[PW] FedEx Anecdote (Quotation Query #748)

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at gmail.com
Sun May 15 11:49:34 PDT 2016

An instance of the anecdote appeared in "The Washington Post" in
February 1981. The article contained quotations from Fred Smith, and
it seemed that the reporter spoke to Smith for the story. But the
comment about the grade assigned to the paper was not presented as a
direct quotation. The reporter wrote: "He got a C on the paper."

Please double-check for typos, OCR errors, and other mistakes.

Date: February 22, 1981
Newspaper: The Washington Post
Newspaper Location: Washington, D.C.
Section: The Washington Post Magazine
Article: Overnight Success
Author: Bill Snead
Start Page SM10, Quote Page SM13
Database: ProQuest

[Begin excerpt]
Inspiration struck when Smith attended Yale in the mid-1960s.
Desperate to find a subject for a much-procrastinated economics paper,
Smith stayed up late one night and stumbled upon his legendary idea:
Buy a fleet of jets, fly only in the middle of the night, shuffle
packages at one centrally located hub, pick up and deliver to
customers' doorsteps and charge oodles of money. He got a C on the

"I had the advantage of not knowing anything," Smith recalls. His
model was the phone company, which uses a central switching exchange
to transfer calls from distant points. As an ignorant undergraduate,
Smith remembers thinking: "With the hub, the aggregate of all
transmission would be enormously efficient."
[End excerpt]

Another instance of the anecdote appeared in The Atlanta Constitution
in June 1981. The reporter described the response of the teacher to
Smith's paper as follows: "Such a business could never work, the
instructor told his student, and gave the disappointed Smith a barely
passing grade."

Date: June 14, 1981
Newspaper: The Atlanta Constitution
Newspaper Location: Atlanta, Georgia
Section: Atlanta Weekly
Article: Fly-By-Night Success
Subtitle: When it was founded Federal Express was seen by some as an
idea that absolutely positively would not work. Less than a decade
later, it is the king of the airfreight business
Author: Mitchell J. Shields
Start Page K20, Quote Page K21
Database: ProQuest

[Begin excerpt]
The catalyst for that idea had been an economics class he had attended
while an undergraduate at Yale. Pressed to find a topic for a
long-delayed paper, he latched onto the subject of airfreight. "I had
to write about something it sounded like I knew about," he says now.
"I knew how to fly, so I wrote my paper on air cargo. And I decided
that everything people thought about it was wrong. Air cargo wasn't
going to compete with trains. It wasn't going to compete with trucks.
There was a whole brand-new market out there that nobody had even
. . .

Smith turned in his term paper and waited for his professor's'
response. It wasn't favorable. Such a business could never work, the
instructor told his student, and gave the disappointed Smith a barely
passing grade.

The professor didn't understand how the world worked, Smith said
later. "He didn't realize that America was spreading out
technologically. This meant the creation of a host of new
productivity-improving equipment with innumerable complex parts.
[End excerpt]

In March 1982 an article in The Christian Science Monitor stated: 'The
paper received a "C"'.

Date: March 24, 1982
Newspaper: The Christian Science Monitor
Newspaper Location: Boston, Massachusetts
Article: A lot of people besides Uncle Sam are getting into the mail business
Author: Deborah Churchman
Quote Page 19, Column 2
Database: ProQuest

[Begin excerpt]
But it was a modern need for overnight service that made Fred Smith,
founder of Federal Express, a rich man. At Yale University he wrote a
paper on what looked to all like a wacky idea - an overnight delivery
service using airplanes, which funneled all the mail through a sorting
center in his hometown, Memphis, Tenn.

The paper received a "C," but the business it outlined, after a shaky
start in 1973, pioneered the rapidly growing field of overnight
delivery. As a spokesman for Federal put it, "With the new technology,
businesses simply can't afford to wait for more than a day for
replacement parts or contracts. We sell time."
[End excerpt]


On Sun, May 15, 2016 at 11:13 AM, Shapiro, Fred <fred.shapiro at yale.edu> wrote:
> There is a famous anecdote about FedEx founder Frederick W. Smith.  Wikipedia tells it as follows:
> "In 1962, Smith entered Yale University. While attending Yale, he wrote a paper for an economics class, outlining overnight delivery service in a computer information age. Folklore suggests that he received a C for this paper, although in a later interview he claims that he told a reporter, 'I don't know what grade, probably made my usual C,' while other tales suggest that his professor told him that, in order for him to get a C, the idea had to be feasible. The paper became the idea of FedEx ..."
> I am interested in tracing the earliest version of this anecdote, and would welcome any information about primary or secondary sources for early versions.
> Fred Shapiro
> _______________________________________________
> Project Wombat - Project-wombat
> list at project-wombat.org
> http://www.project-wombat.org/

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