Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Pilon, The Monopolists

I have fond memories of spending countless youthful hours on a neighbor’s screened-in porch playing Monopoly. When life intervened—to go home for lunch or at the end of the day—and the game wasn’t yet finished, the board remained set up, ready for us to pick up where we had left off. And so, when I saw that a new book on Monopoly was coming out in February, 2015, I rushed to read the advance galleys. I was amply rewarded for my time, although I must admit that something of a pall was cast over my memories.

Mary Pilon’s The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game (Bloomsbury) is a well-crafted tale of how Monopoly came to be and how the wrong person was given (actually, falsely claimed) credit for creating it.

Under the best of circumstances attribution is a tricky business. For instance, every school child is taught that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, and yet he was only the most famous in a string of inventors who contributed to electric lighting. Volta developed the first practical method of generating electricity in 1800, Humphrey Davy invented the electric arc lamp in 1802, Warren de la Rue developed a platinum filament light bulb in 1840, Joseph Swan came up with a light bulb that used carbonized paper filaments in 1850, and Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans filed a patent in 1874 for an electric lamp with carbon rods. They sold their patent to Edison in 1879, the same year in which he filed a patent for an electric lamp with a carbon filament. And, of course, Edison did not work alone; he had a large team of researchers. It is more accurate, therefore, to say that Thomas Edison and his team invented the first commercially practical incandescent light.

In the case of Monopoly, the journey from first iteration to wildly popular board game was more incremental. But one thing we can now say with certainty. Charles Darrow, the unemployed salesman whose alleged invention—or so the official story went—rescued both Parker Brothers and Darrow from financial collapse, did not create the game. He simply reaped its benefits.

In the beginning was a woman, Elizabeth Magie, a follower of the anti-monopolist Henry George. During the day she worked in the Dead Letter Office, in the evening she pursued literary and theatrical ambitions and dabbled in invention. At the age of 26, for instance, she patented a gadget that improved on typewriter technology. She also taught classes about George’s single tax theory. Wanting to expand her audience for George’s theory, she came up with a board game, which she called the Landlord’s Game. “It is a practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences,” she wrote in 1902. “[S]omewhat surprisingly, Lizzie created two sets of rules: an anti-monopolist set in which all were rewarded when wealth was created, and a monopolist set in which the goal was to create monopolies and crush opponents.” (p.33) We know, of course, which set of rules the public came to embrace.

The Landlord’s Game became popular, mainly among east coast, left-wing intellectuals. It was played at the Wharton School and Columbia and by the late 1920s was a sensation in the fraternity scene at Williams College. One of the students who played the game at Williams produced his own version of it, calling it Finance. He couldn’t find buyers for his game, but before he abandoned the project altogether he taught the game to some Quaker friends, “who would modify it and change its course in the most unlikely way.” (p. 79)

A group of Quakers moved to Atlantic City to “establish a healthy, fresh-air community, complete with modest accommodations and prayer lodges.” (p. 80) Well, you can pretty well guess the next stage in the game’s development, though I’d wager to say that you don’t know why Baltic Avenue is less valuable than Marvin Gardens or that ‘Marvin Gardens’ turned out to be a tell-tale copying error (the correct spelling was ‘Marven’).

Unfortunately it’s a short step from the innocent Quaker innovators to the dark side of the game’s history.

Pilon, a staff reporter at The New York Times, does a brilliant job of exposing questionable corporate mores and individual dishonesty and greed. The heroes of the book, such as Ralph Anspach—who uncovered the provenance of Monopoly while engaged in costly litigation over his Anti-Monopoly board game decades later, struggled; the villains thrived. The game, of course, continues. It no longer, however, comes with a printed copy of Darrow’s rags to riches story.