Overestimating the competition

Richard Feynman tells a story in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman that I’m reminded of periodically when I realize something is smaller and less sophisticated than I imagined.

[Update: A couple people pointed out in the comments that I got the roles of the two characters in this story reversed, so I’ve corrected this.]

Feynman tells the story of a colleague at Los Alamos, Frederic de Hoffman, describing his company’s attempt to plate plastics with metal. De Hoffman said that his company was making progress, but gave up when he saw that another company, Metaplast Corporation, was apparently way ahead of them, based on Metaplast’s advertising. Feynman had worked at Metaplast a few years earlier, but didn’t tell de Hoffman immediately.

Feynman asked de Hoffman how many chemists he thought Metaplast had.

“I would guess they must have twenty‑five or fifty chemists … How the hell could we compete with them?”

Feynman told de Hoffman “You’ll be interested and amused to know that you are now talking to the chief research chemist of the Metaplast Corporation, whose staff consisted of one bottle‑washer!”

I don’t think Feynman was trying to gloat that he was smarter than the staff of chemists at de Hoffman’s company, though he may have been. Feynman knew all the problems his company had and the times they screwed up. They projected a more confident image in their advertising, and the competition bought it.

4 thoughts on “Overestimating the competition

  1. You’ve got it backwards. Feynmann was the chemist with one bottle washer at metaplast and De Hoffman was from the discouraged European company.

  2. At risk of piling on, Feynman was the chief chemist of good ol’ Metaplast, unabashedly figuring out how to plate whatever plastic the sales guy managed to persuade someone to order. Not that all such plating could bear actual handling.
    Hearing the story the other way tripped an interesting consistency alert in my mind; I double-checked just now more for the pleasure of re-reading the story than to remove doubt.

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