Although little-known outside academia and students of management, the late Alfred Chandler, Jr., was the greatest business historian we have yet seen. His Pulitzer-Prize-winning 1977 book The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business is the...
Entrepreneurship and business are at the core of modern life. Both have given us many great innovations and improvements in life and prosperity. We at the American Business History Center understandably focus our efforts on the United States,...
Tech companies from Apple to Dell, from Adobe to Oracle, work each day to outsmart their competitors, to develop innovative products and services, and to best market and sell their products and services. No technology company in history has been more successful in...
The following includes excerpts from Gary Hoover’s book, The Lifetime Learner’s Guide to Reading and Learning.
Business History – General
Now I turn to my passion for business and entrepreneurship. Our lack of historical sense in business costs our society billions in repeated mistakes and failure to learn from the past. There are few things I could do to make the world better than to encourage you to study business history. The greatest business historian was the late Alfred D. Chandler, Jr. His Visible Hand is the definitive book on the story of US industry, and Scale and Scope extended the analysis to European business. For a look at how the USA lost the battle for consumer electronics, read his fascinating Inventing the Electronic Century.
The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business, by Alfred D. Chandler Jr.
Scale and Scope: The Dynamics of Industrial Capitalism, By Alfred D. Chandler Jr.
Inventing the Electronic Century: The Epic Story of the Consumer Electronics and Computer Industries, by Alfred D. Chandler Jr.
For a lighter and less scholarly but no less impressive overview of some of the greatest entrepreneurs in American history, you cannot beat this book. Make sure and get the hardcover edition (not the paperback, which lacks the compelling illustrations).
They Made America: From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine: Two Centuries of Innovators, by Harold Evans
A relatively quick but very thought-provoking look at seven greats, across time and across various industries. Tedlow is one of our top business historians, and his New and Improved is a great read on the great marketing battles in US history.
Giants of Enterprise: Seven Business Innovators and the Empires They Built, by Richard Tedlow
New and Improved: The Story of Mass Marketing in America, by Richard Tedlow
Here is an extensive list of more books about business history:
If, like me, you want deep history and context, this book looks at “big business” going back to the ancients. A very cool book.
Foundations of Corporate Empire: Is History Repeating Itself? By Karl Moore, David Lewis
Company Histories and Individual Biographies
Nothing inspires as much as reading the stories of the great innovators and leaders. One quickly understands that most were mortals, not unique geniuses. They had ups and downs like the rest of us. But in the end, they persevered and in their own way made the world a better place.
One of my top ten books, always beside my bed, is this great set by John Ingham, which covers the greats of the 19th and 20th centuries, fully indexed by place and industry. This set is by far the most comprehensive, well-written, and intelligent book on business leaders and entrepreneurs. Read one of the short bios before you go to sleep each night, and maybe you will wake up to be the next Henry Ford or Steve Jobs! Look on abebooks and other used book websites for a bargain on one of the many copies floating around.
Biographical Dictionary of American Business Leaders [4 volumes], by John Ingham
Here are some of my favorite individual biographies of my heroes.
Walt Disney may have put more smiles on more faces than anyone in history, and his legacy continues unabated. He not only brought us whole new ideas like the feature-length animated picture and the theme park, but he created things we probably could have “lived without.” It is easy to place the innovators of the automobile, the airplane, the telephone, the PC, and the Internet on a higher plane, but I still love Walt.
Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, by Neal Gabler
The US is today a service economy: over 70% of our GNP comes from service industries. And over 60% of the world economy is services. While we must study the Henry Fords of history, those who gave us industrial society, we also need to study the great leaders of the service economy. They will give us insights into how to serve people in the booming healthcare, education, travel, finance, and other service industries.
Sam Walton was perhaps America’s best example of the guy from nowhere whose driven curiosity and obsession with making life better for his customers led to the world’s largest company (in revenues, as of this writing).
Sam Walton: Made In America, by Sam Walton, John Huey
Ray Kroc was a modestly successful salesman in his fifties when he saw the potential in a single California hamburger stand called McDonald’s. The rest is history.
Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald’s, by Ray Kroc
Another unsung great was Conrad Hilton, who built the first major global hotel chain with pluck and a little bit of luck. A fascinating story.
Be My Guest, by Conrad N. Hilton
I usually refer to Fred Smith as America’s greatest living, active entrepreneur. Taking an idea he had in college (where the professor implied it would never work), and overcoming great obstacles, Smith still presides over his now-$30 billion baby, one of the world’s greatest and most important transportation companies. From idea to empire!
Overnight Success: Federal Express and Frederick Smith, Its Renegade Creator, by Vance Trimble
Alfred P. Sloan, the man most responsible for building General Motors, was likely the greatest manager in American history. At one point, Bill Gates called his My Years with General Motors the most important business book; the one you should read if you are only going to read one business book. (Gates has broadened his list in recent years.) This book is not a biography, but rather the exciting story of how this great business was built.
