Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller by Ron Chernow

1. Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow (not finished)

a. 35 hours

b. Recommended.

c. Not finished. I paused at ch. 23 of 38, plan to probably finish it at some point.

d. How I chose it:

i. I want to understand the lives of people who had a lot of power—how did they get it? What did they do with it? How are they different from other people?

e. What it is:

i. One of the definitive biographies of Rockefeller.

f. Highlights for me:

i. Rockefeller made some fairly EA comments: preaching earning-to-give, complaining about lack of thoughtfulness in philanthropy, and suggesting that we should take philanthropy as seriously as business

ii. Standard Oil being broken up into shards that formed what are still some of the largest companies in the U.S.

iii. Rockefeller was (at least claimed to be) motivated by having cheap, good oil for the common man

iv. Worst thing Rockefeller did that I heard of: using the size of Standard Oil to get non-competitive prices for use of railroads and then lying about it

v. Anecdote of Rockefeller taking out all of the stops when he decided he wanted to learn to play golf

vi. The idea that lots of people in the 19th century were interested enough in virtue and self-improvement to keep diaries scrutinizing daily activities in order to improve in these areas

I left off at Ch. 23, 37:25.


Franklin kept a moral ledger, tracking his virtues and vices every day. Many people in the 19th centuries kept such diaries. Adolescents kept similar diaries. Other notable people who did this: Andrew Carnegie, William C. Whitney. Rockefeller did this as well, and took it further. He scrutinized his daily activities and regulated his desires. He pledged to himself not to work past 10 pm, but had trouble keeping the pledge. (Ch. 5, 36 min)

Rockefeller was very charitable from boyhood. Gave 6% during his very early career, went over 10% by the time he was 20. E.g. gave to a black man to buy himself and/or his family out of slavery (can't remember exactly). (Ch. 5, 42 min)

Puritans were supposed to find a calling. Believers not supposed to search for pleasure outside of family, business, faith. Worst sins were wasting time, indulging in idle chatter, and wallowing in luxurious diversions. (Ch. 5, 60 min)

Civil war stimulated economy. Promoted factories, mills, railroads, etc. [Not sure what the basis is for these claims, were given as background.] (Ch. 8, 4 min)

Rockefeller offered secret rebate deals that were never committed to paper. Lied about contracts. This is probably the worst thing I've heard of him doing so far, and it doesn't that bad in the scheme of things. It's interesting that Rockefeller would lie about this stuff so blatantly given that Chernow paints Rockefeller to be extremely morally scrupulous. (Ch. 8, 56 min)

Rebates became illegal in 1887. Didn't stop entirely until 1903. Ida Tarbell criticized Rockefeller not on legal grounds, but on the grounds that rebates were dishonorable. Rockefeller denied that it was dishonorable. Rockefeller said he made his discounts secret to keep competitors from asking for similar benefits. (Ch. 8, 1 hr, 3 min)

Southern Improvement Corporation (SIC) a sort of cartel that Standard Oil played a big role in. They prevented specific competitors from joining. The SIC members got "drawbacks" on oil shipments from rival refiners. (Chapter 10, 20 min)

Standard Oil of Ohio couldn't own property outside of the state, according to the law. Rockefeller tried to get around this informally. (Chapter 11, 13 min)

Rockefeller taught earning-to-give in Sunday School: "I believe it is a religious duty to get all the money you can, fairly and honestly, to keep all you can, and to give away all you can." (Chapter 13, 21 min)

Rockefeller funded Spelman college. (Chapter 15, 1:25)

In his memoirs, Rockefeller maintained that Standard Oil stopped rebates after 1880 (false). (Chapter 16, 21 min)

Rockefeller devised an encyclopedic stock of anti-competitive weapons. Free markets can wind up very unfree if unrestrained by law (proposed moral by author). Anti-trust regulations relevant to Rockefeller offered as supporting evidence. (Chapter 16, 46 min)

In 1889, $150M net worth according to newspaper. Rockefeller said $40-60M. $635-$950M in contemporary money in 1988 dollars. (Chapter 19, beginning)

Carnegie saw capitalism as threatened by inequality. He argued that the rich should donate large sums to worthy causes during their lifetimes, saying that a man who dies rich dies disgraced. Rockefeller was greatly influenced by Carnegie, and wrote Carnegie a congratulatory note about Carnegie's library program. Carnegie's program brought 2800 libraries into existence worldwide. Gates, Rockefeller's advisor, claimed that Carnegie did this for the sake of fame and immortality. Rockefeller did not want his projects (e.g. donations to the University of Chicago) to bear his name. (Ch. 19, 45 min)

Rockefeller favored hitting problems at their source. He hated the idea of giving money outright. He said his "guiding principle" was to "benefit as many people as possible." He criticized standard approaches to giving, saying that "Today the whole machinery of benevolence is conducted upon more or less haphazard principles." He deplored the lack of study in decisions about giving. He wanted to create institutions that would create independent lives and outgrow him as the donor. (Ch. 19, 49 min)

University of Chicago was one of his big early grantees. He said: "I investigated and worked myself almost to a nervous breakdown in groping my way without sufficient guide or chart through the ever-widening field of philanthropic endeavor. It was forced upon me to organize and plan this department upon as distinct lines of progress as our other business affairs." (Ch 19, 1:08)

Question about his funding U Chicago: if he mostly drew in the faculty from other places, what is the main mechanism of improving the world? Is the main effect getting people in the right place? Increasing demand? Helping to set up a new institution, hoping that the other places will find replacements? (Ch. 19, 1:19)

Gates was a biblical modernist, using science and reason to interpret the sacred texts. (Ch. 22, 4 min)

What it looks like to really try to do something: Rockefeller learning to play golf. Rockefeller noticed he twisted his right foot at the end of his stroke, so he had his caddy nail his foot to the ground. He would look up when he shouldn't, so he hired a boy to remind him "keep your head down". He kept slicing his woods, so he commissioned a cleveland photographer to help him find the problem. He had movies made of his game, and studied them intensely. He kept records of his scores and reviewed them. (Ch. 23, 6 min)