Walter A. Friedman

Lecturer of Business Administration
Director, Business History Initiative

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Unit: General Management


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Walter A. Friedman is Director of the Business History Initiative and Lecturer.  He edits Business History Review with Geoff Jones. He specializes in business, labor, and economic history. He is author of Fortune Tellers: The Story of America's First Economic Forecasters (2013) and Birth of a Salesman: The Transformation of Selling in America (2004). He is currently writing a history of large American companies from 1920 to 1980.  He was formerly a Newcomen Post-Doctoral Fellow in Business History and a Trustee of the Business History Conference.


Featured Work



  1. Business History

    Walter A. Friedman and Geoffrey Jones

    This volume contains a selection of 42 foundational articles on the discipline of business history written between 1934 and the present day by scholars based in the United States, Europe, Asia, and Latin America. A wide-ranging editorial introduction describes the formation and evolution of the discipline from its origins at the Harvard Business School in the late 1920s. Over the following century, the editors show that the discipline and its practitioners often found themselves on the margins of academic discourses and their own institutions. There was a constant struggle to define the borders of the field and the central research questions that it sought to answer. However, the commitment to engage with the complexities of business and the disinclination to rely on models with simplistic assumptions about business behavior also enabled business history to be highly creative and, at times, to exercise a huge impact on management studies more generally, especially strategy and the study of entrepreneurship.

    Keywords: Economic History; business history; History;


    Friedman, Walter A. and Geoffrey Jones, eds. Business History. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2014. View Details
  2. Fortune Tellers: The Story of America's First Economic Forecasters

    Walter A. Friedman

    The period leading up to the Great Depression witnessed the rise of the economic forecasters, pioneers who sought to use the tools of science to predict the future, with the aim of profiting from their forecasts. This book chronicles the lives and careers of the men who defined this first wave of economic fortune tellers, men such as Roger Babson, Irving Fisher, John Moody, C. J. Bullock, and Warren Persons. They competed to sell their distinctive methods of prediction to investors and businesses and thrived in the boom years that followed World War I. Yet, almost to a man, they failed to predict the devastating crash of 1929. Despite their failures, this first generation of economic forecasters helped to make the prediction of economic trends a central economic activity and shed light on the mechanics of financial markets by providing a range of statistics and information about individual firms. They also raised questions that are still relevant today. What is science and what is merely guesswork in forecasting? What motivates people to buy forecasts? Does the act of forecasting set in motion unforeseen events that can counteract the forecast made?

    Keywords: Forecasting and Prediction; Economic History; risk and uncertainty; Economics; History; Risk and Uncertainty; United States;


    Friedman, Walter A. Fortune Tellers: The Story of America's First Economic Forecasters. Princeton University Press, 2013. View Details
  3. The Rise of the Modern Firm

    Geoffrey Jones and Walter A. Friedman

    This authoritative volume focuses on the rise of modern firms, from their early history to the present day. It considers the role of laws and contracts in shaping the growth and influence of business enterprises. It presents entrepreneurs, executives and the firms they controlled as driving actors in national economies and international growth. Alongside an original introduction, Professors Jones and Friedman have selected work by scholars who have used corporate archives to explore the fine details of how firms actually operated. It also includes work by those who have been influenced by evolutionary, transaction costand resource-based theories of the firm. The book will be an essential source of reference for industrial economists, management scholars and business historians.

    Keywords: Business Ventures; Economy; Business History; Archives; Contracts; Theory;


    Jones, Geoffrey, and Walter A. Friedman, eds. The Rise of the Modern Firm. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2012. View Details
  4. Birth of a Salesman: The Transformation of Selling in America

    Walter A. Friedman

    This book chronicles the remarkable metamorphosis of the American salesman from itinerant amateur to trained expert. From the mid-nineteenth century to the eve of World War II, the development of sales management transformed an economy populated by peddlers and canvassers to one driven by professional salesmen and executives. From book agents flogging Ulysses S. Grant's memoirs to John H. Patterson's famous pyramid strategy at National Cash Register to the determined efforts by Ford and Chevrolet to craft surefire sales pitches for their dealers, selling evolved from an art to a science. "Salesmanship" as a term and a concept arose around the turn of the century, paralleling the new science of mass production. Managers assembled professional forces of neat responsible salesmen who were presented as hardworking pillars of society, no longer the butt of endless "traveling salesmen" jokes. People became prospects; their homes became territories. As an NCR representative said, the modern salesman "let the light of reason into dark places." The study of selling itself became an industry, producing academic disciplines devoted to marketing, consumer behavior, and industrial psychology. At Carnegie Mellon's Bureau of Salesmanship Research, Walter Dill Scott studied the characteristics of successful salesmen and ways to motivate consumers to buy.

    Keywords: Sales; Employees; Transformation; United States;


    Friedman, Walter A. Birth of a Salesman: The Transformation of Selling in America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004. View Details

Journal Articles

Book Chapters

  1. Leadership and History

    Walter A. Friedman

    Historians have written a lot about business leaders, especially successful ones. In fact, rags-to-riches stories have come to embody the philosophy of America itself, yet the term "business leadership" was rarely used until the early twentieth century. This chapter looks at historians who have studied the functional role of leadership and have aligned it with the early twentieth-century economist Joseph Schumpeter's definition of entrepreneurship: a creative-destructive process carried out both by individual agents and by those working in firms. (It was Schumpeter who famously described the entrepreneur as a "rogue elephant" who has the courage and chutzpah to overturn the existing order.) The author focuses on the work done at Harvard's Research Center in Entrepreneurial History--in existence only from 1948-1958, yet home to some of the most prominent scholars in sociology, economics, and history. He reviews the research of two historians, Fritz Redlich and Alfred Chandler, who use history to illuminate the phenomenon of leadership, particularly the concept of leadership as a "disruptive art."

