I am often surprised how many entrepreneurs, and even folks with MBA degrees, don’t fully understand how big business really works, how company leaders think, and how companies strategize and compete.

One of the best ways to understand all this is to study the structure and evolution of different industries.  While each industry has unique characteristics, you’ll begin to see patterns if you read enough books and selected magazine and online stories.  However, relying entirely on the Internet doesn’t work, because relatively little is posted on the net that has a true big picture or long-term historical view.

There are a multitude of books on the histories of individual companies, technologies, and entrepreneurs and business leaders, but a scarcity of books that cover an entire industry, taking the narrative to broader level, allowing us to see it from a higher hill.

Ideally, there would be a great book, recently published, on the structure and evolution of every major industry.  Unfortunately, there are almost no such books, though there have been a few (too few) good ones published in the past.  In this article, I review several of my all-time favorites, covering a wide array of industries, from computers to airlines, movies to motels and fast food restaurants.

Structure and Strategy Over Time

What do we learn from industry history books?

For starters, we can see the structure of the industry.  Is it an oligopoly, with a few giant dominant companies, or is it highly fragmented, with thousands of smaller competitors?  How has that structure changed over time, and why?  Whie some industries have consolidated, with fewer big players, others fragment.

If you are my age, you remember the Big Five airlines, the Big Five movie studios, the Big Eight accounting firms, and above all else, the Big Three automakers, which dominated world auto production for most of the 20th century.  But these structures change over time: the Big Three automakers lost their clout, the non-US market boomed, and today the industry is far more fragmented, with many more meaningful competitors.  Today, the biggest three globally by number of cars produced (not dollar revenues) are Toyota, Volkswagen, and the Hyundai-Kia group, followed by Renault-Nissan, Stellantis, and General Motors (from first to sixth!).  Seventh-largest is Ford, #1 a century ago.

Sometimes we still have an oligopoly, but the contenders change.  When I was young, there were four major tire companies, Goodyear, Firestone, Goodrich, and US Rubber (Uniroyal).  Today the big names are the American Goodyear, the French Michelin (which owns Goodrich and Uniroyal), and the Japanese Bridgestone (which owns Firestone).  And Chinese and Korean contenders are barking at their feet.

In the enormous – and enormously important – chemical industry, the American market was once dominated by giants DuPont, Union Carbide, Dow, and Allied Chemical.  But in the last twenty years, all those names have changed dramatically, the whole industry has been rejiggered.  German giants BASF ad Bayer remain at or near the top of the global list.

In retailing, we went from two national bookstore chains to one, from many drugstore chains to two dominant ones, from many hardware and home improvement centers to two national giants, in department stores from seven or eight major players to two.  In the 1960s there were hundreds of companies operating discount stores; now the US is covered by two huge competitors.  On the other hand, convenience stores went from three major competitors to a multitude of smaller companies, though the now-Japanese owned Seven-11 still leads the pack.

The rarest of animals is the “Big One” – where one company approaches monopoly (100% of the market) – such as Kodak in film and cameras and Google in search.  True monopolies are almost unknown in business, unless they have government protection, government licenses to operate (like cable companies and other utilities have in some geographies), or IP (intellectual property) that gives them a certain number of years to be the only one publishing a book title or recorded music, or making a prescription drug.

And in each industry, those structures, the rise and fall of individual companies, is a result of strategies, of different paths chosen by the leaders of those companies.  Where did they make their bets?  What were their priorities?  Did they invest in risky ventures that might have a better future, or depend on the profits of the old warhorses that had made them rich in the first place?  Did they try to be “everything to everybody” or did they find a niche, what some call a “Blue Ocean” strategy?  And did their actions match their plans, did they put the right people in charge of the right projects, did they invest enough in innovation, did they defend the markets where they were strong, either geographically or by product line?  Did they have the courage to drop out of markets where the future was grim?

