A history of man rejecting technology. One big lesson to learn.

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John Henry
retold by
S. E. Schlosser

Now John Henry was a mighty man, yes sir. He was born a slave in the 1840’s but was freed after the war. He went to work as a steel-driver for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, don’t ya know. And John Henry was the strongest, the most powerful man working the rails.



John Henry, he would spend his day’s drilling holes by hitting thick steel spikes into rocks with his faithful shaker crouching close to the hole, turning the drill after each mighty blow. There was no one who could match him, though many tried.

Well, the new railroad was moving along right quick, thanks in now little part to the mighty John Henry. But looming right smack in its path was a mighty enemy – the Big Bend Mountain. Now the big bosses at the C&O Railroad decided that they couldn’t go around the mile and a quarter thick mountain. No sir, the men of the C&O were going to go through it – drilling right into the heart of the mountain.

A thousand men would lose their lives before the great enemy was conquered. It took three long years, and before it was done the ground outside the mountain was filled with makeshift, sandy graves. The new tunnels were filled with smoke and dust. Ya couldn’t see no how and could hardly breathe. But John Henry, he worked tirelessly, drilling with a 14 pound hammer, and going 10 to 12 feet in one workday. No one else could match him.

Then one day a salesman came along to the camp. He had him a steam-powered drill. Claimed it could out-drill any man. Well, they set up a contest then and there between John Henry and that there drill. The foreman ran that newfangled steam-drill. John Henry, he just pulled out two 20 pound hammers, one in each hand. They drilled and drilled, dust rising everywhere. The men were howling and cheering. At the end of 35 minutes, John Henry had drilled – two seven foot holes – a total of fourteen feet, while the steam drill had only drilled one nine foot hole.

John Henry held up his hammers in triumph! The men shouted and cheered. The noise was so loud, it took a moment for the men to realize that John Henry was tottering. Exhausted, the mighty man crashed to the ground, the hammer’s rolling from his grasp. The crowd went dead quiet as the foreman rushed to his side. But it was too late. A blood vessel had burst in his brain. The greatest driller in the O&R Railroad was dead.

Some folks say that John Henry’s likeness is carved right into the rock inside the Big Bend Tunnel. And if you walk to the edge of the blackness of the tunnel, sometimes you can hear the sound of two 20 pound hammers drilling their way to victory over the machine.



The Old Way is Just Fine

Have you ever heard someone in you organization say, “this is the way I have always done it, there is no reason to change?” Human being’s are creatures of habit and we, like John Henry, want to do things the way we have always done them, rather than change. In business, change is an integral piece to growth and competitive advantage in today’s marketplace.

Have you ever heard an employee say to you in response to an obvious cumbersome practice, “I am doing it this way, because this is the way I was trained to do it?” Do you empower your employees to bring about new and necessary change within your organization? Or are they simply trained to go with the flow and not make any waves? Why is it that so many of us continue to take the proverbial ‘hammer approach’ or difficult approach to our every day tasks?

In many cases, you will find the old ways of doing things are still functional. However, you will find a new way of doing things or a new technology will make the tasks at hand more efficient and afford you much more time and mental stamina for other items on your agenda. Like John Henry, many of us enjoy the challenge of winning against new technology by proving that we are capable. However, we often miss an unquestionable reality. If we would only permit ourselves to succumb to the new technology we will have more time and energy both physically and emotionally, to address other business needs that have been dismissed previously because they were secondary on the priority list. Time just wouldn’t allow for all of those details to be addressed.

The reality is that change is a necessary part of our lives and certainly a necessary part of business. As leaders, we need to become the organizational symbol of change and encourage our employees to search out improvements in our processes. We need to be proactive in finding a new and different approach in order to stand out against our competition.



We need to be proactive in change so we can stay competitive. Isn’t it time for some proactive change in your business?

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