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American Inventions - Game 1, Memphis

With USF basketball beginning conference play in a brand-new league, we're looking at some other inventions that embody the places and cities in the American.


Every year when conference play begins, or sometimes earlier, we introduce a theme for the remaining games on USF's basketball schedule. We've done terrible music, and various alcoholic drinks, and last year we chose extinct animals to mark the death of the Big East as we knew it.

This year, we're doing the total opposite. USF now plays in a league that is brand new. It has no history, no tradition (of its own, anyway), and no memories. The future of the American Athletic Conference is all there is. The first conference basketball games in its history are being played today, including the USF-Memphis matchup at the Sun Dome. The American may have been invented out of desperation, but that's as good a reason as any to invent something. So this season, we'll look at other inventions tied to the cities where the other nine schools in this conference are located. Some will be obvious, others more obscure, but hopefully they'll all be interesting.

(Oh, and since conference play is a double round-robin and we're going to see every school twice, we may come up with some less dignified inventions as we go along.)


We all know Memphis is the home of FedEx. They have their name on the arena where the University of Memphis plays its basketball games, and they once issued a bribe put out an incentive for whatever BCS conference would take in their local university. (No word on whether the American claimed that money.) And with how ubiquitous air travel and air cargo service is now, you'd think FedEx was invented not long after airplanes.

Well, no. In the early days of aviation, cargo was a natural use for airplanes, especially for moving war materials to the scene of the action. Later on, a huge demand grew for electronics from consumers and businesses alike. But getting things from here to there was really inefficient. No one was going to stock hundreds of warehouses with parts or merchandise, and even if someone did, they'd need the products delivered to them quickly. Air cargo as a concept didn't work well either. Companies didn't want to cooperate with each other to the extent you would need to deliver packages quickly. First you'd have to pick up a package from the sender. Then you'd drive it to one warehouse, take it to an airport, put it on a plane, fly it somewhere else, put it in another warehouse, maybe put it on another plane, and on and on. Every step of the way might have involved a separate company. It was crazy.

In a paper at Yale, Fred Smith argued that a single company could make air cargo much more efficient by running the whole process themselves. (The story in which this paper received a "C" for not being feasible is apocryphal.) After serving in Vietnam, he took his inheritance and staked it all into a new company called Federal Express. This invention would take a lot of money, though, so in addition to his own $4 million, Smith rounded up between $50-70 million in venture capital at a time when getting that kind of money wasn't nearly as easy as it is now. After two years of planning, Federal Express began operating out of Memphis in 1973 with overnight service.

It took a couple more years for the company to become profitable. There was an oil embargo, and at the time federal regulations limited the size of airplanes they could use to ship cargo. (Smith famously won $27,000 playing blackjack after being rejected on a fundraising trip, which helped them pay their immediate bills.) Once Smith showed members of Congress what his company could do with the Depression-era regulations in place, and how much more could be accomplished without them, a law passed in 1977 that effectively deregulated air cargo. Federal Express has only grown from there.

FedEx's revenues in 2012 exceeded $43 billion, they now operate all over the world, and they have Express, Freight, Custom Critical, and Office divisions (the former Kinko's). But out of diehard loyalty to USF, we think you should still get your big heads made at Pro-Copy.