Robert Sobel


Robert Sobel
Sobel in a promotional photo for his publisher
Sobel in a promotional photo for his publisher
BornRobert Sobel
(1931-02-19)February 19, 1931
The Bronx, New York City
DiedJune 2, 1999(1999-06-02) (aged 68)
OccupationWriter, editor, professor
Alma materNew York University
GenreBusiness History
Notable worksFor Want of a Nail (1973)

Robert Sobel (February 19, 1931 – June 2, 1999) was an American professor of history at Hofstra University and a well-known and prolific writer of business histories.


Sobel was born in the Bronx, in New York City, New York. He completed his B.S.S. (1951) and M.A. (1952) at City College of New York, and after serving in the U.S. Army, obtained a Ph.D. from New York University in 1957. He started teaching at Hofstra in 1956. Sobel eventually became Lawrence Stessin Distinguished Professor of Business History at Hofstra. After his death, the university established the Robert Sobel Endowed Scholarship for Excellence in Business History & Finance.


Sobel's first business history, published in 1965, was The Big Board: A History of the New York Stock Market. It was the first history of the stock market written in over a generation. The book was met with favorable reviews and solid sales, and Sobel's writing career was launched. Several of his subsequent books were bestsellers.

Besides writing more than 30 books, Sobel authored many articles, book reviews, and scripts for television documentaries and mini-series. From 1972 to 1988, Sobel's weekly investment column, "Knowing the Street," was nationally syndicated through New York Newsday. He was also regularly published in national periodicals, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. At the time of his death, Sobel was also a contributing editor to Barron's Magazine. He was a regular guest on financial and other news shows, such as Wall Street Week and Crossfire.

Sobel was nearly as famous for his only work of fiction, the 1973 book, For Want of a Nail. This book is an alternate history in which Burgoyne won the Battle of Saratoga during the American Revolutionary War. This work detailed the history of an alternate timeline, complete with footnotes. Sobel had authored or co-authored several actual textbooks. For Want of a Nail was republished in 1997 and won a special achievement Sidewise Award for Alternate History that year.

Wall Street

Sobel's dominant passion was Wall Street, a fascination that he held since his childhood. "It is as though you are walking through a historical theme park, with this engaging man at your side pointing out the sights," said Andrew Tobias, the author and investment guide, in a review in The New York Times of The Last Bull Market: Wall Street in the 1960s (W. W. Norton, 1978).

Most of Sobel's books were written for a general audience, but he never bristled when some scholarly writers dismissed him as a "popularizer," said his colleague and friend George David Smith, a professor of economic history at New York University. "Quite the contrary—he saw that as his mission in life."

Selected quotations

From Panic on Wall Street by Robert Sobel:

Good judgement is usually the result of experience and experience frequently is the result of bad judgement.

The British created a civil service job in 1803 calling for a man to stand on the Cliffs of Dover with a spyglass. He was supposed to ring a bell if he saw Napoleon coming. The job was abolished in 1945.

From a February 22, 1999 Barron's Magazine article by Robert Sobel:

Remember the old story about the two traders who kept selling a case of sardines to each other raising the price each time? A sure-fire profit on every trade. Then one decided to sample the contents and found them inedible. 'What did you expect' said his colleague. They were for trading, not eating.

From The Great Bull Market: Wall Street in the 1920s, by Robert Sobel:

Wall Street happenings would be followed assiduously by millions who in 1920 cared little about the stock markets. Many who had never before purchased securities would 'take a flyer' on one stock or another. The Ponzi scheme affected less than 50,000 unsophisticated people. Millions were involved—some directly but most indirectly—in the stock market by the end of the decade. Among their number were highly shrewd, knowledgeable speculators who brought years of experience to the market. At first it seemed as though the market rise was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make money with little or no risk. But as stock market prices continued to rise, many began to believe that the rise would be permanent, that the growth curve would be unending. In prospect, this conclusion was reasonable, for the nation was engaged in a great expansion, profits were rising, and conditions seemed sound. In retrospect, we can see the flaws in the argument, the contradictions in the economy which eventually were reflected on Wall Street. The cult of the stock market was, in the end, the greatest fantasy in an age filled with illusion.