My Years with General Motors, by Alfred Sloan
There are many company history books, often funded by the companies themselves. While still interesting, many are really puff pieces. While certainly expressing pride in their illustrious history, the Shell Oil Company has produced the most beautiful and exhaustive book ever written about a single company.
The History of Royal Dutch Shell: Four-Volume Set Box Edition, by Stephen Howarth, Joost Jonker, Keetie Sluyterman, Jan Luiten van Zanden
Time, Inc., the primary innovator of the modern magazine and a media story for the ages, backed a set of books on its history. Unlike many corporate histories, this one is balanced and thorough, warts and all. The story of founder Henry Luce is one of the great American business epics, with lessons and inspiration for us all. This is the best volume in the set, covering the company’s early years and the founding of Time, Life, and Fortune magazines.
Time Inc: The Intimate History of a Publishing Enterprise, 1923-1941, by Robert T. Elson, Duncan Norton-Taylor
Here is an excellent book for general interest readers about one of America’s greatest companies, now quickly being forgotten. Like any good business history book, it is full of images, not just the numbers.
Remembering Woolworth’s: A Nostalgic History of the World’s
Most Famous Five-and-Dime, by Karen Plunkett-Powell
Industry Histories and Studies
There are many good histories of American business for the general reader. Most of the best ones, covering almost every industry, were published in the 1980s. Our top pick is:
A History of American Business (Second Edition), by Keith L. Bryant, Jr., and Henry C. Dethloff, 1990.
There is a surfeit of good books on individual industries, that really get into the stories of individual companies and leaders. One of the best I have ever seen is this one by top Harvard business historian Geoffrey Jones, a complete look at the evolution of the beauty and cosmetics industries.
Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry, by Geoffrey Jones
The fascinating beer and brewing industry is also blessed to have a great book, one of the best done on any industry.
The U.S. Brewing Industry: Data and Economic Analysis, by Victor J. Tremblay, Carol Horton Tremblay
An amazing book by the guy who knows more about media and entertainment companies than anyone I have ever met.
Entertainment Industry Economics: A Guide for Financial Analysis 9th Edition, by Harold L. Vogel
This book is packed with data on every form of media, including the Internet. A serious reference book.
Media Ownership and Concentration in America, by Eli Noam
This is a great example of a book on one industry (oil and gas) that covers the field (and the tankers and the wells …). Comprehensive – I wish more industries had a book like this one.
The Global Oil & Gas Industry: Management, Strategy and Finance, by Andrew Inkpen, Michael H. Moffett
The world is full of great consumer products with proud traditions. This is my favorite of several books about the history of great brands from soup to nuts.
Symbols of America: A Lavish Celebration of America’s Best Loved Trademarks and the Products They Symbolize, Their History, Folklore, and Enduring Mystique, by Hal Morgan
I have many times been asked, “Who is your favorite author?” While the questioners usually expect to hear the name of a famous novelist or historian, I cannot resist naming John Jakle, who few have ever heard of. His and Keith Sculle’s histories of motels, gas stations, and roadside and fast food restaurants are among the best and most comprehensive industry histories ever written.
Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age, by John A. Jakle, Keith A. Sculle
Economics and Industrial Organization
There is more than enough nonsense floating around about what a Corporation is and whether they are good are bad. The 17th century idea of the limited liability corporation was one of mankind’s most important advancements. Here is the real story.
The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea, by John Micklethwait, Adrian Wooldridge
My field of focus, within economics at the University of Chicago, was on “industrial organization,” the study of monopolies, antitrust, regulation, and competition. For me, the battles between GM and Toyota or Coke and Pepsi are as intriguing and exciting as any sports competition. In this context, few people understand the basic structure of the various industries. There is no better introduction than this book, which takes an in-depth look at several industries, from oil, beer, and cars to healthcare and college sports.
The Structure of American Industry 13th Edition, by James W. Brock
A field where work is embryonic, with a lot of future upside, is the study of “corporate demography.” What are the birth rates, death rates, and lifespans of business enterprises? Here is one of the few books that looks at these important and interesting issues.
The Demography of Corporations and Industries, by Glenn R. Carroll, Michael T. Hannan
Here is another field of great interest to me: what choices do we have when we organize an enterprise or new venture? This is the only book I could find that goes beyond the traditional options of a for-profit or non-profit corporation. Innovative enterprises like State Farm Insurance, Best Western lodging, Sun-maid Raisins, the Associated Press, co-ops, and credit unions prove that entrepreneurs and founders have more choices.
The Ownership of Enterprise, by Henry Hansmann
As is true of most of the subjects in this document, I could make a 100-book list on economics. To take a hard look at the economics of the issues on the front pages every day, this book is a great place to start.
Economics of Public Issues 19th Edition by Roger LeRoy Miller, Daniel K. Benjamin, Douglass C. North