Remembering Alfred Chandler

Alfred D. Chandler Jr., who died in May, defined the field of business history and shaped the way we think about the modern corporation. Harvard Business School colleagues share their thoughts on his legacy as well as their personal reminiscences.
by Sean Silverthorne

Alfred D. Chandler Jr., the Pulitzer Prize-winning scholar whom many credited with founding the discipline of business history, died at age 88 on May 9, 2007. His work is legendary, but so too was his influence at Harvard Business School.

We asked colleagues in the School's Business History Group to reflect on Chandler's legacy and to share personal memories.

To listen to this interview with professor Richard Tedlow, click on the triangular play button below.

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Jeffrey Fear

Jeffrey Fear has been an associate professor at Harvard Business School since 2001 in the Business, Government, and International Economy unit.

Chandler's legacies are almost too many to list, but I would highlight 2.

There are very few scholars who can legitimately say that they founded a discipline. Al Chandler is one of them. Prior to Chandler, business history tended to be the study of individual businesses or entrepreneurs with little theoretical importance. To paraphrase one criticism of history as "1 damn fact after another," business history tended to be "1 damn business after another." Histories came out in conjunction with anniversaries of companies: They were highly celebratory, sometimes informative, but not very useful to practitioners. Studies of entrepreneurs were just hagiographies.

Alfred Chandler Jr.

Chandler developed for business history a coherent theoretical framework built around his "3-pronged investment" in manufacturing, marketing, and management, and the notion of "organizational capabilities." The firm was something much more than a network of individual contracts or the vision of its entrepreneur. The people inside firms learned, developed effective routines, and innovated. While we have sophisticated theories of competition in economics, the cooperative teamwork inside firms is just as important. Chandler stressed the importance of organizational capabilities, technological innovation through R&D, problem solving, knowledge, and continuous learning—investment in human capital and technology that only firms could generate. Chandler placed the issue of managerial coordination squarely in the center of understanding economic life.

Chandler always stressed the importance of knowledge and learning inside organizations, which preceded more recent notions of the knowledge company or organizational learning. He was also a model intellectual, a scholar's scholar, who drew upon a host of other disciplines. All of us academics talk a good game about the need for interdisciplinary thinking, but we usually fall back on the strengths (or prejudices) of our primary discipline. Chandler was heavily influenced by sociologists such as Max Weber and Talcott Parsons, but also economists such as Joseph Schumpeter.

If one visits business history conferences around the world, the touchstone of the profession is Alfred Chandler. What Max Weber and Emile Durkheim are to sociology, Chandler is to business history. He has decisively influenced scholarship around the globe.

And you could not have met a more open, knowledgeable, accessible, friendly man. He was always willing to talk about business, share anecdotes, and exchange ideas. He never stopped. He was a living compendium of information about the history of business. I once had a 2-hour conversation with him about my project on August Thyssen, which is deeply indebted to his ideas. He responded to every comment I made with helpful information about where I could go to find comparable developments, and gave me advice about how to rethink the project. He asked tons of questions as he remained immensely curious about every aspect of this story. Chandler focused primarily on American history, but increasingly moved into global business history. In his 70s and 80s, he still kept learning, kept writing about ever broader areas of the world. His curiosity and longevity were simply amazing.

Walter A. Friedman

Walter A. Friedman is a research fellow and lecturer at Harvard Business School, where he teaches the (MBA) Foundations business history course, Creating Modern Capitalism. He also serves as co-editor of the Business History Review.

Al Chandler is appropriately regarded as the founder of the field of business history. He was not the first historian to study business. But, starting in the early 1960s, he produced an extraordinary series of books—Strategy and Structure, The Visible Hand, and Scale and Scope—that established the workings of the business organization as a legitimate field of historical inquiry and set the terrain for the debates that followed. These books, which explored the origins of the modern large-scale business enterprise, were marked by their intellectual rigor, depth of research, and sweeping argument. They displayed a multidisciplinary approach that has made them, while clearly works of history, essential texts in the fields of sociology, economics, and business administration as well. All 3 books have received enormous attention and will continue to do so.

