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Samsung's official history

Samsung's official history begins in 1969, just two years before Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak first met, and seven years before the pair went on to start Apple Computer Company in Jobs' parents' home on Crist Drive in Los Altos, California.

But Samsung's official history isn't Samsung's actual history. Samsung began as a business a full three decades before the giant multinational manufacturing conglomerate admits in its official history.

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Today, Samsung is best known to most people as a maker of smartphones and digital electronics, but the company has huge businesses in shipbuilding, construction, and insurance — it even owns a theme park.

But back in 1938, Samsung was a shop in Daegu, a small city in South Korea. 

In 1938, Lee Byung-chul (better known at Samsung as B.C. Lee) was 28 years old and had three kids. He was relatively well educated, having studied economics for a few years in Tokyo at Waseda University. Back then, Japan essentially occupied Korea. 

According to Samsung Rising, an exceptionally researched book on the company by Geoffrey Cain, Koreans like Lee were forced to worship at Japanese shrines and speak Japanese.

Before I continue with our story, I want to stop for a minute to discuss Geoffrey Cain's book. Most of the more visceral details of Samsung's original founding described in this article are sourced from this book. 

Cain interviewed more than 400 people, including employees, executives, politicians, business people, board members, journalists, activists, and analysts, as well as a member of Samsung's founding Lee family. He traveled to Korea and conducted interviews in English, Japanese, and Korean. Any fact I cite here that is not explicitly sourced came from this book.

And with that, let's start our story with vegetables and dried fish.

Samsung in the 1930s

After leaving university due to illness, Lee returned to Korea. He tried trading rice, but that failed. Despite having a family, Lee spent two years traveling in China and Korea. Somewhere along the way, he noticed that fresh produce wasn't making its way to consumers.

That's when he decided to start Samsung. To sell vegetables. The company was originally named Samsung Sanghoe, which means "three stars shop." Samsung means three stars, so there you go.

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In Samsung's original little shop of hobak, the seed was planted for B.C. Lee's entrepreneurial drive to take Samsung from supplying a key ingredient in hobakjuk (a very nice Korean pumpkin porridge) all the way to supplying smartphones and key ingredients in many of the consumer electronic devices produced by its competitors.

Oddly enough, the Wikipedia entry for Lee Byung-chul says he started a trucking company in 1938. That assertion incorrectly cites a 2011 article in the Wall Street Journal, which was written about a hologram display honoring the founding of the CJ Group. Before it was known as CJ Group, that company was known as Cheil Sugar, a sugar refining company also started by B.C. Lee.

We'll get to that in a bit. First, we need to talk about beer, World War II, and the end of the Japanese occupation. 


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