companies that left their mark in history

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Poet Archibald MacLeish, when he was a staff writer at Fortune, described his job as to “report the world of business as an expression—a peculiarly enlightening expression—of the Republic, of the changing world.” It has become a bit of a catchphrase among tech people to say that one’s company is going to “change the world.” Many companies do, in small ways. But disrupting, say, the taxi business is not going to set future historians atwitter (though Twitter conceivably might). We surveyed Fortune’s brain trust to come up with a ranking of the 27 companies that have done the most to alter the way we live.

 

27. United Fruit

 

United Fruit, the 800-pound gorilla of the banana trade, kept a stranglehold on the U.S. import market for the fruit for much of the 20th century. And in the countries where it operated in Central America, the West Indies, and parts of South America, United Fruit was a powerful economic and political force—building railroads and ports, both propping up and pushing out dictators, even running Guatemala’s post office. The governments in these tiny nations were so dominated by United Fruit that the writer O. Henry was inspired to label the countries “banana republics.” United Fruit lives on today as Chiquita Brands International (CQB). —Brian O’Keefe

 

26. Mitchell Energy

When all the attention is focused on Enron, smaller companies like Mitchell Energy and another Houston company, Kinder Morgan Inc., have shown that there is another way to do business in the oil patch: the old-fashioned way. These companies focused on real assets like pipelines and actual oil and gas. In his office before the sale of his company, George Mitchell had a quiet moment. Mitchell, founder of Mitchell Energy and Development, received $1.3 billion in the sale to Devon Energy.

 

25. McDonald’s

The “Speedee” McDonald’s in Downey, California, the third restaurant built by the McDonald brothers Dick and Maurice.

 

The fast-food giant turned food production into a science through automation, training us to expect consistency from our food. (Founder Ray Kroc has been credited with saying, “I put the hamburger on the assembly line.”) McDonald’s (MCD) made the Big Mac and fries synonymous with American cuisine around the world, serving 70 million customers a day in more than 35,000 restaurants in 120 countries. “The hamburger is symbolic of our society,” says Heidelberg University professor and fast-food industry scholar David Hogan, “and McDonald’s is of course the ambassador and marketer of that concept.” —Beth Kowitt

 

24. Krupp

 

Friedrich Krupp (1854 – 1902).

For almost two centuries and five generations, Friedrich Krupp AG dominated the European steel and armaments industry that fueled German expansionism from the Franco-Prussian War to both world wars. Friedrich Krupp co-founded a mill in 1811 and developed a process of casting steel that he handed down to his heirs. Son Alfred, who took control in 1848, boosted the manufacture of weaponry, and by the 1880s “the cannon king” had made Krupp the largest company on the Continent. The family shared its wealth with workers, building housing estates, dental clinics, and convalescent homes for employees. The company merged in 1999 with Thyssen to form ThyssenKrupp. —Edward Karam

 

23. Wright Co.

 

Wilbur and Orville Wright, U,S,A, pictured making the world’s first hour-long flight by aeroplane at Fort Myer, Virginia, in 1907.

The Wright brothers were not the first to build and fly airplanes, and their company focused more on defending their patent rights than on developing new aircraft. (In fact, some argue that the Wrights’ patent battles impeded the growth of the nascent aviation business). But their patent, no. 821393, described the invention of three-axis control—covering pitch, roll, and yaw—that made fixed-wing aircraft practical. Their method remains standard for airplanes today. —Tim Smith

 

22. McLean Industries

The voyage of the SS Ideal-X from Elizabeth, N.J., to Houston, Texas, in the spring of 1956 is not one you learn about in school. Yet, like other more-famous sea journeys, it was the start of something big. That’s because it was carrying, for the first time on a ship, cargo packed into identical steel boxes 8 feet tall, 8 feet wide, and 35 feet long. These particular standardized shipping containers—developed by visionary trucking veteran Malcolm McLean—could be seamlessly moved from trailer bed to ship deck to dockyard to train flatcar, for a fraction of the cost and time of previous methods. Suddenly, where stuff was made didn’t have to be near where it was needed in order for it to be inexpensive. Globalization hasn’t looked back since. —Chad McCabe

 

Photograph by Margaret Bourke-White/Time & Life Pictures—Getty Images

 

21. Facebook

A decade after Mark Zuckerberg, then a Harvard undergrad, launched a service to connect everyone in the world, Facebook (FB) is growing closer to its goal: 1.3 billion active users. Facebook introduced a new way to navigate the web—via scrolling the “news feed” of personal updates that has become a staple on many websites—and a new way to organize digital information—via personal relationships instead of page links. In the process, the company reinvented brand marketing on the web, replacing the reviled banner ad with highly targeted ads that brought in $7.9 billion in sales in 2013. Even as Zuckerberg, who just turned 30, continues to run Facebook, he’s using his largesse to tackle education reform; he has pledged $220 million so far to school reform efforts in Newark, N.J. and the Bay Area. —Jessi Hempel.