But it should also be remembered that Al made contributions to business history throughout his life, from the publication of his masterly dissertation on his great-grandfather, the business editor and analyst Henry Varnum Poor, to 2 recent volumes, published while he was in his 80s: Inventing the Electronic Century: The Epic Story of the Consumer Electronics and Computer Industries and Shaping the Industrial Century: The Remarkable Story of the Modern Chemical and Pharmaceutical Industries. In his lifetime, he produced a range of books, edited collections, and articles covering railways, management, global competition, anthracite coal, the career of Alfred P. Sloan, the nature of business history, and many more topics. One of the books he edited, Giant Enterprise: Ford, General Motors, and the Automobile Industry, provides a wonderful overview of the development and complex nature of the automobile industry.

His writings, which display great vitality, curiosity, and patient analysis, exemplify all that scholars can hope to achieve. Lately, I have enjoyed reading his reviews of works by Thomas Cochran, Mira Wilkins, Hugh G.J. Aitken, Samuel Haber, Ray Ginger, and many others. Al preferred books with a clear core argument and had little patience with authors who failed to provide one. "This book demonstrates the difficulties of writing history without an explicit conceptual framework," begins one review.

On several occasions I took historians, visiting the United States from abroad, to meet Al. They were recipients of the Alfred D. Chandler Jr. International Visiting Scholarship in Business History. The visitors were always eager to meet "Professor Chandler" and often hoped to have their picture taken with him. On the way to his apartment, dressed a little more nicely than usual, they were excited and somewhat intimidated about meeting the great man. But Al immediately welcomed them and put them at ease. He always wanted to talk about one thing: business history. In his 80s, he maintained the enthusiasm of a graduate student pouring over research notes. He was invariably taking a break from his current writing project and was eager to talk about it, which he did in a lively and interesting way. He would always remind his visitors that good source material was the key to good history and would want to know what research collection they were using at Baker Library.

His enthusiasm for the subject of business history, and for history more generally, would linger in our minds as we walked back to campus. He was, in that way, inspiring.

Geoffrey G. Jones

Geoffrey G. Jones is the current Isidor Straus Professor of Business History and serves as co-editor of the Business History Review.

Al's intellectual legacy is extraordinary in both the depth and the scope of his impact. He developed, on the base of decades of archival research, what remains the most convincing explanation for the growth of large firms and the emergence of modern management. Moreover this research agenda was framed in a much wider context, because he explicitly linked this story to the wider issue of why some countries have grown very rich over the past 2 centuries, and others have remained very poor.

Al's research was so compelling that it shaped a generation of research far beyond historians, in business administration and strategy, and he was a formative influence on the development of institutional economics.

In a wider sense, Al's legacy was to provide an extraordinary role model for subsequent generations of researchers in business history and far wider. He was so influential because he asked questions that were fundamental and to which people wanted answers—answers he provided through deep and compelling research. He set his own research agenda, charted his own path, and simply ignored transient fashions. When he began his research on the growth of large firms, he ignored the prevailing assumptions among American historians that the creators of such firms were malign robber barons.

Yet, although he was notoriously single-minded in pursuit of his research agenda, his work also evolved, from an emphasis on the benefits of the M-form in the 1970s, to his more recent research on networks and how firms learned. Among the most significant examples of his intellectual evolution was his growing conviction, perhaps remarkable for someone so steeped in American history, that research agendas needed to be comparative and global if they were to provide sensible answers.

“Al's research was so compelling that it shaped a generation of research far beyond historians." —Geoffrey G. Jones

I first met Al in person at a conference in 1987. I found him strikingly generous and remarkably interested in the work of a comparatively young researcher who was as yet little known in the United States. Later, while I was still working in Europe, I invited him to a conference I was hosting. I received the courteous reply that he couldn't make that date as it was the height of the duck-hunting season, which he couldn't possibly miss.

It was an eye-opening moment for me. I had thought of Al as this ultimate hard-working and purposeful genius. I began to appreciate him as a role model of a different kind—of someone who could achieve so much in his career and yet have the strength and wisdom to keep balance in his life, and pursue agendas far beyond explaining "Big Business."

Al was a fine human being as well as a superb scholar, whose death has left me personally, as well as his academic community, with a feeling of emptiness, and of gratitude for all he did for us.

Nancy F. Koehn

Nancy F. Koehn, an authority on entrepreneurial history, is the James E. Robison Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.

One of Al Chandler's most important legacies is just how many different audiences he reached. We all consider him a world-class scholar, a once-in-several-generations writer and researcher. You can't say Alfred D. Chandler without taking a short pause before you speak, a bit like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis did whenever she mentioned a name. There is the gravitas all around his work and reputation.

