Sam Etler writes:
I read your blog entry on "The Greatest 'Bad Business Decision' Quotation That Never Was" with some interest and decided to do a bit more digging.
The article you reference, "Interdisciplinary Aspects of Engineering: The Environment of Concept Engineering", IEEE Transactions on Aerospace and Electronic Systems, Volume AES-6(2), pp. 112-118, March 1970, is definitely not an April Fools joke. It uses the Depew letter to highlight the dangers of "gradualism in the face of a really new concept" (p. 112).
The letter itself was reproduced from an earlier IEEE publication: Richard C. Levine, "Chairman's Statement", IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management, Volume EM-15(2), pp. 55-56, June 1968. Photos of its two pages (courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library) can be found here and here.
In this opening statement from the Seminar on The Management of New Developments held at Newark College of Engineering on Sept. 7, 1967 Levine states in regards to the problems of developing new products:
"These problems are not new. There is a classic example of this problem of early identification of good ideas which relates to the telephone and telegraph. Industrialist Chauncy DePew, President of the Telegraph Company, was offered the purchase of the telephone patent in 1876 for a nominal sum. He consulted the experts. The following document is claimed to be a facsimile of the original report. Only the names have been deleted."
Therein follows the same letter that has been reproduced many times over. There is unfortunately no reference given to any prior published work so one can only wonder where or how Levine came into possession of the letter.
It is possible that Mr. Levine is still alive. He was born in 1939 according to his biography in the same volume and was a member of Eta Kappa Nu, Tau Beta Pi, Sigma Xi, and the American Association of Physics Teachers of the American Institute of Physics. At the time of publication he was Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. Perhaps he can be tracked down to see if he has any recollection of writing this 44 years ago!
I also found an amusing note in the New York Times regarding Mr. Depew. On August 27, 1893 there is an article titled "Under 10,000 Wheels - People Marvel at Sights in Palace of Mechanic Arts". It makes special note that Depew sent a special message via telephone congratulating the organizers of the event.
One last note about the article you found from 1898: it was also published in the Los Angeles Times on January 20, 1898, giving credit to the New York Tribune.
Thanks, Sam, for the thorough research. Much appreciated!