 

 

 

20. Otis Elevator

 

Elisha Graves Otis performing his safety elevator demonstration inside the dome of the Crystal Palace at the World’s Fair in New York City.

The year is 1854. Hundreds gathered in the New York Crystal Palace, the iron-and-glass exhibition hall at the center of the World’s Fair, to watch a man standing on a platform four stories high, suspended by a single taut rope. A few electrifying moments passed before Elisha Otis signals his assistant, hovering by the rope with an outstretched sword, to sever the cable in two. The crowd gasps. The platform jolts—but doesn’t fall, as a pair of hidden leaf springs engage the rails, keeping Otis’s “safety elevator” miraculously in place. Credit the showmanship to P.T. Barnum, who hired Otis to perform this stunt several times a day for a whole month this was a  world-changing invention to Otis, who founded his elevator company in an old Yonkers, N.Y., bedstead factory the year before. The safety elevator made it possible for buildings to climb ever skyward—from the 20-story Flatiron Building in New York But the safety elevator of today is much the same as the one that wowed the World’s Fair audience 16 decades ago. And for all that time, the Otis Elevator Company, now part of United Technologies (UTX), has dominated the industry it created. —Clifton Leaf

 

 

19. Sony

 

Sony’s first transistor radio , produced in 1955.

The way the world thinks of audio and video products was fundamentally redirected by Sony (SNE) from the 1950s through the 1980s. The company didn’t make the first transistor radio, but in 1957 it introduced a hugely successful one that helped propel the concurrent revolution in popular music. Its color TV sets of the 1960s and 1970s raised the global standard for quality. The Walkman, introduced in 1979, again revolutionized the way the world listens to music; it foreshadowed the iPod, which Sony obviously should have invented. But by then its fortunes had changed. Beyond transforming an industry, Sony also helped advance its country. In the 1950s and 1960s, “Made in Japan” was a punchline that meant laughably poor quality. By the 1980s it meant the opposite, and Sony products were the most visible cause of the change. —Geoff Colvin

 

18. Diner’s Club

 

Singer Patti Page and Diners Club President Ralph Schneider cut the ribbon for the official opening of the Diners Club exhibit at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

You can think of it as a monumental driver of economic growth or as the beginning of civilization’s decline, but no innovation in history has made borrowing money easier for the common person than  the credit card. And Diners Club is how the revolution began. Before the 1950 launch of Diners Club, only individual retailers issued credit cards. New York finance executive Frank Sullivan had the breakthrough idea of issuing a card that could be used at many different companies, based on a new business model with himself as the middleman. Diners Club began not as a credit card but as a charge card—you had to pay off the whole balance every month. But the power and consumer-credit possibilities of the new model soon became apparent to bankers and financiers (and Diners Club), and the borrowing binge began. How’s this for world-changing: Global credit card debt now exceeds $1 trillion. —Geoff Colvin

 

17. Bayer

 

Chemists working for Bayer synthesized Prontosil, the first antibiotic, in 1932, more than a decade before penicillin became commercially available. Prontosil and subsequent “sulfa” drugs—the first chemicals used to treat bacterial infections—opened a new era in medicine. Gerhard Domagk, a Bayer researcher, was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on prontosil in 1939. —Tim Smith

 

 

16. Apple

The new iPhone on display at MacWorld on January 10, 2007 in San Francisco.

Apple (AAPL) changed the world by augmenting its simple-to-use PC with music software and a portable player to go with it, a groundbreaking smartphone, and a tablet computer—all of which work together brilliantly. It also taught us that mavericks can succeed in business; that even a box of molded plastic can be beautifully designed; that single-digit market share doesn’t spell death in a fast-moving industry; that one man really can define the soul of a giant corporation; that focus trumps breadth; that clever marketing can convince people around the world to love a company, even a company whose workplace is a brutal grind; that brand matters; that putting an “i” in front of a product’s name is infinitely repeatable; and, perhaps most importantly, that being better is vastly preferable to being first. —Adam Lashinsky

 

 

 

15. Pan American World Airways

 

A Pan Am Clipper seaplane, circa 1941.