Take Radio Corporation of America the star of the market in 1928.... When it had nothing but promise, RCA was a $573 stock. Three decades after the promise was realized, it was going for less than half its 1929 high. Think about that trying to assess the prospects for some of today's high flyers [Internet stocks].

Selected bibliography


  • Sobel, Robert (1973). For Want of a Nail ...; If Burgoyne had won at Saratoga. New York: Macmillan.


  • Sobel, Robert (1960). The Origins of Interventionism: The United States and the Russo-Finnish War. New York: Bookman Associates.
  • Sobel, Robert (1965). The Big Board: A History of the New York Stock Market. New York: Free Press.
  • Sobel, Robert (1967). The French Revolution. New York: Ardmore Press.
  • Sobel, Robert (1968). The Great Bull Market: Wall Street in the 1920s. New York: Norton.
  • Sobel, Robert (1968). Panic on Wall Street: A History of America's Financial Disasters. New York: Macmillan.
  • Sobel, Robert (1969). The Automobile Makers. New York: Putnam.
  • Sobel, Robert (1970). The Curbstone Brokers: The Origins of the American Stock Exchange. New York: Macmillan.
  • Sobel, Robert (1971). Conquest And Conscience: The 1840s. New York: Crowell. ISBN 0-690-20939-8.
  • Sobel, Robert (1971). Biographical directory of the United States executive branch, 1774–1971. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Pub. Co. ISBN 0-8371-5173-2.
  • Sobel, Robert (1972). The Age of Giant Corporations: A Microeconomic History of American Business, 1914–1970. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-8371-6404-4.
  • Sobel, Robert (1973). Machines and Morality: The 1850s. New York: Crowell. ISBN 0-690-00266-1.
  • Sobel, Robert (1973). The Money Manias: The Eras of Great Speculation in America, 1770–1970. New York: Weybright and Talley.
  • Sobel, Robert (1974). The Entrepreneurs: Explorations Within the American Business Tradition. New York: Weybright and Talley. ISBN 0-679-40064-8.
  • Sobel, Robert (1975). Herbert Hoover and the Onset of the Great Depression 1929–1930. New York: Lippincott. ISBN 0-397-47334-6.
  • Sobel, Robert (1975). N.Y.S.E.: a history of the New York Stock Exchange: 1935–1975. New York: Weybright and Talley. ISBN 0-679-40124-5.
  • Sobel, Robert (1976). The Manipulators: America in the Media Age. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press. ISBN 0-385-08526-5.
  • Sobel, Robert (1976). Inside Wall Street: Continuity and Change in the Financial District. New York: Norton. ISBN 0-393-05643-0.
  • Sobel, Robert (1977). The Fallen Colossus. New York: Weybright and Talley. ISBN 0-679-40138-5.
  • Sobel, Robert (1978). They Satisfy: The Cigarette in American Life. New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-12956-4.
  • Sobel, Robert (1980). Last Bull Market: Wall Street in the 1960s. New York: Norton. ISBN 0-393-01309-X.
  • Sobel, Robert (1980). The Worldly Economists. New York: Free Press. ISBN 0-02-929780-X.
  • Sobel, Robert (1981). IBM: Colossus in Transition. New York: Times Books. ISBN 0-8129-1000-1.
  • Sobel, Robert (1982). ITT: The Management of Opportunity. New York: Times Books. ISBN 0-8129-1028-1.
  • Sobel, Robert (1984). Car Wars: The Untold Story. New York: Dutton. ISBN 0-525-24289-9.
  • Sobel, Robert (1984). The Rise and Fall of the Conglomerate Kings. New York: Stein and Day. ISBN 0-8128-2961-1.
  • Sobel, Robert (1986). The entrepreneurs: An American Adventure. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-395-42020-2.
