- The American Reaper: Harvesting Networks and Technology, 1830–1910 by Gordon M. Winder
Arguably, over the last twenty years the biggest development in the field of business history has been the polite but insistent challenge to the so-called Chandlerian synthesis regarding the rise of “Big Business.” Similarly, one can just as plausibly argue that in the history of technology the biggest development over the same time period has been the shift from the study of individual inventors, or even individual firms, to the study of technological networks, which are increasingly seen as central to the innovation process in many industries. Business history and the history of technology are closely interrelated, often overlapping like Venn diagrams. The connection between the two fields is demonstrated vividly in Gordon Winder’s study of the early development of the harvesting and mowing industry, as are the scholarly shifts mentioned above. [End Page 267]
In conventional accounts, the history of the modern harvesting/mowing industry—grains are harvested, hay is mowed—is viewed in Chandlerian terms. That is to say, the rise in the industry of large, powerful corporations characterized by multiple-operating units, professional managers, and external/internal integration is seen as a relatively straightforward, economically rational business response to new opportunities and challenges posed by changing economic conditions (e.g., the rise of a national market) and technological possibilities (e.g., mass production) in nineteenth-century America. The spread of the rail and telegraph system in the United States in the 1850s is said to have allowed for small producers to expand their markets dramatically. Such expansion, along with the technical requirements involved in marketing/financing/servicing relatively expensive harvesting/mowing equipment posed all kinds of organizational problems to companies in the industry, leading them increasingly to integrate production and sales operations.
By the 1880s, the possibilities of mass production were opening up, which allowed—some Chandlerians would use more insistent verbs here—for higher volume production and greater scale, mandated greater capital requirements, and sparked problems relating to coordination and control. This led some of the largest and most successful companies in the industry—the McCormick Harvesting Machinery Company, obviously, but also William Deering & Company—to pursue greater and greater integration both internally and externally. Such integration reached its zenith in 1902 with the merger of the McCormick and Deering companies (and three smaller firms), forming the International Harvester Company, which upon formation controlled 85 percent of the U.S. market for harvesters and reapers.
So what is wrong with this picture? A lot, according to Winder, whose study—first published in 2012 and recently released in a new ebook edition by Routledge—immediately became the most detailed we have on the harvesting/mowing industry qua industry. Bluntly put, Winder believes that the Chandlerian view of the industry is fundamentally and irredeemably flawed. For example, it misses the fact that the modern industry was characterized not by stand-alone companies, but by complex networks involving licensing agreements, patent pools, and relational contracting almost from the start. From the 1850s on, moreover, these networks were transnational, involving companies in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and Europe. Nor should the industry be seen as the story of McCormick writ large, as is often implied by Chandlerians; there were other very important companies and networks in North America in the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s, not just McCormick or even McCormick and Deering.
Finally, in Winder’s political economy approach, there was nothing natural or inevitable about the way business developed in America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. There were alternatives to what Chandler calls “modern business form”—various network models, [End Page 268] most notably—but these alternatives lost out in the 1880s and 1890s to a few companies (McCormick and Deering in particular), which were increasingly able to take advantage of mass-production possibilities to build scale, increase their market power, and ultimately crush their competition. Thus, the creation of the International Harvester Company in 1902 should be...