Taken together, how did the industry and the companies in it evolve?  In other words, what is the history of the industry?  We get so caught up in headlines and current events, we fail to look back.  In fact, reading an industry history written in 1980 is often more rewarding than reading a trendy book on the industry today, because even by 1980 much history had already taken place in most industries.  And by looking back, we can see how things turned out, which strategies worked, and which didn’t.

The lessons learned from these books are just as valuable to the startup entrepreneur as they are to the leaders of the big, established companies.  And the more industries one reads, the fuller their comprehension of how business works, and how to survive and perhaps prosper in that world.

With that preface, reviewed below are some of my favorite industry history books, alphabetical by industry.  All are highly recommended.  For me, the most valuable books give in-depth coverage of the early, entrepreneurial days of an industry, teaching us how they got off the ground.  Of the hundreds of automakers in the 1910s, how did just three or so of them survive to 1965? And the most valuable books are packed with numbers, data, tables, and charts, so I can draw my own conclusions about “who won” and why.  (Note that if you acquire any of these books using the links provided, you will send a small commission to us to help continue our work, at no extra cost to you.)

Aircraft Industry

Pushing the Envelope: The American Aircraft Industry (2000), by Donald M. Pattillo, tells the amazing story of the rise of the industry, beginning with the early battles between the Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and others, including Bill Boeing, Donald Douglas, Glenn Martin, and the Loughead brothers, who later changed their name to Lockheed to make it easier for Americans to spell.  Pattillo’s fascinating book continues the story through the end of the 20th century, covering the competition to bring out the first passenger jet, right up through the defense giants of today.

Airline Industry

The late Ron (“R.E.G.”) Davies was the dean of airline historians, and as good an industry historian as you will find.  He wrote tons of books on specific topics and the history of individual airlines, but my favorites are A History of the World’s Airlines (1964), Airlines of the United States since 1914 (1972), and Airlines of the Jet Age: A History (2011), which form a sort of trilogy.  I spend the most time with the 1972 book on the U.S. airlines, one of the greatest industry histories ever written.  Davies’ well-illustrated books include route maps, information on the planes they flew, data on the size of the airlines, and how they battled with each other as they grew (and later merged).  You will find tales of government regulation and the problems it caused throughout these books.  They are all wonderful books.

Beer and Brewing

The US Brewing Industry: Data and Economic Analysis (2009), by Victor J. J Tremblay and Carol Horton Tremblay, is a bit different from most of the other books mentioned here.  It is an economic analysis of the industry, looking at statistics on how concentrated (few companies) the industry was at different time periods and why.  The book delves into the roles of imported beers, ingredient pricing, advertising, and other factors, but it also tells the stories of the most important companies in the 20th century industry.  Learn how Pabst, #1 in 1949, fell while Schlitz briefly took the lead before Anheuser-Busch took over, rising from 7% of the market in the 1950s to 20% in 1973, 40% by 1987, and 50% in 1997.  Even more remarkable was Miller rocketing from 4% in 1970 when Philip Morris acquired it to 21% just ten years later.  In those same years, Colorado’s Coors began to be available beyond its home base, distributed nationally.  As these brands rose, famous names like Ballantine, Schaefer, Falstaff, Hamm’s, and many others fell by the wayside.  Learn the full story of how and why this happened in this fascinating book.

Cable Television

Blue Skies: A History of Cable Television (2008), by Patrick R. Parsons, is what book reviewers might call a “magisterial” book – one that rises so far above all competition that it stands alone.  No other book in this article more thoroughly covers an industry and the people that built it, from the original “cable cowboys” like Bob Magness, John Malone, and Ted Turner, to other barons including Charles Dolan, Charlie Ergen, and Ralph and Brian Roberts, whose Comcast is now one of the greatest media empires.  Time Warner, AT&T, and many other media companies moved in and out of cable as it swept America, starting from a tiny beginning.  Many of the personalities are “bigger than life” – Dolan founding HBO and going on to own Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall, Malone becoming the nation’s largest individual landowner and buying auto racing’s Formula 1 series.  All in all, many fascinating stories are well told, with plenty of data and facts to back up the stories.