  • Sobel, Robert (1986). IBM vs. Japan: The Struggle for the Future. New York: Stein and Day. ISBN 0-8128-3071-7.
  • Sobel, Robert (1986). RCA. New York: Stein and Day. ISBN 0-8128-3084-9.
  • Sobel, Robert (1986). Salomon Brothers, 1910–1985: Advancing to Leadership. New York: Salomon Brothers.
  • Sobel, Robert (1987). The New Game on Wall Street. New York: Wiley. ISBN 0-471-84527-2.
  • Sobel, Robert (1987). Quality of Earnings: the Investor's Guide to How Much Money a Company is Really Making. New York: Free Press. ISBN 0-02-922630-9.
  • Sobel, Robert (1988). Biographical Directory of the Council of Economic Advisers. New York: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-22554-0.
  • Sobel, Robert (1989). Trammell Crow, Master Builder: The Story of America's Largest Real Estate Empire. New York: Wiley. ISBN 0-471-61326-6.
  • Sobel, Robert (1989). Biographical Directory of the Governors of the United States 1983/88. Westport, Conn.: Meckler. ISBN 0-930466-00-4.
  • Sobel, Robert (1990). Biographical directory of the United States executive branch, 1774–1989. New York: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-26593-3.
  • Sobel, Robert (1991). The Life and Times of Dillon Read. New York: Truman Talley Books/Dutton. ISBN 0-525-24959-1.
  • Sobel, Robert (1993). Dangerous Dreamers: The Financial Innovators from Charles E. Merrill to Michael Milken. New York: Wiley. ISBN 0-471-57734-0.
  • Sobel, Robert (1998). Coolidge: An American Enigma. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Pub. ISBN 0-89526-410-2.
  • Sobel, Robert (1999). When Giants Stumble: Classic Business Blunders and How to Avoid Them. Paramus, N.J.: Prentice Hall. ISBN 0-7352-0059-9.
  • Sobel, Robert (2000). The Pursuit of Wealth: The Incredible Story of Money Throughout the Ages of Wealth. New York: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-585-18949-8.
  • Sobel, Robert (2000). AMEX: A History of the American Stock Exchange. Washington, D.C.: BeardBooks. ISBN 1-893122-48-4.
  • Sobel, Robert (2000) [1981]. Thomas Watson, Sr.: IBM and the Computer Revolution. Washington, DC: BeardBooks. ISBN 1-893122-82-4. *** A paperback reprint of IBM: Colossus in Transition.
  • Sobel, Robert (2000). The Great Boom 1950–2000: How a Generation of Americans Created the World's Most Prosperous Society. New York: St.Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-20890-1.
  • Sobel, Robert; Roger Lowenstein; Louis Rukeyser (2006). Crashes, Booms, Panics and Government Regulation. Ashland, Or.: Blackstone Audiobooks. ISBN 0-7861-6489-1.


  • Hand, Judson, "If Washington Hadn't Been the Father of His Country," Sunday (New York Daily) News, February 18, 1973.
  • Henriques, Diana B., "Robert Sobel, 68, a Historian of Business, Dies," New York Times, June 4, 1999, page C-18; 1999 WLNR 3054857.
  • MacGregor, Martha, "The Week in Books," New York Post, March 31, 1973.
  • Sicilia, DB, "Remembering Robert Sobel (1931-1999)" Enterprise & Society: The International Journal of Business History, Vol. 1, Issue 1, pp. 182–187, (March 2000).
  • Skow, John, "Parlor Games," Time, April 9, 1973.

External links

  • "Robert Sobel, 68, a Historian of Business, Dies," New York Times, June 4, 1999.
  • Booknotes interview with Sobel on Coolidge: An America Enigma, August 30, 1998.
  • Robert Sobel at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database
  • Works by or about Robert Sobel at Internet Archive