But at the same time he was a scholar who reached a number of distinct groups of people. Yes, he established business history as important and relevant, but not just on the landscape of history. He also made business history relevant to scholars of business management, organizational behavior, entrepreneurship, and strategy. He reached many students and researchers, but he reached a lot of businesspeople as well. I'm struck by how many executives have read what he wrote and how much they take from Chandler's work. They get it; they get the critical linkages he saw and analyzed.

“Al Chandler had one of the best darn smiles this side of the Continental Divide." —Nancy F. Koehn

Second, he wrote about the past but this work was always anchored by his own eye on the present. Al accomplished what Tom McCraw calls that rare feat: judicious and rigorous use of the past to inform the present and the present to inform the past.

I came here as a young woman, a filly really, in terms of my scholarly experience. For a young historian, it was striking to see how Al made a point of getting to know all the scholars and have lunch with them on a pretty regular basis. To have him there as the mother lode of business history, if you will, and to watch his work evolve and to see how he involved others in the creation of this work was both fascinating and inspiring, particularly for a woman finding her own professional stride.

When I arrived at the School, Al was just publishing Scale and Scope. I watched him move from this book, which dealt principally with Second Industrial Revolution industries, to a keen interest in telecommunications and the Information Revolution. Before long, Al was digging into biotech as well, taking some of the sinews and I-beams from all his (previous) research and trying to understand what was happening with information technology, biology, and pharmaceuticals. Here was a historian trying to make sense of the rapid, widespread change that was unfolding around him, as he read and wrote. And he was doing this carefully, relying heavily on his own deep knowledge and cumulative experience of the past. This seemed very powerful to me and served as a kind of miner's headlamp for a young scholar.

A third aspect of Al's legacy is that he was an inductive scholar; he built the house of his research on a very strong foundation of facts and a very comprehensive search for the facts. At the same time, he was an incredibly systematic thinker and researcher, a social scientist in the truest sense of the word. If you looked at his desk at 1010 Memorial Drive you would not see a clean lab, but the abundance and chaos of his desk belied a very careful, systematic way of working.

I met Al in the early 1990s, when he must have been in his mid- to late 70s. I remember looking at his raincoat, jacket, and tie—I almost never saw Al in anything but a jacket and tie—and thinking how very New England he looked. I also remember thinking how kind he was; he had a palpable kindness about him. And an unquenchable curiosity. And beneath the raincoat and sometimes rumpled jacket, a steely determination to get the story right, to put the puzzle pieces together to form a whole.

For all the ground that Al covered across a lifetime of study, he was not a dilettante. He tackled huge issues, and he kept on doing so. In this respect, Chandler was like Lincoln, who, beginning in his 40s, stopped putting things off and began to confront head-on the most important challenges in his life, personal and public. Chandler took on great big topics: the origin of modern American management, the Information Revolution, what will science and technology look like in the 21st century. These were the stuff of his books.

Al Chandler had one of the best darn smiles this side of the Continental Divide, and a very quick wit. And every time you saw him there was that unquenchable curiosity. Chandler's curiosity was a force of nature, and it didn't stop. When I last spoke to him he was going great guns on his next project.

My sense was that Al took his measure of you by asking himself a couple of related questions: What did you know, why did you care about history, and where were you going with that knowledge and that care? It was gender-free, age-free, geography-free.

At Harvard Business School, the river of Al's contribution has many outlets and streams. He gave HBS a competitive advantage in what was then the cottage industry of business history. There were also swiftly flowing currents from this waterway into strategy, general management, and entrepreneurship. I think if you asked anyone here in those disciplines, they would tell you about his influence. And this influence spread to other universities worldwide. Most scholars at HBS and other institutions never took Al's courses; most were not very familiar with the field of business history. But they would tell you in earnest and in intense terms about what Chandler's work meant to them.

His work is a gift to the world; it will live on.

Thomas K. Mccraw

In 1989, Thomas K. McCraw succeeded Alfred Chandler as the Isidor Straus Professor of Business History, and like him is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian.

Both of Al's parents lived into their 90s, and his death at 88 hit me hard. I guess I thought he'd live forever. And of course he will, because his work will live forever—and, in something close to the literal sense, he was his work. He was the greatest scholar I've ever known, and the most obsessive.

