Alfred Chandler, Jr.: Harvard Business Historian, dead at 88





Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., the renowned Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard Business School historian who founded the field of business history, died on Wednesday, May 9, at Youville Hospital in Cambridge, Mass., at the age of 88. In his long and legendary career, he chronicled and analyzed big businesses around the globe in a prolific and extraordinarily influential corpus of books and articles. At the time of his death, he was the School’s Isidor Straus Professor of Business History, Emeritus.

Like no one before him, Chandler, who in the 1950s helped Alfred P. Sloan, the creator of the modern General Motors when it was an industrial colossus, write his famous autobiography My Years with General Motors, investigated the dynamic factors that made the American economy and its businesses succeed so triumphantly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The key factors, as Chandler saw them, were the rise of the railroad, concentrated urban markets, mass production techniques, electrification, the internal combustion engine, and research and development.

He concluded that successful industrial corporations intelligently harnessed and exploited these forces and made the transition from entrepreneurial enterprises to multidivisional, vertically integrated companies. In essence, the creation and development of modern managerial capitalism was the driver of American business success. “What counts are people – their skills, knowledge and experience,” he said.

Chandler’s landmark books and articles influenced generations of scholars in many countries and numerous disciplines, including history, economics, sociology, and management science. While his central ideas about industrial change emerged and evolved in each work, he always examined the same basic set of questions: How were things done at a certain time, how were they done later, and what happened to cause the change.

“Al Chandler created the field of business history and nurtured it at this School with the help of outstanding colleagues who worked closely with him and admired him as a mentor and friend,” said Jay Light, Dean of Harvard Business School. “Through his teaching and research and the comprehensive collection of papers he donated to our library’s historical collections, he has left a lasting mark on scholars and students at HBS and far beyond.”

In Strategy and Structure, published in 1962, Chandler examined four U.S. industrial giants from the 1900s to the 1940s, focusing on the executives who devised the decentralized, multidivisional structure of the large corporation. Through a detailed study of General Motors, DuPont, Exxon, and Sears, Roebuck & Company, he showed that organizational structure is a direct result of strategy. The book helped spawn the field of corporate strategy and made the maxim “strategy precedes structure” a staple of corporate management during the 1960s and 1970s. According to his longtime friend and colleague, HBS historian Thomas K. McCraw, who succeeded Chandler as Straus Professor, “that insight constituted a redefinition of the entire field.”

In The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business, which won the Pulitzer Prize in history in 1977 as well as the prestigious Newcomen Award and Bancroft Prize, Chandler argued that the visible hand of management had replaced the invisible hand of market forces in coordinating and allocating the resources of the economy as a result of the coming of the railroads and the telegraph in the 1800s. Although there was little need for middle managers prior to 1840, Chandler concluded, by the mid-twentieth century, the multiunit, multifunctional enterprise administered by salaried managers had become the “most powerful institution in the American economy.”

In another important work, Scale and Scope: The Dynamics of American Capitalism, published in 1990 and winner of an American Association of Publishers Award and the University of Chicago’s Melamed Prize, Chandler took on a more global view. He compared in extraordinary detail the evolution of managerial capitalism in the United States, England, and Germany by examining the 200 largest corporations in those countries. According to his findings, “the first movers in capital-intensive industries kept their competitive advantage only if they made three key strategic investments: first, in large-scale, high-speed production; second, in distribution; and, third, in a management structure that could plan, coordinate, and monitor the company’s vast operations.”

Chandler continued to do research and write until the very end of his life. In 2001, he wrote Inventing the Electronic Century: The Epic Story of the Consumer Electronics and Computer Industry, which focused on the fall of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and the rise of Sony and Matsushita, as Japan conquered the worldwide consumer electronics market. That volume was followed in 2005 by Shaping the Industrial Century: The Remarkable Story of the Evolution of the Modern Chemical and Pharmaceutical Industries. “Such science-based industries have had as much impact on this country in the twentieth century as railroads did in the last one,” he observed. At the time of his death, he was writing a biography of his maternal grandfather, Major William G. Ramsay, the first chief engineer of the E. I. DuPont de Nemours chemical company, who helped transform that firm from a family company into a global corporation.

Chandler pursued his scholarship with single-minded determination, energy, and passion, making the most of his exceptional ability to analyze comparatively an immense number of facts and figures. “I became committed early in life to the historian’s approach of moving through time longitudinally,” Chandler once said.

