Great Business Builders

In a previous post, I suggested that if you were only going to read one book about business history, you read Alfred Chandler’s The Visible Hand. I stand by that recommendation. No single book better tells the story of the rise of American big business, the corporations that shaped the 20th century and continue to have an impact on the new century. Chandler covers people, places, innovations, and data. While his core focus is on manufacturing, as is appropriate to American history over the last two hundred years, he does not ignore other important industries such as transportation and retailing.
Alongside Chandler, I keep a copy of They Made America by Harold Evans (Little, Brown 2004) which carries the subtitle From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine: Two Centuries of Innovators. This oversized, fully illustrated book focuses on the people who made a difference, with less focus on companies and data than Chandler’s book. While Chandler tells the comprehensive story of the rise of business, Evans’ book is a compendium of fascinating and diverse human stories, more visceral and, for some readers, more engaging. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “There properly is no history; only biography.”
They Made America is wonderfully diverse. In an age where we are focused on the recent, on hard technologies like hardware and software, and on the famous, Evans includes stories from two hundred years ago through Google, he includes industries as diverse as Weight Watchers and elevators, and he covers some of my favorite but less known entrepreneurs and innovators, including Sam Insull who gave us affordable electricity, John Patterson who gave us salesmanship, and Isaac Singer who, along with his partner Clark, gave us the first multinational. These stories are unforgettable.
This book is as much a picture book as a story book, and the well-chosen images magnify the stories. As a result, I think it is of interest to people, young and old, who might not think they want to study business history, entrepreneurship, and innovation. PBS even did a video version of the book, although it does not cover all the interesting characters included in the book.
My bottom line might be, “If you want to own two books about business history, add this one to The Visible Hand. If you want to get someone else interested in the stories of innovators, give them this one.”