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Earlier this week, on May 21, Eaton Corporation (ETN - Free Report) announced it was buying Cooper Industries (CBE) for $11.8 billion. In this Facebook and Apple obsessed world, you may never have heard of either company. Both are involved in power generation, including electrical grids and hydraulic systems.

But I was more intrigued by the age of both companies. Eaton was founded in 1911 and made the first gear driven rear truck axle. That would make it 101 years old.

Cooper was founded in 1833 in Ohio. Back then it made plows, hog troughs, kettles and stoves. It has re-made itself many times over the decades into the electrical products company it is today. Not too shabby for a 179 year old.

Other "old" companies have also expanded beyond their original intent and have thrived.

DuPont (DD) is among the 10 oldest publicly traded companies in the U.S. It was founded in 1802 in Delaware and made gunpowder. That would make it 210 years old.

Today, it produces everything from chemicals and plastics to crop protection and seeds.

The Oldest Of The Old

But the oldest of them all is one that hasn't changed its business model much since it started in 1744.

The auction house Sotheby's (BID - Free Report) was incorporated in 1983 but it then bought Sotheby Parke Bernet Group Limited which was founded in 1744 and had been publicly traded in the United Kingdom. As a successor to the original company, that makes Sotheby's the oldest publicly traded company on the New York Stock Exchange.

The 268 year old company just sold Edvard Munch's "The Scream" painting for the highest price of any work of art at auction. It sold for $119.9 million.

Why do some companies not only survive, but thrive, through wars, depressions, assassinations and changing tastes and technologies?


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