“Al Chandler was an extraordinary scholar whose research and publications over five decades exercised a transformational effect far beyond his own discipline in business history,” said Geoffrey G. Jones, the current Straus Professor of Business History. “Although he began his career as a traditional historian who labored long and hard in archives, his resulting insights on the growth of firms and the emergence of modern management were so compelling that he became a major formative influence on many areas of management studies. Al never departed from his central concern to document and understand the history of firms and managers in driving innovation and creating wealth.”

Writing in his 1988 book The Essential Alfred Chandler: Essays toward a Historical Theory of Big Business, Professor McCraw also caught the essence of a man who was universally regarded not only as a true academic giant but as a true gentleman. “Chandler’s most striking trait, in all his personal relations, remains a pronounced lack of pretentiousness. From the beginning of his career, his primary motivation has been an abiding and sometimes obsessive intellectual curiosity. Even after [many decades] as a working historian, he retains a youthful excitability, an infectious enthusiasm about the latest item he has read or piece of evidence he has uncovered. The fires of research have never been banked in Alfred Chandler; and in Scale and Scope, as in Strategy and Structure and The Visible Hand, they light up a landscape that had been only dimly perceived, if at all.”

Alfred DuPont Chandler, Jr., was born in Guyencourt, Delaware, near Wilmington, on September 15, 1918. (Although he was not a blood relation of the DuPonts who had founded the well-known chemical company, his middle name reflected longstanding connections with this prominent family. Beyond Major Ramsay’s important role in the company, Chandler’s paternal great-grandmother was raised by the DuPonts after her parents died of yellow fever when she was a child.)

Chandler spent the first five years of his life in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where his father was working as the representative of an American locomotive company. The family then moved back to Philadelphia and by the time Chandler was 11, they were living in the countryside outside of Wilmington.

According to family lore, Chandler announced his decision to become a historian by the age of seven, inspired by his reading of Wilbur Fisk Gordy’s Elementary History of the United States, a primer designed for sixth graders that had been given to him by his father. He read it from cover to cover nineteen times.

In the midst of the Great Depression, the education of Alfred Chandler continued on board the schooner Blue Dolphin, which embarked on a year-long family excursion, organized by his parents and grandmother for “Alfie” and his four siblings. The vessel island hopped through the Antilles, exploring caves that had once been occupied by the pirate Bluebeard, passed through the Panama Canal, and sailed along the route of Charles Darwin to the Galapagos. Then 15, young Chandler was enthralled.

After returning from this unique adventure, he went off to Phillips Exeter Academy, winning a prize for excellence in history before entering Harvard College, where generations of his family had studied from the eighteenth century on. He received his bachelor’s degree, magna cum laude, in 1940.

Like his classmate John F. Kennedy (a fellow member of the Harvard sailing team as well), Chandler became an officer in the United States Navy during World War II, interpreting aerial reconnaissance photographs of German and Japanese territory taken before, during and after bombing raids. According to Professor McCraw, this assignment left a lasting impression on the aspiring historian, who would later examine the significance of logistics, industrial production, and change in national economies. After the war, Chandler turned his sights on graduate work, enrolling in a program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Having written a 186-page honors thesis at Harvard College on the gubernatorial election of 1876 in South Carolina, he intended to study southern history.

At Chapel Hill, however, Chandler came under the influence of two prominent sociologists and decided that the study of regional history was not where his future should lie. After a year, he returned to Harvard to continue his graduate work under the great Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons, who, McCraw explains, “introduced him to the work of Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and the entire tradition of historical sociology. [This experience] guided [Chandler] toward the broad, systemic generalizations that characterized his work and which the sub-discipline of business history so badly needed.”

Chandler also found himself in a study group with other history graduate students who set the bar very high in terms of standards and expectations. “Chandler was now in very fast company and [knew he] had better work as hard as he could to survive the competition,” writes McCraw. Finally, Chandler was influenced by his participation in Harvard’s Research Center in Entrepreneurial History, launched by the economist Joseph Schumpeter and the economic historian and Harvard Business School librarian Arthur Cole. Once again, Chandler found himself working with and learning from a superb group of historians, sociologists, and economists.

In search of a topic for his doctoral dissertation, Chandler made a fortuitous discovery that would establish his life’s work and ultimately shape the course of business history. He literally stumbled upon the papers of his great-grandfather, Henry Varnum Poor, a founder of Standard & Poor’s Corporation and a well-known nineteenth-century railroad analyst, while cleaning out a storeroom in his great-aunt Lucy Poor’s home in nearby Brookline. Henry Varnum Poor had sketched the histories of more than 100 early American railroad companies and the systems of finance that funded their growth, and his papers were a treasure trove of firsthand accounts of the crucial role railroads played in the development of modern business practices. These materials became the basis of Chandler’s doctoral dissertation, which evolved into a book, Henry Varnum Poor: Business Editor, Analyst and Reformer.