As his wonderful wife, Fay, said to me on the day he died, he got to do exactly the kind of work he wanted to do, for at least 40 years. And what a body of scholarship it was!

Al did not invent the subdiscipline of business history so much as he established it as a rigorous and thriving enterprise. He was not the flashy George McClellan of the Union Army, meticulously drilling his troops but never really engaging the job that had to be done. Nor was he the elegant Robert E. Lee, fending off superior forces through ingenious defensive maneuvers. Instead he was the relentless Ulysses S. Grant—grinding out a series of costly victories at Shiloh, Vicksburg, and finally in the Wilderness campaign that routed Lee and restored the Union. As Lincoln said of Grant, "He understood the arithmetic, knowing that he'd have to absorb heavy losses if he were to win—but winning as no Union general had done before him."

“He was the greatest scholar I've ever known, and the most obsessive." —Thomas K. McCraw

Alfred Chandler built his matchless analysis of business by focusing, like Grant, solely on what he knew had to be done. By middle age, Al was able to minimize his involvement in academic minutiae, while somehow never offending anybody. Meanwhile, he labored away in his study, week by week, year by year, decade by decade, piecing together what he called "the story"—the history of business. He accumulated vast amounts of data on hundreds of companies. In draft after draft, he molded these data into an incomparable analysis of the morphology of business. When he had begun to satisfy himself about American business history, he looked outward to Europe and then to the rest of the world.

His many articles and his 3 greatest books—Strategy and Structure (1962), The Visible Hand (1977), and Scale and Scope (1990)—are monuments to this incessant labor. They are models of scholarship at the very highest levels.

They are permanent sources of information and inspiration for students and businesspeople alike. They will never be surpassed.

I met Chandler in 1973, when he was 55 years old, and I was 33. My first impression of him, which remains my strongest, was "Here is the most unpretentious great scholar I've ever encountered." There was no hint of vanity or even self-consciousness—let alone of the prima-donna bearing typical of too many eminent academics. Instead there was a rare combination of self-effacement and self-assurance. His character is not easy to capture in a few words, because it was so unusual. I've written about it pretty fully in a 21-page introduction to the collection of his essays I edited, The Essential Alfred Chandler.

What I remember most about that book was the pleasure of putting it together: the meetings with Al about which works to include, and my sessions with Fay selecting the book's many illustrations. Al loved to hunt, and he was a very good shot. During duck season, he could be found at daybreak in the marshes, then back in his study at midday, then back in the marshes. One picture he wanted to include in the book, but which struck Fay and me as too indelicate, was of a singularly successful day of shooting, with Al and his friends surrounded by their haul. What an anomaly it was—this gentle, courtly man encircled by the unfortunate waterfowl he and his friends had brought down. In the end we compromised, with a terrific color photo of Al in his hunting cap, which now appears at the very front of the book. But a hunter he undeniably was: In the vast body of his work he located and brought down a host of misconceptions about the nature of business, establishing in their place what he liked to call "reality." The world now knows how fitting, how proper, was his choice of that word.

David A. Moss

David A. Moss is the John G. McLean Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, where he teaches in the Business, Government, and International Economy unit.

As is well known, Al Chandler created the modern field of business history. Rather than simply tell the stories of individual firms and managers, like other business biographers of the time, Al set out to understand the workings and implications of the modern American corporation, using history as his lens. In this way, storytelling gave way to rigorous analysis in the study of American business history.

More broadly, Al taught us the power of analytic history (if I may call it that) and showed us by example how it should be done. Part of his genius as a scholar was his ability to think like a historian and a social scientist, and to bring together the best of both traditions. Anyone can scratch around in the historical record to find scattered bits of evidence for a favorite argument or theory. It is something else entirely to immerse oneself in the historical documents, to master them, and then, on that basis, to build a cohesive argument, from the bottom up.

That is what Al Chandler did, and he did it spectacularly well.

There are so many wonderful things to remember about Al Chandler—his gentle demeanor, his kindness, his quick wit. When I arrived at Harvard Business School in 1993, Al was already an emeritus professor. But I saw him on campus often, particularly at the Business History Seminar on Monday afternoons in the fall. In fact, I remember how we used to schedule the seminar around duck-hunting season, on account of Al, who loved the sport.

