February 19, 1931
The Bronx, New York City
|Died||June 2, 1999(aged 68)|
|Occupation||Writer, editor, professor|
|Alma mater||New York University|
|Notable works||For Want of a Nail (1973)|
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.
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."
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].