March 07, 2014

A selection from a 1930 Heinz recipe book.

H.J. Heinz was an ingenious businessman with an obsessive - and odd- personality, says Joshua Kendall. Here, a selection from a 1930 Heinz recipe book. Credit: alsis35 / Flickr Creative Commons

Guests:

Ever notice that many famous innovators seem a bit…prickly? Joshua Kendall, author of "America's Obsessives," says visionaries often exhibit the kind of obsessive behavior that leads to great ideas, but troublesome personal lives.

Take H.J. Heinz, for example, founder of the H.J. Heinz Company. When he first began bottling and selling pickles, the prepared food industry as we know it today didn't exist. But through ingenious promotional campaigns like the "pickle pin," which turned customers into walking advertisements, Heinz was able to create one of the most recognizable brands in America. In private, his life was a little, shall we say, weirder. Heinz was obsessive about measuring: he would often leap to his feet in the middle of meetings, for example, to measure a door frame, and had a special heavy hat he would wear if his weight wasn't an even number.

"He really was unstable," Kendall says.

A card catalog.

Melvil Dewey, inventor of the Dewey Decimal System, was another innovator with an off-putting personality. Here, a selection from a 1930 Heinz recipe book. Credit: I'll Show You Mine / Flickr Creative Commons

Another obsessive innovator Kendall points to is Melvil Dewey, inventor of the Dewey Decimal System. Dewey, as you might have guessed, was obsessed with numbers, especially the number ten: he he insisted on sleeping ten hours every night, and would take care to make sure his handwritten letters always ended up ten pages long. (He even changed his name from "Melville" to "Melvil" to reduce the number of letters.)

His vice?

"It might make you laugh or make you cry," says Kendall. "He was a librarian who couldn't keep his hands off librarians."

Essentially a nineteenth century version of San Diego mayor Bob Filner, Dewey was eventually kicked out of the organization he founded - the American Library Association - after receiving scores of sexual harassment complaints.

A woman using a card catalog.

Dewey invented the modern library as we know it - and then was kicked out of his own association for sexual harassment. Credit: BYULibrary / Flickr Creative Commons

"Innovators are in a state of rebellion against the world," says Kendall. "If you don't get along with other people if you're outside the box, you're going to think in new ways."

Though their obsessive qualities led innovators like Dewey and Heinz to great discoveries, they also had a dark side, which profoundly impacted their personal lives. That also, of course, makes them fascinating to study.

As Kendall points out: "It's like they're several Shakespearean characters rolled into one."

Still curious?

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