Chemicals and Pharmaceuticals

While the other authors on this list are or were experts in their industries, Alfred DuPont Chandler, Jr. (1918-2007) was the greatest business historian of all, studying and writing about every industry.  His book The Visible Hand, which I reviewed here, is the definitive history of American business in total.  But he also wrote two of the best books on this list, on individual industries, one listed later in this article on computers and consumer electronics, and Shaping the Industrial Century: The Remarkable Story of the Evolution of the Modern Chemical and Pharmaceutical Industries (2009).  While Chandler pays attention to leaders and individuals and fills his books with data and facts, his focus is on strategy – who won, who lost, and why.  Learn the dynamics of an industry as leaders make good and bad choices about the futures of their companies.  Watch some rise to the top while others disappear or get gobbled up by their competitors.  If you enjoy business history, you can’t beat Alfred Chandler.

Cigarette Industry

Now in disfavor, it is easy to forget the important role played by the tobacco industry in the rise of advertising, in packaging design, in antitrust matters (the Dukes’ tobacco trust was broken up), and in the southern economy.  Learn how aggressive competitors with brands like Camel, Winston, and Lucky Strike battled it out in The American Cigarette Industry (1950) by Yale professor Richard Tennant.  Much of what we see today in brand advertising and packaging was first tested and developed by American Tobacco, R.J. Reynolds, and Liggett and Myers.  Philip Morris and its Marlboro brand were still insignificant when this book was written.

Computers, Software, and Office Equipment

Before the Computer: IBM, NCR, Burroughs, & Remington Rand & the Industry They Created, 1865-1956  (2000), by James W. Cortada, is another favorite book of mine.  Before there were mainframe computers, there were adding machines and typewriters, which allowed American business to rise to greatness for a century.  The stories of Burroughs, Remington Rand, National Cash Register, and the rise of IBM are fascinating and extremely well-told.  Fun stuff!

The standard history of the computer industry and its technology is Computer (4th Edition, 2023), 

by Martin Campbell-Kelly, William F. Aspray, Jeffrey R. Yost, and Honghong Tinn.  Unlike the other books mentioned here, the authors continually update this one, bringing the story up to the present day.  An excellent history.

From Airline Reservations to Sonic the Hedgehog: A History of the Software Industry (2003), by Martin Campbell-Kelly, parallels that book but covers the software side of things, from mainframes to Microsoft.  Another winner, and of course a fascinating story with many competitors.

Perhaps even more engaging is the history of the microcomputer, telling the stories of the rise of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, among others, best told in Fire in the Valley: The Birth and Death of the Personal Computer (3rd Edition, 2014), by Michael Swaine and Paul Freiberger.  See how one of the most important industries in our lifetimes rose up from a bunch of hobbyists in Albuquerque and other places.

Returning to Alfred Chandler (see my note on Chemicals and Pharmaceuticals, above), he wrote a strategic history of this industry, but also included consumer electronics – the fall of RCA and Zenith and rise of Sony and others – in his excellent Inventing the Electronic Century: The Epic Story of the Consumer Electronics and Computer Industries  (2001).  You just cannot beat Chandler for understanding the “why” – which decisions by corporate leaders led to failure, which led to success.

Cosmetics

Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry (2010), by Geoffrey Jones, is yet another outstanding, comprehensive book on an intriguing but very different industry.  Jones is one the top business historians at work today, filling the shoes once filled by Alfred Chandler at the Harvard Business School.  Here learn the stories of Estee Lauder, Francois Coty, Max Factor, Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubenstein, and Charles Revson, how they fought each other, who won, how and why.  See the rise of cosmetics in the world, the role of advertising, and other factors in the enormous growth of what was once a tiny business.

