Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Forgotten Founders of TIME and AOL

Upon embarking on a reading of Stealing Time, journalist Alec Klein's 2003 detailed dissection of the ill fated merger of America Online and Time Warner, immediately following completion of The Man Time Forgot, Isaiah Wilner's account of the formative years of TIME magazine, I noted an interesting parallel between the histories of the two companies involved in the the at the time record setting corporate marriage: Lurking deep within the misty memories of of each was the figure of the forgotten founder, a man who started the company upon its path to greatness yet is remembered today by only a handful.
In the case of TIME magazine, it is Briton Hadden, whose boyhood vision of a magazine "which will tell the truth" (Wilner, p. 16) gave birth to a publication so original that a new word, "newsmagazine," had to be coined to categorize it. AOL had William Van Meister, who, in 1983, launched a company then called Control Video, Inc in order to provide a service he dubbed GameLine, which promised to deliver video games to home Atari consoles via telephone lines with the aid of a new fangled contraption called a "modem." Even at that early stage of the game, Klein tells us, Van Meister saw the potential of computers as a powerful medium of communication and spoke of one day expanding Control Video into a provider of all manner of on-line information, from news and sports to stock prices.
There is, as well, in each case a usurper, whose business acumen would take the company to undreamt of heights after the departure of the founding father and would claim the founder's accomplishments as their own. At TIME, it was Henry R. Luce, Hadden's friend, business partner, and, at least in Luce's eyes, rival. Following Haddens untimely death in 1929, at age 31, Luce contrived to gain control of TIME Inc., had Hadden's name removed from the magazine's masthead and publicly presented himself for decades afterward as TIME's sole founder. AOL's Steve Case initially was hired at Control Video as a part time consultant at the urging of his then more successful older brother Dan, a major investor in the struggling start up. Case would eventually rise to CEO and Chairman of AOL, and Klein says that he would introduce himself to new employees as the founder and claim to been with the company "when we started in 1985." (Klein, p. 26)
It is ironic to me that while Klein brings to light William Van Mesister's role in the founding of AOL and invokes his name throughout Stealing Time, he perpetuates the Luce propagated myth of Henry Luce as TIME magazine's sole progenitor, making no mention of Briton Hadden in his brief discussion of Time Warners early history.
Van Meister, however, was no Briton Hadden. Where Hadden dedicated his life to the creation of his newsmagazine, Van Meister was a serial entreprenuer for whom Control Video was but the latest in a string of business ventures. Hadden served as TIME's primary editor during its first years of publication, shaping the magazine into a reflection of his personality and worldview, while Van Meister was forced out of a Control Video on the verge of bankruptcy by its board of directors long before any of his big talk about providing information on-line had come to fruition. Thus, the company that AOL eventually became did not bear its founders imprint in the way that TIME magazine, despite Henry Luce's best efforts, would for many years following Hadden's death.

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