Journal of Interdisciplinary History 34.3 (2003) 476-477
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Regulating Railroad Innovation: Business, Technology, and Politics in America, 1840-1920. By Steven W. Usselman (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2002) 398pp. $65.00 cloth $25.00 paper
This thoughtful, well-written volume explores the relationship between innovation and the growing need of America's largest business to channel and contain change within operational patterns of routine. As Usselman observes, "Even the most modest of railroads constituted a technical assembly of virtually unparalleled complexity in its day" (62). Rapid growth aggravated the difficulty of delivering transportation service through so intricate a technical system and made innovation as much a threat as an opportunity. The challenge was how to improve any given aspect of the system without disrupting the routine so crucial to its operation.
Usselman divides the railroad response into three periods. During the first, largely experimental, stage (1840-1876), managers resorted to a variety of processes for incorporating technical improvements but found themselves increasingly hamstrung by patents. Between 1876 and 1904, railroads embraced the systematic gains promised by professional engineers at the cost of potentially greater improvements promised by outside inventors. As Usselman puts it, railroads increased productivity "precisely because they restricted the realm of technical possibilities and pursued one grand objective with single-minded purpose ... laying down clear ground rules about operations and shunning innovations that threatened to disrupt those rules" (142). Even more, railroad executives and others enshrined engineering as "a new means of organizing technical and economic affairs" (142). From the railroad experience arose the image of the efficient, ordered, well-run society that gained popularity around the turn of the century.
Using the Pennsylvania and Chicago, Burlington & Quincy railroads as his templates, Usselman shows in useful detail how the industry internalized and regulated innovation by increasingly doing its own research, establishing laboratories and testing facilities, and creating professional organizations to exchange information and set standards. As rail- road companies expanded into giant systems, their need for order and routine grew ever more compelling. Mature systems demanded effi- ciency more than innovation even though new technologies often promised greater efficiency—at least on the surface.
The third period (1904-1920) saw the shrine of engineering crumble beneath the sheer volume of traffic that overwhelmed American railroads and the growing diversity of shippers with specialized needs. Politics complicated the process as railroads came increasingly under state and federal regulation. The harsh glare of public scrutiny drove many roads to embrace public relations as eagerly as they once had engineering. In the political arena, where efficiency or system mattered less than image, the railroads had little choice but to move away from the [End Page 476] engineering ideal to that of service—an image promulgated by sophisticated advertising as well as changes in operations.
In weaving together the complex threads of business, technology, and politics, Usselman advances a persuasive argument for the manner in which railroads handled the thorny issue of integrating technology into their systems.
There are some shortcomings. In using the Pennsylvania and Burlington as his models, Usselman chose two roads with rich archival materials. But both were exceptional companies and hardly typical of most railroads. Other roads, including the Union Pacific, Illinois Central, and Great Northern, have ample source materials that would have broadened the research base. Usselman also ignores the contributions of Edward H. Harriman, who was the most forceful and innovative railroad executive of the early 1900s and forged the template for the profitable freight railroad of the future. Although he utilizes a wide variety of sources, his methodology does not stray far from that of the narrative historian.
These caveats aside, this book sheds important new light on the interplay of technical change, business innovation, and political influence. Within its limitations, it is both informative and compelling in illuminating an elusive subject.
University of Rhode Island