Saturday Special: What’s so impressive about Big Ben?

For over a decade, I was certain the famous London-based clock was inexplicably located off the highway in southeastern Wisconsin.

I was scrunched in the middle seat of a Ford Taurus station wagon. I sat between my older brother and sister on a family road trip that took us through Milwaukee. My dad pointed out the window at the largest clock I’d ever seen, and said, “Look! There is Big Ben.”

Every time I would ride by the clock, I would say, “There is Big Ben!”

Over a decade later, I was in college in Milwaukee and I gave my roommate, Lance, directions: “You’ll be on Highway 43 and you’ll see Big Ben out your window. Then stay right.”

Lance stopped me. I’ll never forget the confused look on his face. He tilted his head and replied, “What the hell is Big Ben?”

I confidently replied, “The big four-sided clock. Big Ben.”

Lance started laughing. Barely composing himself, he said, “That’s the Allen-Bradley building. It’s an old factory. Big Ben is in London.”

I was crushed. For over a decade, I was certain the famous London-based clock was inexplicably located off the highway in southeastern Wisconsin.

My narrative fell apart.

I believed Big Ben was more important than some old factory building.

It turns out, I was misguided about that, too.

In 1901, Lynde Bradley invented a new product that controlled the speed of electric motors.

The invention transformed innovation. Bradley’s product was used in radios, televisions, walkie-talkies, radar, fighter planes, spaceships and the first computers.

Lynde Bradley and his brother, Harry, built a factory in downtown Milwaukee in what was considered the Silicon Valley of its day. The factory building was built with the world’s largest four-sided clock installed at the top — twice the size of London’s famous Big Ben.

For over 80 years, thousands of employees found prosperity and dignity, through work, at the Allen-Bradley Co.

Millions more have had a better standard of living because of the Bradley brothers’ entrepreneurship and innovation. But then they did something even more amazing. Something uniquely American. Something divine.

When they sold the company, they gave away all the money.

The money was put into a foundation that has been used to lift people out of poverty, to provide for world-class educational opportunities, and to support the arts and civic life.

I highlight this, because giving your money away to someone who is not in your family is weird.

In fact, for nearly all of human existence this never happened. Wealth was accumulated, it was hoarded and it was passed on to your descendants. The goal was to have your family become part of the aristocracy.

But in America, something different happened.

Leaders such as John Rockefeller, and a personal hero of mine, Andrew Carnegie, gave it all away to benefit others.

The tradition carries on in America today. As a percentage of gross domestic product donated by individuals, Americans give away 1.5% of their income every year. Now, maybe that doesn’t seem like a lot to you. But it is twice as much as the next country, New Zealand. And a 1,400% increase over Germany and France.

Three weeks ago, I was driving on a road trip with my wife and two children. As we drove through Milwaukee, I pointed to the Allen-Bradley building and asked Fiona, “Do you know what that is?” She said, “Yeah, Dad. It’s a clock.”

Haha.

I found myself about to say, “That’s Big Ben.” But I paused.

I said, “Fiona, that clock was built by two men. Because of their ideas and hard work, they improved the lives of thousands of people in Wisconsin. But because of their philanthropy, they changed the lives of millions of people across America.”

My narrative changed. Because the story of the Bradley brothers is far more impressive than Big Ben.

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Matt Paprocki

President @illinoispolicy the nation’s leading state-based think tank.