Economics/Class Relations

Elon Musk and the ghost of Jay Gould

By Matt Phillips, author of Axios Markets

A powerful 1%-er launches a takeover bid for a seemingly irreplaceable communications network, igniting a panic over the power of the super-rich.

The intrigue: No, not Elon and Twitter. We’re talking about the notorious Gilded Age financier Jay Gould — who for over a decade starting in 1881 single handedly controlled America’s telegraph wires.

Why it matters: While nearly forgotten today, the Gould episode has remarkable parallels to Elon Musk’s attempt to seize control of Twitter, putting the current era of American capitalism in stark relief.

  • Gould was a shrewd upstate New Yorker who had already made multiple fortunes — in the railroad industry and on Wall Street — when he set his eye on wresting control of Western Union. The company had a near monopoly over the U.S. telegraph system, controlling 90% of the technology now referred to as “the Victorian internet.”

The similarities are eerie. Both men eschewed convention, pushed legal limits and weren’t averse to trolling.

  • Gould earned the title “the most hated man in America” for his willingness to dissemble, bribe and manipulate in order to take control of and consolidate railroad lines.
  • While far more popular than Gould ever was, Musk has also bucked the corporate decorum that most executives cling to, picking fights with politicians and repeatedly tangling with the S.E.C.
  • As Richard John, professor of history and communications at Columbia University, puts it: “Powerful figures who are using their notoriety as an asset. That’s a similarity between Musk and Gould.”

Both Musk and Gould used fame and notoriety to move markets.

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