Facts and figures substantiate how Pan Am shaped the global airline industry, but its greatest influence was cultural: It made air travel glamorous. The company routinely bought the very first copies of the newest planes, such as the Boeing 707 and 747—critically important for manufacturers while burnishing Pan Am’s image. Its technology was the latest, its flight crews the most thoroughly trained, its food the most lavish, or at least so it seemed. When the Beatles invaded America, they stepped off Pan Am flight 101 at JFK. James Bond flew Pan Am between New York and London (in Live and Let Die). When 2001: A Space Odyssey debuted in 1968, it was obvious whose logo would have to be on the vehicle that took tourists into orbit. Pan Am failed and shut down in 1991, but by then it had given commercial flying a sparkle that has dimmed (a lot) but still not disappeared. —Geoff Colvin

 

 

14. RCA

 

An RCA Victor record label logo showing the dog ‘Nipper’ listening to a gramophone and hearing ‘His Master’s Voice,’ 1920s.

RCA lasted only 67 years (1919-1986), and its world-changing phase lasted only about 40 (1920-1960). But in that time it pioneered the radio receiver business and developed the model of network broadcasting with the creation of NBC. It then proceeded to dominate the television business in almost every way: It was the leading maker of TV sets; its color TV technology became the national standard; and TV broadcasters across the U.S. used RCA cameras. RCA Victor was the world’s largest maker of phonographs and records. No other company so profoundly influenced both the engineering and the content, the left brain and the right, of the media revolution that helped shape the 20th century. —Geoff Colvin 

 

13. Suez Canal Co.

 

Ships entering the Suez Canal at its inauguration, Egypt, 1869

Fernand de Lesseps’s company dug the modern canal, completed in 1869, using forced Egyptian labor. It wasn’t an original idea; Pharaohs had been doing the same thing in the same place in pre-Christian times. No wonder: The canal, at 102 miles long (and about 78 feet deep today) is the shortest route between the East and the West. —Tim Smith.

 

12. Lloyd’s of London

 

The Lutine Bell inside the callers’ rostrum at Lloyd’s of London, circa 1930.

Okay, it’s not a company, strictly speaking, it’s an insurance marketplace. (For an analog, think of the marketplace called the New York Stock Exchange). It began in Edward Lloyd’s London coffeehouse in the 17th century, when the socializers there—among the first to hear marine news—banded together to insure the ships of commerce intrepidly plying the seas. Until then, the concept of insurance just wasn’t. The Underwriters at Lloyd’s—including individuals called “names”—went on to insure everything, including Bruce Springsteen’s vocal cords, Tina Turner’s legs, and a Cutty Sark contest that risked someone actually hauling in the Loch Ness Monster. —Carol Loomis.

 

11. Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena

 

The main entrance at the Monte dei Paschi headquarters in Siena.

During the Renaissance, the world’s first great banks flourished by financing Italy’s fabled city states and merchant families, and built the pillars of modern banking with such innovations as double-entry bookkeeping, bills of exchange resembling checks, and the shift from Roman to Arabic numerals for handling complex transactions. Founded in 1472, Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena pioneered the “retail” side as an enterprise offering loans at reasonable rates, principally to farmers—providing a haven from the unscrupulous moneylenders who gouged the needy. Recently rocked by scandals and bailouts, it remains the oldest surviving bank in the world, and the third largest in Italy.            —Shawn Tully

 

 

10. Google

 

Google co-founders Larry Page,  and Sergey Brin at the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.

Dream up something outstanding. Make it ubiquitous. Repeat. That’s been Google’s formula since day one, as it embarked on an ambitious mission to organize the world’s information. They Build a computer that fits in your pocket,Photographs of every street were included to make it navigable from afar? Digitize the planet’s books? Build a polyglot translator in software? 

 Think of Google (GOOG) as a factory for major innovations, from self-driving cars to wearable computers to technology for extending the lifespan of humans. —Miguel Helft

 

9. DuPont

 

DuPont demonstrates the strength of Mylar in 1954.

