Now, what I want is, Facts ... Facts alone are what is wanted in life ... Stick to Facts, Sir," said Mr Gradgrind in Hard Times. Well there are plenty of facts here so long as a fairly elastic definition of fact is held. There is undoubtedly a demand for snappy information and this must be what lies behind the motivation for this book. It is slim but packed tight with information on the biggest, the best, the first, the tallest, the greatest, and so on, of all things commercial. There are nine chapters covering such topics as companies, workers, markets, risk, invention, and wealth. There is a lot of text but there are also photographs, illustrative boxes, potted biographies, and even some dialogue from the film Some Like it Hot.
There will no doubt be a large market for such a book, for there are many who like to browse and flip through this kind of material: the biggest companies in the world (and Britain and Europe separately), the first British businesses, the oldest pub, etc. However, it will be clear immediately that there are likely to be problems confronting any compiler. The two main ones are the definition of the subject matter and the reliability of the information. On the first, how should a company be measured - by sales, workforce, market capitalisation, or some other criterion? Tom Cannon sometimes uses one and sometimes another which can make for difficulties when comparisons are sought. And how are some subjects to be defined? The first central bank is given as the Bank of Venice (1585). But central banking did not develop until the 19th century. Has the Bank of Scotland ever been a central bank? I think not. The first British business is given as the Aberdeen Harbour Board (1136). No one doubts that an Aberdonian would be first into profit but is this a useful example? The oldest pub in England is listed as the Bingley Arms (905) in Yorkshire, and while that does seem old enough to qualify there are many others making the claim.
There are some puzzles too. For example, paper is said to have been invented in 50bc, and toilet paper in ad580. Strange that no one thought of that use for 630 years - or how do we know? It seems to have taken another thousand years before someone thought about putting it on the wall. Or again, can a research laboratory be invented? According to this it was in 1876.
This leads on to the reliability of the information. Sometimes dates are provided and sometimes not; sometimes sources of information are given and sometimes not. This makes it difficult to verify or even to test alongside some other piece of information. More importantly there are some contradictions. Bill Gates is down as the wealthiest of business people with wealth at $9.5 billion, but Jaqueline Vogel, who is only the second wealthiest business woman, clocks in at $12 billion. And a multiplier of six is used to convert 1900 values into 1990 values when one of 40 would be closer to the mark.
Some of these problems can be sorted out and a second edition could improve on the reliability. In the meantime impress your friends with some interesting facts: Indian Railways employs more than 1.6 million people; Germany is by far the biggest exporter of hazardous waste; and car ownership per head is highest in the world in San Marino.
Forrest Capie is professor of economic history, City University.
The Guinness Book of Business Records
Author - Tom Cannon
ISBN - 0 85112 794 0
Publisher - Guinness
Price - £15.95
Pages - 224