    Keywords: Entrepreneurship; History; Leadership;


    Friedman, Walter A. "Leadership and History." Chap. 11 in Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice, edited by Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana. Harvard Business Press, 2010. View Details

Working Papers

  1. Wesley Mitchell's Business Cycles after 100 Years

    Walter A. Friedman

    This article looks back at the publication and influence of Wesley Mitchell's Business Cycles, published in 1913. It surveys some of the key ideas in the book and explains the reasons why it resonated with a variety of people, including economists, statisticians, economic forecasters, and politicians, in the years after its publication.

    Keywords: Business Cycles; Books;


    Friedman, Walter A. "Wesley Mitchell's Business Cycles after 100 Years." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 16-114, March 2016. (Please contact the author to request copy of this paper.) View Details
  2. Junior Achievement: Training Teenagers for Business Careers after World War II

    Walter A. Friedman

    This article traces the growing popularity of Junior Achievement's "Company Program" in the two decades after World War II. The program provided high school students with the opportunity to form teams and start mini-corporations that would last for most of the school year and would compete to sell goods or services. The learn-by-doing program gave teenagers the chance to prepare for corporate life by experiencing different positions within the company—sales manager, treasurer, president, and manufacturer, for instance. The essay also features the leading proponents of this program, especially Charles Hook of ARMCO, and reasons for its eventual decline.

    Keywords: Management; Human Capital; Age; Training; United States;


    Friedman, Walter A. "Junior Achievement: Training Teenagers for Business Careers after World War II." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 16-113, March 2016. (Please contact the author to request copy of this paper.) View Details
  3. The Seer of Wellesley Hills: Roger Babson and the Babson Statistical Organization

    Walter A. Friedman

    Roger Babson was a pioneer of the business-forecasting industry in the United States in the early twentieth century. He built the largest private economic forecasting agency in the period and published a great range of economic statistics in his weekly newsletters. As a forecaster, he was best known for advising investors in the month prior to October 1929 that a "crash" was coming that "may be terrific." Most academics, and many businessmen, ridiculed Babson's forecasting methods, which were informed by his belief, based on his reading of Isaac Newton, that economic "actions and reactions" (or depressions and expansions) would always be equal. But Babson was able to gain a following among investors who thought he was either wise or lucky. His blend of new statistical methods and old common-sense reasoning helped him profit as the forecasting industry first developed.

    Keywords: Forecasting and Prediction; Economics; Business History; Newsletters; Personal Development and Career; United States;


    Friedman, Walter A. "The Seer of Wellesley Hills: Roger Babson and the Babson Statistical Organization." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 08-036, November 2007. View Details
  4. Irving Fisher, Economic Forecasting, and the Myth of the Business Cycle

    Walter A. Friedman

    A premier economist of the twentieth century and a founder of neoclassical thought, Irving Fisher was also an active participant in the field of economic forecasting. Fisher made theoretical contributions to the understanding of economic fluctuations, popularized the use of index numbers, and wrote frequently on the importance of future expectations to businesspeople. He also published forecasts through syndicated newspaper columns and made public pronouncements on the future of the economy—including a notorious statement on the eve of the October 1929 stock-market crash that optimistically predicted that a new high "plateau" for stock prices had been reached. Despite Fisher's poor prediction on that occasion, he played a neglected, but significant role in the growth of the forecasting industry and in the rise of a class of early business analysts.

    Keywords: Forecasting and Prediction; Economics; Business Cycles; Business History; Newspapers; Personal Development and Career;


    Friedman, Walter A. "Irving Fisher, Economic Forecasting, and the Myth of the Business Cycle." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 08-037, November 2007. View Details

Cases and Teaching Materials

  1. Forecasting the Great Depression

    Walter A. Friedman

    What is proper role of professional economic forecasting in financial decision making? The case presents excerpts from three leading economic forecasters on the eve of, and just after, the stock market crash of October 1929. The first set of excerpts is from Roger Babson, an entrepreneur from Wellesley, Massachusetts, who gained considerable fame for correctly predicting the market downturn on the basis of his own forecasting device, the "Babsonchart." The second set is from the staff of the Harvard Economic Society, an international group of illustrious economists and statisticians. To create its forecasts, the Harvard Economic Society developed a model that traced economic activity in three areas: speculation, business, and money. The Harvard group had great success when they introduced their model in the early 1920s, but failed to predict the stock market crash in 1929. The third set of excerpts is from Irving Fisher, the premier monetary economist of his day and one of the most respected American economists of all time. Although the crash caught Fisher completely by surprise, he remained a major figure in the forecasting field in the 1930s. The case also includes passages from University of Chicago Professor Garfield Cox's effort, in 1930, to assess the accuracy of forecasts made throughout the 1920s.

    Keywords: History; Mathematical Methods; Personal Development and Career; Forecasting and Prediction; Financial Crisis;


    Friedman, Walter A. "Forecasting the Great Depression." Harvard Business School Case 708-046, January 2008. (Revised July 2009.) View Details

    Research Summary

  1. Business History

    by Walter A. Friedman

    Walter Friedman serves as co-editor of Business History Review. He has a special interest in the history of marketing and personal selling, and is author of Birth of a Salesman: The Transformation of Selling in America (Harvard, 2004). He is also interested in the history of economic thought and his most recent project is to trace the development of economic forecasting theories from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. He has recently published in the journal Business History (UK) and in Harvard Magazine.