness giant and home to David Brinkley in his sunset years. The same year, Cargill purchases Taylor & Bournique Co., a major Eastern grain-merchandising firm with a private wire system, establishing Cargill's first communications link with markets in the East. Cargill would become one of the largest private companies in the U.S.

The rise of Cargill and ADM mirrors the fall of the family farm and the long, slow death of rural America. In 1900, almost 38% of the country's workers are farmers. There are 5.7 million farms averaging 147 acres. In 1990, only 2.6% of the labor force tills the land. There are only 2.1 million farms, but the average acreage has risen to 461.

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54. Watts explodes in race riots: August 1965.

Touched off by a DWI traffic stop, race riots erupt in Los Angeles' Watts neighborhood as African-Americans vent long-simmering anger about dire conditions in the inner city. Thirty-four people are killed and more than 1,000 injured. Scores of businesses and jobs destroyed in the violence would never return, while white support for civil rights would drop off sharply, exacerbating the decline of Watts and other inner-city neighborhoods, which even today remain isolated from the economic and business success going on around them.

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53. The New Yorker serializes Silent Spring: June 1962.

Rachel Carson's landmark treatise Silent Spring, on the dangers of toxic chemicals and pollutants, gives rise to a second wave of muckraking. Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed, a denunciation of the Chevrolet Corvair's nasty habit of flipping over -- "stylistic pornography over engineering integrity," he says -- would be published in 1965. A decade of consumer protection and federal regulation would follow, including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1970. The Clean Air and Clean Water acts would come later, as well as the Freedom of Information Act in 1974.

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52. Charles Merrill re-creates Merrill Lynch: 1940.

"Good Time Charlie" Merrill, high-living financier and playboy, is the driving force behind one of the most transformative trends ever to hit Wall Street: the democratization of investing. In 1940, Merrill merges Merrill Lynch with E.A. Pierce & Cassatt, the firm to which he'd sold Merrill Lynch's retail brokerage and branches in 1930. He then adopts a focus on the customer that builds the new Merrill into the largest U.S. brokerage and gets thousands, then millions, of Americans a share of the stock market's riches.

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51. The baby boom begins: 1946.

Randy GIs return from WWII, and nine months later the navel-gazing generation begins. The boomers would impose their (questionable) taste upon all walks of life, from Schwinn bikes in the '50s, to love beads in the '60s, all the way to Internet stocks and SUVs today.

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