The volume represented nothing less than a comparative history of the great American railroad corporations during their formative years, according to McCraw, and initiated a pattern of research that would remain Chandler’s hallmark -- absorbing prodigious amounts of diffuse data, including company histories, corporate archives, annual reports, trade publications and business memoirs and organizing them into coherent patterns of interpretation.

After earning his master’s degree in 1947 and his Ph.D. in 1952, Chandler taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1950 to 1963 (except for a semester’s leave in 1954 to teach at the Naval War College in Newport, RI). At MIT, besides writing Strategy and Structure, he helped edit four volumes of Theodore Roosevelt’s letters. In the division of editorial labor, he took responsibility for the economic issues of the Roosevelt era and because of his own interest in hunting, for Roosevelt’s time in Africa.

In 1963, Chandler was asked to join the faculty of the Johns Hopkins University, where he chaired the history department and edited the papers of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had just completed his second term as president of the United States.

After seven years in Baltimore, however, Chandler felt he needed more time to pursue his own research interests. He was even prepared to leave academia to begin work on The Visible Hand, when the then HBS Dean, Lawrence Fouraker, invited him to join the Business School faculty in 1970.

As a member of the active HBS faculty from 1970 to 1989, Chandler not only conducted some of his most important research, but he also made business history one of the School’s most prominent and popular areas, attracting and nurturing a group of younger world-class business historians and with them creating an enormously successful elective in business history that attracted hundreds of students.

In addition to his teaching, course development, and research, Chandler was also editor of Harvard Studies in Business History and on the editorial boards of major historical journals. He served as president of the Economic History Association and the Business History Conference. He was on the council of the Massachusetts Historical Society, which honored him in 2003 with its highest award, the John F. Kennedy Medal, and on the executive board of the Organization of American Historians.

Chandler was a visiting fellow at All Souls College, Oxford; a visiting professor at the European Institute of Washington; and a Guggenheim Fellow from 1958-59. He was also a member of the American Philosophical Society and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. For many years he served as a director of Landmark Communications Inc., the creator of the Weather Channel.

Chandler received numerous honorary degrees from universities around the world, including Harvard, which honored him in 1995.

Usually dressed in a tweed jacket and gray slacks and with a shock of white hair, Chandler was easily recognizable on the HBS campus. Long after his retirement, he continued to attend the School’s Business History Seminars, which brought together historians from HBS, Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, MIT, and other universities in Boston.

When he wasn’t working, however, Chandler liked nothing better than to socialize. Each fall, for instance, he and his wife, Fay Martin Chandler, an accomplished artist whom he married in 1944, hosted a Head of the Charles Regatta party in their apartment, which offered a spectacular view of the Charles River and the boat races below. Lunch at home was always preceded by a glass of sherry before Chandler returned to his work on a desk cluttered with papers and books – but without a computer in sight. He wrote all his work on yellow lined paper in a small, cramped hand, then dictated it for transcription by an HBS assistant who worked with him for decades.

Summers were spent at the family home in Nantucket, Mass., where he brought his work but took time out for surf casting for bluefish and a run (and later in his life, a walk) on the beach. And no matter how cold it got each winter, he enjoyed duck hunting in Rowley, Mass., near the home of his son Alfred III. Indeed, he was fond of saying that although history was his vocation, hunting was his avocation.

In addition to his wife and son Alfred, Chandler is survived by two daughters, Alpine “Dougie” Chandler Bird of Annapolis, MD, and Mary “Mimi” Chandler Watt of Dinas Powys, Wales; a younger son, Howard, of Maharishi Vedic City, IA; two sisters, Nina Murray of Bedford, Mass., and Nantucket, and Sophie Consagra of New York City; five grandchildren and two step-grandchildren; and one great grandchild.

Burial will be private. A memorial service will be held at the Memorial Church in Harvard Yard on Sept. 28, 2007.

In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made in Chandler’s memory to any of the following:

The Alfred D. Chandler Fund, c/o Kerry Cietanno, Teele Hall, Harvard Business School, Boston, MA 02163;
The Memorial Church, Harvard University, One Harvard Yard, Cambridge, MA 02138;
The Massachusetts Audubon Society, c/o Betsy Watson, 208 South Great Rd., Lincoln, MA 01773.

Related Links

  • NYT Obituary
  • CNN: Opening the book on business history


  • comments powered by Disqus
    History News Network