The 16th century was a time of amazing transformation in Europe. The Dark Ages were gone, the Black Plague had run it course and Middle Age fears and superstitions were slowly disappearing. The printing press had been invented and it was completely revamping the way people communicated. Columbus had discovered the America’s and the great age of exploration was in full swing. Medical advances, the Reformation, the creation of the great Italian banking houses and the Dutch trading companies had completely changed the way people thought, worked and worshipped.
And yet, there was one area in which there had been virtually no advance since the time of Christ: transportation. Horse or mule, horse drawn carts and boat were the methods of travel utilized to convey people, goods and foodstuffs. Travel was slow. It was uncomfortable. And, it was often very dangerous. Brigands and pirates faced little in the way of organized policing. A bandit pretty much had a field day during the period.
Of all the difficulties a traveler faced, the most frustrating by far was speed: or the lack thereof. As the great Florentine, Venetian and Genoan merchant banks financed warfare, fleets, crops, expeditions and colonization, they had to continually factor a risk premium into their risk/reward computations before settling on the interest to be charged on each loan. The slowness of receiving news of progress, success or failure on the status of an investment vehicle was agonizing to all parties participating in an enterprise. Did the fleet sink, or is it close to home with a valuable cargo? Has the battle been engaged, and who won? Was a new land discovered, and what did it offer in minerals or trade goods as materials for profit?
Knowledge is power, and speed provides the edge that makes this power so important. If I know today, what my enemy or rival will not know for several days, I have a decided advantage on strategizing to my advantage and profit. In the 16th century an industrious Belgian family developed the first international service to address the ages old problem of slow communication.
The Tassis family had obtained the rights to handle a rudimentary postal service in several Duchies in what is now Belgium. The service promised a decent living for the Tassis family by the standards of the time. However, they wanted to do more, expand and create a service that could become the international standard.
The Tassis family divided the work responsibilities between family members and had them disperse throughout Europe. The key to their success was a cohesive, standardized system of fleet horses, experienced, responsible riders, a network of terminals to change horse, rider and re-route mail and packages, and scheduled delivery times. Spain, France, Italy and Germany were little more than a polyglot of feudal city states during this time. There was no central government to handle a service like mail delivery that we consider routine today. The opportunity for a private company to organize and manage an international operation of this import and scale was a wonder.
The Tassis’ received contracts to handle the delivery of mail throughout most of continental Europe. From Naples to the Danube, and Gibraltar to Copenhagen, the family built a delivery network that managers at DHL, UPS, or FedEx would admire and recognize today. A treaty, legal contract or purchase order that took five weeks to reach Genoa from Madrid, could now be delivered in seven to 10 days. As the loads increased the price was lowered and this only accelerated the use of the service.
The family became rich, powerful and across Europe became members of the aristocracy. The name Tassis in the German language is spelled “taxis”.
Today, everywhere in the world, people call for a taxicab when they need to transport themselves for a fare. The taxi service created by the Tassis’ was an important part of the development of the Renaissance.
The Tassis are responsible for one of the most elemental and important service enhancements in history. The ability to accelerate the movement of important commercial, legal and governmental communications enabled decisions to be made more quickly and on a grander scale. The entrepreneurial innovation that the Tassis family introduced enriched their family, business, government and, most importantly, the working class that benefited so much from the rapid expansion of capital and trade. Even today, we can still learn from the historical record that the ability to offer a novel new benefit pays off in so many ways.