Enterprise & Society 5.2 (2004) 334-336
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Technology's "black box" harbors many secrets. Economic historians often attribute to technology productivity gains not otherwise explained by changes in factor inputs. Business historians tend to focus on technological innovation as a source of competitive advantage, as entrepreneurs or firms commercialize key innovations or refine existing products systematically through sustained "development" efforts. Georgia Tech historian of technology Steven W. Usselman succeeds in this masterful book in bringing us deeper inside the black box of railroad technological innovation than any previous work on that industry, and deeper than all but a handful of technology and business historians working on other industries have done before. This is a prodigiously researched, acutely reasoned, and finely written book that likely will stand as one of the most important studies of technological change within its corporate, political, and cultural contexts published in the last decade.
Although there is little burden on Usselman to justify, as a first principle, his choice of railroads as "the most profound technological innovation" (p. 1) in nineteenth-century American life, his study reminds us of how little serious academic work has been published [End Page 334] on railroads, especially given their importance. Regulating Railroad Innovation is framed by a metaphorical allusion made by President Charles E. Perkins of the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad in an 1880 memorandum, in which he likened the CB&Q to a vast and complicated machine. In the first part of the book, "Assembling the Machine, 1840ñ1876," Usselman examines the pre-"machine" era that began in the 1820s and 1830s and extended nearly five decades. It was a chaotic period of technological change, when local needs and personal connections among railroad executives, investment interests, and independent inventors figured prominently—in aloose system of what Usselman deems "insider innovation." Politics both simplified and complicated matters, as local, national, and even international groups shared a common goal of promotionalism but often differed markedly about where and how to encourage railroad development. Usselman vividly fleshes out such tensions and contingencies with revealing case studies. No one reading his account of the adoption of steel rails can come away convinced that a straightforward cost-benefit model explains very much. Similarly, the story of how railroads adopted Westinghouse air brake systems illuminates the complex relationships between independent innovators and the giant railroads in new and intriguing ways.
By the 1870s, railroad managers embraced the problem of "running the machine" (Part II, covering 1876–1904). College-trained engineers and industry trade associations occupied center stage as railroads moved aggressively to regularize, standardize, routinize, and focus technological innovation. In the process, they narrowed technological options in ways that reified, as Usselman puts it, "pipelines of innovation" (p. 6). And as the railroads succeeded in "imposing a degree of routine and order virtually unprecedented in any other industry" (p. 11), they became much more efficient, while the machine metaphor became dominant—achieving the status of an ideology of sorts—throughout the polity and larger society.
The triumph of the engineering ethos contained seeds of its own destruction, as Usselman demonstrates in Part III, "Friction in the Machine, 1904ñ1920." Increasing pressures from workers and from the government, the latter pressing new safety standards, combined with technological limits on size and power to level off productivity gains. The railroads struggled to kindle technological innovation in areas outside their traditional strengths, most notably in electric traction and sophisticated signaling. State interventions during the First World War injected uncertainty and disorder not seen since the formative decades, and the new regulatory accommodation that emerged in the 1920s was far less conducive to innovation than the earlier promotionalist regime. The market also was shifting, as [End Page 335] demand for specialized services began to eclipse high-throughput commodity shipping. In this period, notes Usselman, the doctrine of efficiency "gave way to a resurgent ideology stressing individual...