Six teams that changed the world
Here are the teambuilding secrets of the designers of the Mac, the ad agency that came up with Mastercard's "priceless" campaign, and more.

(FORTUNE Magazine) - These teams made business history. How did they do it?

The invention factory

Charles Batcheldor was an English machinist. John Kruesi was a Swiss clockmaker. Ludwig Boehm was a German glassblower. Francis Upton was a Princeton-trained mathematician.

What is the value of an ad that becomes a cliche? Priceless. McCann staff oversees the shoot of a new MasterCard commercial.
What is the value of an ad that becomes a cliche? Priceless. McCann staff oversees the shoot of a new MasterCard commercial.

They were drawn to the then-isolated New Jersey hamlet of Menlo Park by the magnetic force of Thomas Edison's genius. But it was Edison's unique ability to tap into their skills that turned his half-formed visions into an astonishing stream of workable products. "He was never the lone inventor," says Bill Pretzer, a curator of the Edison collection at the Henry Ford Museum.

"Edison himself flits about, first to one bench, then to another, examining here, instructing there," wrote the New York Herald. A sketch handed to Kruesi unexpectedly yielded the phonograph. The work was "strenuous but joyous," one lab hand wrote. The boss got as dirty as his workmen. And there was the day when the team rode Edison's miniature locomotive to a nearby fishing hole.

"The strangest thing to me is the $12 that I get each Saturday," Upton wrote his father, "for my labor does not seem like work but like study."

It was Upton who bought the instruments that led to a breakthrough insight on electric lighting. It was Batcheldor's nimble hands that threaded a carbon filament into a bulb that Boehm evacuated to a millionth of an atmosphere. And on Oct. 22, 1879, when the bulb finished a 14-hour burn, the darkness filled with the cheers of five men and four nationalities. -- Jerry Useem

The right stuff

The place became such a legend, they trademarked the name - and even a skunk. Founded in 1943, Lockheed's Skunk Works built a series of remarkable aircraft, including the F-104 Starfighter and the U-2 and SR-71 spy planes. In the process, it created an icon that many a company has attempted to imitate.

How did Lockheed do it? A tyrant as well as a huge talent, aeronautical genius Kelly Johnson insisted on working with a bare-bones staff who were devoted to the work. He put the designers right next to the metalworkers so they didn't draft anything unbuildable. And he kept the number of visitors, even from the CIA and the Air Force, to a minimum. Left alone, the Skunks Works team pushed aeronautics forward at warp speed. -- Stuart F. Brown

A home of one's own

First came the trucks. Every 100 feet, they would dump precisely bundled packages of lumber, piping, and other building supplies, then pour a concrete slab foundation. Then came the men. Working in teams of two or three in a precise, 26-step choreography, the framers, the painters, the installers, the electricians, and so on would do their assigned task - and move on to the next home, over and over. At the peak of production, the building teams could complete 36 homes a day.

The result was Levittown, N.Y., America's first mass-produced suburb. Henry Ford, who died a few months before ground was broken, would have appreciated the simple genius of this reverse assembly line. In Levittown, it was the workers who moved, not the product.

From 1947 to 1951, the Levitt family built 17,500 houses in this, their first eponymous community (others would follow). A typical ranch cost $7,990. Simple to a fault, the homes were widely ridiculed for their cookie-cutter spareness. Architectural critic Lewis Mumford declared the community an "incipient slum."

But the houses were better than living cheek by jowl with the in-laws in the Bronx, and the target market - white, not-quite-middle-class returning vets - loved 'em. On one August day in 1949, sales reps sold 650 houses in five hours.

Levittown pioneered building techniques that are now standard - and helped to bring the American dream of home ownership within reach of thousands of people of modest means. And no, it never became a slum. -- By Cait Murphy

Biting the Apple

They were known as dropouts, artists, evangelists, geniuses, iconoclasts, pirates - and friends. Sometimes even best friends. The early team of four, which grew to dozens, wanted to make a personal computer easy enough for a civilian to use without fear or loathing and inexpensive enough to be affordable. But the happy few who worked on the Mac also saw in the new world of computing a potentially profound force. Their ultimate goal was to unleash, in themselves and others, limitless individual creativity.

The Mac team, headed by Apple (Research) co-founder Steve Jobs, operated like a superstealth startup within the company. Holed up in an ascetic, two-story building near a gas station dubbed the "Texaco Towers," the team was intensely competitive with other Apple divisions, such as the Lisa computer.

Jobs set ridiculous deadlines: The caffeine-fueled software team once debugged for 48 hours straight rather than face him without having finished the task. There were epic battles and broken friendships - Jef Raskin, who started the Mac research project in 1979, got frustrated and left Apple in 1982. But Jobs' famous rebel yell - "It's better to be a pirate than join the Navy" - captured the renegade spirit that saw the team through 90-hour work- weeks at stunningly low pay.

In 1983, after three years of labor, the Mac was born. Priced at $2,495, it featured a clean, intuitive graphic user interface that allowed nonprogrammers to use it almost instantly, without geek supervision. When it was turned on, a friendly little icon smiled out at the world. And the world smiled back - the Mac sold faster than any PC that came before.

Although the Mac went on to a difficult adolescence, it was the collective expression of the people who loved it - and marked a turning point in the history of the PC. -- By Ellen McGirt

This car saved Ford

Call it the $3 billion jellybean. When the Taurus debuted in 1985, its curves and sweeping lines made it different. So was the team that created it. Desperate after losing $1.5 billion in 1980, Ford crushed the status quo - isolated groups that made part of a car to "pass over the wall" to another.

Enter Team Taurus. Nearly 400 engineers, designers, and marketers were put in a room and set loose. They brainstormed their way into history - and Ford (Research) back into business. Derided at first as the "jellybean" for its shape, the Taurus was Motor Trend's Car of the Year in 1986 - and then was imitated. Discontinued in 2005, it enjoys retirement as a corporate fleet fave. -- By Ellen McGirt

The power of an idea

From 1987 to 1997, MasterCard (Research) maxed out five advertising campaigns - and failed to narrow the gap with Visa. So when the company decided to get a new ad agency, it looked like desperation. To McCann Erickson, it looked like opportunity.

McCann assigned a core creative team of three - Joyce King Thomas, Jeroen Bours, and Jonathan Cranin - to prepare a pitch. The trio, who had been working together for two years, conferred with the strategy team and brainstormed intensively for a month. "We were very comfortable working together, so we debated everything freely," says Thomas, now McCann's chief creative officer in New York City.

The breakthrough came to Cranin in the shower: the tag line "some things money can't buy" to anchor the ad. Back at the office, Thomas caught the spark and began crafting a spot around it. Inspiration struck two weeks later, as Thomas and Bours batted around ideas over coffee and bagels on a Sunday morning.

The first ad would be set at a baseball game, feature a list of ordinary transactions, and lead to the setup: "Priceless." Recalls Thomas: "We knew we had it."

MasterCard agreed, even after a different spot tested better in research. "Intuitively, we knew the insights made it more than just another ad," says chief marketing officer Larry Flanagan, then head of U.S. advertising. Gut feeling proved right. Since 1997, MasterCard has added new U.S. credit cards at more than twice Visa's rate.

And the award-winning campaign's versatile format and simple appeal have also made it a global winner: Spots have been tweaked for audiences in 105 countries and 48 languages. -- By Eugenia Levenson Top of page