In 1854, Daniel McCallum took charge of the operations of the New York and Erie Railroad. With nearly 500 miles of track, it was one of the world&rsqu

Big data in the age of the telegraph

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2021-09-27 02:00:06

In 1854, Daniel McCallum took charge of the operations of the New York and Erie Railroad. With nearly 500 miles of track, it was one of the world’s longest systems, but not one of the most efficient. In fact, McCallum found that far from rendering operations more efficient, the scale of the railroad exponentially increased its complexity.1 1. This article’s details on the railway’s operations and organizational thought come from Homer Ramsdell and D. C. McCallum, Reports of the President and Superintendent of the New York and Erie Railroad to the Stockholders, for the Year Ending September 30, 1855, New York, NY: Press of the New York and Erie Railroad Company, 1856.

Former Harvard Business School professor Alfred Chandler (1918–2007), who helped establish business history as a rigorous academic discipline, described the momentous impact of managerial innovations, such as the organization chart. Chandler identified Daniel McCallum as the originator of the New York and Erie’s pioneering plan and describes the chart in tantalizing detail in several of his books. I began searching for it during my doctoral studies at Harvard, writing to archives in New York and Ohio and even combing through Chandler’s personal papers. In the course of my search, I learned that Chandler himself had never seen the chart and based his description on a detailed advertisement in the American Railroad Journal.1 1. Chandler explains that he had not seen the chart himself (at least as of 1988), in Alfred Chandler, “Origins of the organization chart,” Harvard Business Review, 1988, Volume 66, Number 2, pp. 156–57.

I was almost ready to give up on my search when the unexpected happened at an academic conference: Peter Knight, a professor of American studies at the University of Manchester, handed out a series of images on the history of capitalism, and I immediately recognized that one was the missing organization chart! I was astonished to learn that Peter had found it in the Library of Congress. With the help of its reference librarians, I located another copy at St. Lawrence University, in upstate New York.2 2. In addition, Charles Wrege and Guidon Sorbo Jr. located the chart and discuss it in “A bridge builder changes a railroad: The story of Daniel Craig McCallum,” Canal History and Technology Proceedings, 2005, Volume 24, pp. 183–218. The discovery came in time for the chart to be included in my doctoral dissertation, completing a quest Chandler began when researching his own dissertation on the pioneering financial analyst Henry Varnum Poor.

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