The first time I saw Professor Chandler present a paper, I was surprised that this giant of business history—whose major works I had read for my oral exams in graduate school—seemed lost in the details of what was then a new research project. There were facts everywhere, but not an argument to be found. The next year, however, the presentation of the facts began to take shape, and an argument began to emerge. And then, the following year, more structure and greater clarity, though the project was still rooted deeply in the historical details that he had begun collecting, almost obsessively, years before.

Somewhere along the way, it struck me that this was precisely how he had become a giant in the history profession—by getting lost in the details and then gradually making order out of the chaos. It was an extraordinary process to watch, and I'll always remain grateful to Al for teaching me his craft, year after year, on those Monday afternoons.

Aldo Musacchio

Aldo Musacchio joined the faculty of Harvard Business School in the Business, Government, and International Economy Unit in the summer of 2004.

I learned about Al Chandler as an undergraduate student in Mexico City. There, I had the opportunity of interacting with professors who were influenced by his work in a significant way. They were part of a generation of historians of Latin America, trained in the United States, who were no longer just interested in macroeconomic history or the history of underdevelopment and dependency, but rather had a legitimate interest in corporations and their managers.

The influence of Chandler and his focus on firms grew rapidly in the early 1990s in countries like Mexico and Brazil when many of these specialists began writing detailed economic histories using firm-level data, biographical information of early entrepreneurs, and detailed accounts of managerial practices. Chandlerian analysis suddenly went from a "fashion" to becoming the mainstream approach to business and economic history.

Young scholars back then studied railway entrepreneurs just as today we follow Steve Jobs, Andy Grove, or Jeff Bezos. Business historians in Latin America, who were identified with specific companies, railways, banks, and small-business history workshops, met regularly to discuss methodological problems and archival sources. The unifying theme in this new era of intense academic activity was the Chandlerian corporation and the "visible hand" of the Chandlerian managers.

Perhaps one of the main differences with Chandler's work was that the entrepreneurs and managers creating and running big corporations in Latin America also appeared in political narratives as important actors. According to the studies that emerged, in Latin America the "visible hand" was so powerful that it controlled not only the corporate landscape, but the political scene and the regulatory environment. My own work ended up being heavily influenced by Al Chandler as I tried to recreate corporate governance and managerial practices in Brazil between 1880 and 1950, and the political and economic influence of the networks of company directors and politicians in Brazil and Mexico circa 1910.

When I arrived at Harvard Business School to join the BGIE unit my first question was, "Where is Al Chandler?" Unfortunately for me, Al no longer visited HBS with regularity as he was retired from a long life as a prolific academic and professor. I had the privilege of being present at a ceremony honoring Al Chandler after he donated his personal papers to Baker Library. It was a simple ceremony, yet profound in the way it synthesized decades of research and scholarship at Harvard. This was the first time I saw Al Chandler and it was also the first time I heard a talk by Bernard Bailyn and David Landes. There they were, three giants of history with three different perspectives, who started their careers together.

The anecdotes were fun and rich in details. Bailyn showed some of Al Chandler's first articles in the journal they edited together as graduate students. David Landes went into detail about Al's contributions and the time they spent together at Harvard. Richard John closed the ceremony. Al was ecstatic after the presentations in his honor—it was a great moment. Over wine and cheese, some of my colleagues and I tried to thank Al Chandler as many times as we could for his contributions and for his legacy. He paid us back with friendly smiles and more anecdotes. That was the last chance I had to talk with him.

Richard H.k. Vietor

Richard H.K. Vietor is the Senator John Heinz Professor of Environmental Management at Harvard Business School, where he teaches courses on the regulation of business and the international political economy.

Al's legacy is the concept of strategy and structure, and he did it better than anyone else. The work affected us all, including Richard Tedlow, Tom McCraw, and myself.

Al also set a work ethic that was an inspiration to any HBS faculty member.

When I was at the University of Missouri in 1977, I went to the Organization of American Historians' annual conference in New Orleans. I was sitting in an audience listening to Al, when suddenly he referred to railroad shippers and their position on the 1906 legislation.

I was stunned—it was my work! I went up afterward, introduced myself to Al, and said that I thought he might be referring to my work. He said, "Oh, you're the author. I refereed that paper, blind, and wanted to refer to it in my book [Visible Hand], but could not find out who the author was" (since it was blind refereeing). A year later, I won the Newcomen Fellowship to come to HBS to do research … that was lucky!