Earthmoving Equipment

What could be more different from cosmetics than the story of Caterpillar and its competitors?  Study how these companies grew and innovated to build the world as we know it today in

Yellow Steel: The Story of the Earthmoving Equipment Industry  (2000), by William R. Haycraft.  As in virtually every other book in this article, some companies fell while others rose to fame.  What did they do to succeed or fail?

Fast Food Restaurants, Gas Stations, and Motels

Now I turn to one of my other all-time favorite authors, John Jakle, along with his co-author, Keith Sculle.  They wrote three of the best industry history books ever published, covering the rise (and sometimes fall) of every major company in these three industries.  They discuss the people that mattered and fill their books with data, maps, and illustrations.  Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age (1999), The Gas Station in America (1994), and The Motel in America (1996) comprise an outstanding trilogy about the places we drive by every day.  Learn how White Castle came along decades before McDonald’s, how Chevron and Standard competed with new gas station designs, and how Holiday Inns upended the “tourist court” industry, while Best Western survived the changed world, among many other compelling stories.  Jakle and Scully place an emphasis on geography and architecture, making these books especially compelling to me, since I love both of those subjects.

Industrial Gases

Another twist to an unexpected industry, but a comprehensive look at the technologies and companies that produce the nitrogen and other gases that make our industrial world run, is

History of Industrial Gases (2003), by Ebbe Almqvist.  I always enjoy learning about an industry like this that is “behind the scenes,” hidden from the view of us consumers, but critical to our lives. 

Intercity Bus Lines

It is easy to forget that the biggest transportation company in the world (in passenger-miles), bigger than any airline or railroad in 1960, was Greyhound.  Learn how the railroads helped create the bus industry when America first built paved roads, how Greyhound gobbled up most of the industry, and how those left out of Greyhound joined in a co-operative venture to create competitor Trailways (not unlike today’s global airline alliances) in Over the Road a History of Intercity Bus Transportation in the United States (1975), by John P. Meier and Albert E. Hoschek.

Merchant Shipping

Ever wonder why almost all the ships bringing imports to our ports and taking exports away are owned by Asian and European shipping companies, not by American companies?  Learn the fascinating story of how the “merchant shipping” industry rose and fell in the United States, in large part due to efforts by the government to protect American industry which instead resulted in the near-death of this important industry in Rise and Decline of the U.S. Merchant Shipping in the Twentieth Century (1992), by Rene De LA Pedraja.  A fascinating tale of the virtual disappearance of an industry.

Movie Studios

The story of the great movie studios, especially in the “studio era” of the 1930s and 1940s, is wonderfully told by Douglas Gomery in The Hollywood Studio System: A History  (2005), one of my all-time favorite books.  Paramount, Warner Brothers, Twentieth Century Fox, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and their founders take center stage in this great book.

Oil/Petroleum Industry

While many books have been written on this critical (and controversial) industry, for my favorites I have to reach back to a two-volume set, written by Harold Williamson, Arnold Baum, and others, published in 1959 and 1963, entitled The American Petroleum Industry.  If you really want to know how Rockefeller started out and built the initial industry and how Shell, Gulf, Texaco and others rose to compete with the Standard Oil juggernaut, these are the books.

They are well-complemented by the more recent strategic study covering most of the major companies, Strategies of the Major Oil Companies (1982), by William N. Greene.

Steel Industry

Another great book on a core heavy industry is An Economic History of the American Steel Industry (2009) by Robert P. Rogers.  Fifty years ago, Bethlehem Steel, Youngstown Sheet & Tube, Armco, Jones & Laughlin, Inland Steel, and others were among the nation’s largest companies, trailing behind giant US Steel.  Now they are largely owned by companies from India and other nations, and our steel industry has lost market share in the global market for steel.  What happened?

I hope you enjoy these books, and continue to learn from the history of business!

Gary E. Hoover

Executive Director
American Business History Center

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