The Twentieth Century Motor Company of Starnesville, Wisconsin (fl. ca. 1985-2015), was a fictional business firm in Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged. Specifically, this company built automobile engines for about thirty years until finally it went bankrupt and was liquidated. Furthermore, the original workforce, after noticing that the decay in the economy of the entire United States dated from their original vote for a disastrous business plan, coined an expression, in the form of a question, expressing hopelessness and despair. That question was,
|Who is John Galt?
Gerald "Jed" Starnes founded the Twentieth Century in or about 1985. In addition to building a factory, he had an entire town built to house his six-thousand-member workforce. Among its customers was Henry Rearden, when Rearden had only an ore mine to his name. Rearden would place his order in 2001.
Jed Starnes' workforce included a skilled lathe operator named Jeff Allen, who worked at the firm since 1991 and became shop foreman, and at least two engineers. William Hastings (fl. 1989-2007) was the senior of the two; the other was John Galt (fl. 2004-2007), a young graduate of Patrick Henry University in Cleveland, Ohio, who had majored in physics and philosophy. John Galt built a prototype of the invention that would make him famous, though not in the usual manner: an electrostatic motor that could draw its energy from the atmosphere and run virtually without stopping or refueling.
Change One Cannot Believe In
In 2007, Gerald Starnes died, leaving three children: Gerald Starnes, Jr., his younger brother Eric, and their sister Ivy. Together they proposed a radically new business plan: they would have all the employees work according to their ability, and "pay" them according to their needs.
The Starnes children put the matter to a vote of the entire workforce, and the workforce, for reasons that never became clear, voted in favor. Shop foreman Jeff Allen would later describe the attitude of the workforce as of someone spoiling for a fistfight. Gerald Jr. made a hasty speech telling all the workers that they "may [not] leave" because they were all "bound by the moral code that we all accept." But John Galt stood up and declared that he did not accept that code, and furthermore, he would put an end to that moral code once for all—by "stop[ping] the motor of the world." Not until twelve years later would anyone present realize what he meant.
Decline and First Bankruptcy
The Twentieth Century began four years of decline, as the "noble plan" pitted the workers against one another and fostered resentment instead of the hoped-for cooperation. Alcoholism and crime became rampant. Jeff Allen would later state that the only ones who profited from this arrangement were the Starnes children:
- Eric Starnes, the Director of Public Relations, sought love, and tried to obtain it by reminding everyone how "democratic" he and his brother and sister had been in "giving" the factory to the workers. The workers regarded him with scorn instead.
- Gerald Starnes, Jr., the Director of Production, effectively stole vast amounts of money from the firm and pretended that his ostentatious show of material wealth was necessary as an advertisement for the company. He earned the hatred of the workforce.
- Ivy Starnes, the Director of Distribution, sought power instead of material wealth. She dressed in the severe fashion and "sensible shoes" of an early twentieth century schoolmistress, and treated the workers as though they were wayward and disobedient children. She it was who decided what everyone's "needs" were, and whether they deserved to be met. She became the most-feared person at the company.
While all this was happening, the quality of the company's products deteriorated to unsaleability. After four years, the factory closed. Ivy Starnes made a resentful speech decrying the refusal of the larger society to embrace a factory with such an "enlightened" work ethic. In response, one worker, who had found himself forced to work overtime after coming up with an idea to improve efficiency, walked up to her and spat in her face. Thus the first chapter in the history of the Twentieth Century Motor Company ended.
Lee Hunsacker, another businessman who had never been successful at anything before, assembled a team of equally feckless partners who called themselves the Amalgamated Service Company. They bought the Twentieth Century in 2011 after securing a capital loan from the nearby Community National Bank, presided over by Eugene Lawson. (He had earlier tried to get a loan from Midas Mulligan, but, though he had obtained a court injunction to compel Mulligan to lend him the money, Mulligan had responded by liquidating his bank and vanishing.) Hunsacker spent most of his remaining money buying luxurious appointments for his executive offices. After that, one fact became painfully obvious to everyone: he didn't know what to do. When in 2015 Nielsen Motors (Colorado) came out with a motor, similar to the Twentieth Century's signature product, but at half the price, the Twentieth Century folded.
That failure had an even larger consequence, because the Community National Bank failed completely, and many residents of Starnesville and the nearby town of Rome, Wisconsin, lost all their money.