You could tell the story of the developed world through the materials that DuPont (DD) invented or commercialized. The Delaware company, 212 years old, spent its first century as a gunpowder maker, supplying the U.S. in 1812, and the Union in the Civil War. It diversified into materials for everything from pantry house to parachutes, counter tops to bulletproof vests, food wrappers to air-conditioning. It was the main contractor for plutonium on the Manhattan Project. Today huge numbers of corporations call Delaware their official home largely because of state laws influenced (or written) by DuPont (the company) or DuPonts (the family). —Nicholas Varchaver

 

 

8. GE

 

The first electric light bulb, invented by Thomas Alva Edison in 1879 and patented on January 27, 1880.

GE (GE) changed the world in not one or two, but three big ways. Guided by Thomas Edison, founder of the predecessor company Edison General Electric, it brought electricity and light bulbs to America and the world. That alone would be enough to put GE high up on our list, but there’s more. Transformation No. 2 was creating America’s first research lab. No. 3 was building an elaborate system of management development, a new idea at the advent of the giant corporation, that has guided companies around the world for over a hundred years. —Geoff Colvin

 

7. Svenska Tändsticks AB (“Swedish Match”)

 

Ivar Kreuger

Ivar Kreuger, a Swedish industrialist who built an empire founded on the safety match, was perhaps the most brilliant swindler of all time. After he put a bullet through his heart in a Paris hotel room in 1932, his many frauds were uncovered and thousands of investors lost their savings. The “Kreuger Crash” that shook Wall Street prompted the U.S. Congress to pass the Securities Act of 1933 regulating the offer and sale of securities. —Tim Smith

6. British East India Company

 

Officers of the British East India Company gathered in Founder’s Hall.

The Dutch had their East India Company, considered by many the first true multinational, which rampaged across Asia using military force to pursue the spice trade. But the British East India Company, founded in 1600, was the real imperial colossus: It ruled much of India, sparked the Opium Wars with China, and grew to account for half the world’s trade. —Tim Smith

 

 

5. Ford

During a period of unparalleled innovation early in the 20th century, Ford Motor (F) developed the moving assembly line, raised the wages of the workers who manned it to $5 a day, and made the Model T affordable to millions of buyers, thereby giving birth to the automobile age. By constantly refining its mass-production methods, Ford brought the price of the “T” down to $240, and the car became so popular it required no advertising. The “T” was also built in 12 foreign countries, making it the first world car. Today, Ford is still the world’s fifth-largest automaker, controlled by the descendants of Henry Ford, the inventor who founded it 111 years ago. —Alex Taylor III

 

4. McCormick Harvesting Machine Co.

Farmers reportedly laughed when they saw Cyrus McCormick’s horse-drawn mechanical reaper in the 1830s. With a whirling reel of wooden bars and a sharp blade, it looked simultaneously dangerous and ridiculous. But it instantly raised farm productivity by a factor of six (and much more after later improvements), with profound effects. In America and then globally, superfluous farm hands became an army of industrial workers. Food prices dropped, giving consumers better health and more disposable income. McCormick’s reaper faced plenty of competitors, but through superior marketing and management it swept the field. —Geoff Colvin

 

3. AT&T

Alexander Graham Bell (1847 – 1922) makes the first telephone call from New York to Chicago in 1892.

The company would belong on this list just for providing ubiquitous phone service, a major step up from telegraphy and letters. But its most significant and game-changing contribution may have been its role in the development of the transistor, that key building block of all computing and electronic devices. Scientists at AT&T’s Bell Labs (T) are credited with inventing the transistor in 1947. Crucially, the company did not patent this new technology, out of fear of antagonizing the Justice Department over the monopolistic nature of its business. (The government did, of course, break up Ma Bell in 1982.) That decision opened the gate to the information technology and gadget-saturated world we live in today. —Stephanie Mehta.

 

1. Standard Oil

 

1927 Portrait Of The American Industrialist John D. in Rockefeller in 1927.

John D. Rockefeller established a monopoly on the most precious commodity in the world. By the time his trust—which included some 40 corporations—was broken up in 1911, petroleum products were on the way to being indispensable for transportation, agriculture, industry, warfare, and in many places even light. The story of petroleum was the story of the 20th century, and with the changes in climate, it could be the story of the 21st as well. —Tim Smith.


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