The factory property
The Mayor of Rome, a man named Bascom, bought the Twentieth Century property, appropriated a mahogany desk and stall shower for himself, and sold off its fixtures. (Bascom assumed incorrectly that Jed Starnes had had these appointments in his office; Hunsacker had actually bought them.)
Bascom then sold the factory, now an empty shell, to Mark Yonts. Yonts formed a company called the People's Mortgage Company. He re-sold the Twentieth Century to one set of investors, and also pledged it as security for a loan to an unsuspecting bank. Then he vanished before anyone suspected that he had wrongfully sold an encumbered building.
The factory building was still standing when Dagny Taggart and Henry Rearden visited Starnesville on a driving trip. (The two sets of owners were fighting over their stake in court, though none of the locals could figure out why they did not call it a day and walk away.) There Dagny discovered John Galt's original prototype, or rather what was left of it; John Galt had wrecked it so that neither the Starnes heirs nor anyone else would have use of his invention. Neither Hunsacker, nor Bascom, nor Yonts took any notice of it.
The Starnes heirs
The Starnes heirs relocated to Durance, Louisiana. In 2013 Eric Starnes became infatuated with a young woman who did not return his feelings, and then committed suicide by slashing his own throat in the bedroom of her house, on the occasion of her returning, with her new husband, from their honeymoon.
Gerald Starnes drifted into a life of petty, and then grand, theft and landed in jail. Dagny Taggart would find him there in 2017.
Ivy Starnes became a social worker and lost touch with her brother.
Hunsacker and Lawrence
Lee Hunsacker, when last seen by anyone, became the live-in cook and not-so-handyman for a couple of moderate means in Oregon, in exchange for room and board. Dagny Taggart tracked him down there and from him got the lead on the Starnes heirs.
Eugene Lawson won a key appointment in the administration of Mr. Thompson.
Remainder of the workforce
William Hastings left the Twentieth Century almost as quickly as John Galt did, when the Starnes children were in charge. He went to work for another factory, but John Galt would later (2008) convince him to retire and live off his savings. He lived on for four more years and died peacefully at home, of heart disease.
John Galt, of course, made good on his threat to "stop the motor of the world." William Hastings was his fourth recruit.
The six-thousand-strong workforce of the Twentieth Century Motor Company noticed that not only was their own firm declining, but the entire country was declining. They didn't know exactly how this was happening, but they all felt that they knew why. None of them had known anything more about John Galt than his name, but all knew that the decline at their factory and in the nation's economy began when he abruptly left and made that cryptic threat. And so they all began to ask themselves, "Who is John Galt?" in an effort to explain something that was as inexplicable as it was inexorable. Eventually, all of the American public followed their example.
Shop foreman Jeff Allen left Starnesville after the initial bankruptcy and drifted across the country, looking for work where he could find it. Usually his jobs would not survive the next round of layoffs, which always proceeded according to seniority, a thing he could not hope to gain. Allen worked the longest for Lawrence Hammond's automobile factory in Colorado, where all hiring decisions were taken according to a man's work record—but then Lawrence Hammond quit, and the citizens' committee that took the Hammond Car Company over, laid him off at once, again on account of his lack of seniority. He met Dagny Taggart while stowing away on the Taggart Comet, and told her the full particulars of the disastrous administration of the Twentieth Century by the Starnes heirs, and the origin of the John Galt Question. The novel last mentions him taking command of the Comet as "deputy conductor and proxy-vice-president for operations" when the Comet became a "frozen train." That was on May 30, 2019. A few days later, he signed on permanently with the railroad at Laurel, KS. But he almost certainly heard John Galt's great speech, recognized him, and found vindication of his own bitter memories in John Galt's story. And thus when John Galt told people to "stop supporting [their] own destroyers," Jeff Allen would be the first to sign up for a hastily-organized militia.
Spoilers end here.
The Twentieth Century Motor Company was a microcosm of any society that tried to organize itself under the principles set forth in The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Ayn Rand used this firm for two purposes: to demonstrate the utter unworkability and monumental injustice of life under Communism or any other form of collectivism, and to serve as a plot device to explain the origin of her chief anti-villain, John Galt.
The symptoms of the decline illustrated all the ills that Communism brings to any society that adopts its precepts: resentment of anything (like the birth of another child) that augments another's "needs," a tendency to hide one's ability because it is worse than unappreciated, a tendency by authorities to decide people's needs arbitrarily (on account of a lack of any objective standard for judging need or ability), and an overall decline in productivity and quality because the society rewards laziness and punishes good work.