Business History

Business History is a featured research topic and an initiative at Harvard Business School.
Harvard Business School has a long tradition of investing in business history, and of asserting its central role in management education. In 1927, the School created the first endowed professorship in the field. It also founded the field’s first journal, the Business History Review. Since the work of Joseph Schumpeter at Harvard's Center for Entrepreneurial History in the 1940s, the School has taken an interdisciplinary and global approach to understanding business history. Today business historians at the School investigate a broad range of themes, including entrepreneurship, innovation, globalization, and environmental sustainability.
  1. George Washington and the Foundations of American Democracy

    Tom Nicholas and Matthew G. Preble

    George Washington is perhaps the most well-known of the U.S.'s founding fathers because of his political and military achievements. However, Washington also operated a number of successful business ventures out of his Mount Vernon estate, and he became a landowner on the American frontier. Washington's life and career serve as a lens for understanding the development of the early American economy. Washington was entrepreneurial both economically and politically. He played a central role in helping to structure the new country's national government and developed a number of precedents as the country's first executive.

    Keywords: government; history; leadership; entrepreneurship; George Washington; democracy; Decision Making; Entrepreneurship; Government and Politics; Business History; Leadership; United States;


    Nicholas, Tom, and Matthew G. Preble. "George Washington and the Foundations of American Democracy." Harvard Business School Case 816-019, August 2015. View Details
  2. Markets with Price Coherence

    Benjamin Edelman and Julian Wright

    In markets with price coherence, the purchase of a given good via an intermediary is constrained to occur at the same price as a purchase of that same good directly from the seller (or through another competing intermediary). We examine ten markets with price coherence, including their origin and outcomes as well as concerns and policy interventions.

    Keywords: intermediaries; platforms; Two-Sided Markets; vertical restraints; Price; Distribution Channels; Business History; Financial Services Industry; Travel Industry; Insurance Industry; Real Estate Industry; Advertising Industry;


    Edelman, Benjamin, and Julian Wright. "Markets with Price Coherence." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 15-061, January 2015. (Revised March 2015.) View Details
  3. John D. Rockefeller: The Richest Man in the World

    Tom Nicholas and Vasiliki Fouka

    By the late nineteenth century scale and managerial hierarchies had extended to several major industrial sectors of the U.S. economy. Although the precise mechanisms often varied, this process mainly involved horizontal integration, some form of legal or administrative centralization followed by vertical integration. Standard Oil represents the canonical example of this development. Standard Oil's history is also fully intertwined with the life and career of John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937), one of the most remarkable individuals to define the landscape of American business. Rockefeller's estimated $1.4 billion net worth in 1937 was equivalent to 1.5% of U.S. GDP. According to this metric he was (and still is) the richest individual in American business and economic history.

    Keywords: Horizontal Integration; Wealth; Business History; Vertical Integration; Consolidation; Personal Development and Career; Energy Industry; United States;


    Nicholas, Tom, and Vasiliki Fouka. "John D. Rockefeller: The Richest Man in the World." Harvard Business School Case 815-088, December 2014. View Details
  4. Doing Business in Morocco

    Jill Avery, Tonia Junker and Daniela Beyersdorfer

    This case examines the challenges and opportunities of doing business in Morocco. It highlights Morocco's ongoing economic transformation in the decades leading up to 2014 in the context of its historical, political, and cultural background. The case summarizes some of the main obstacles faced by businesses operating in the country—changing regulations and insufficient access to credit, infrastructure and talent constraints, and a large informal sector—contrasting these with the benefits of operating in a market that provides access to the African continent and proximity to Europe, has relatively low labor costs, and has created a series of investment incentives. Some of these challenges are illustrated through the discussion of an investment decision by French car maker Renault, which opened a new manufacturing facility in Morocco's free trade zone near Tangier. Now a few years into operating the facility, the case zooms in on some of the obstacles that Renault encountered, such as scarcity of trained staff and of local suppliers, and on the progress that was made, in order to evaluate the potential of the investment going forward.

    Keywords: emerging market; emerging economies; Africa; business history; strategy; global strategy; operations management; Development Economics; Geographic Scope; Globalization; Business History; Emerging Markets; Market Entry and Exit; Operations; Strategy; Auto Industry; Africa; Morocco;


    Avery, Jill, Tonia Junker, and Daniela Beyersdorfer. "Doing Business in Morocco." Harvard Business School Case 315-007, September 2014. (Revised September 2015.) View Details
  5. RCA: Color Television and the Department of Justice (A)

    Willy C. Shih and Gregory Dieterich

    This case examines the early history of the color television receiver market, and the global consequences of an historic 1958 consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice that opened RCA's patents to licensing by domestic competitors royalty-free. This externality had a dramatic impact on the long-term health of the U.S. consumer electronics industry. The associated (B) case is 614-073.

    Keywords: Intellectual Property; Patents; Rights; Business Strategy; Competitive Strategy; Corporate Strategy; Business History; Technology; Hardware; Communications Industry; Media and Broadcasting Industry; Electronics Industry; United States; Japan;


    Shih, Willy C., and Gregory Dieterich. "RCA: Color Television and the Department of Justice (A)." Harvard Business School Case 614-072, May 2014. View Details
  6. Samuel Slater & Francis Cabot Lowell: The Factory System in U.S. Cotton Manufacturing

    Tom Nicholas and Matthew Guilford

    At the time of the American War of Independence (1776-1783) and for several decades after it, Great Britain dominated the global production of cotton textiles. In fact, Britain became so dominant in textile manufacturing and trading that Manchester, its industrial capital, was nicknamed "Cottonopolis." By contrast, American manufacturing of export-oriented or even tradable-quality cotton textiles was practically nonexistent. This position of relative American backwardness changed with the influence of two prominent individuals: Samuel Slater (1768-1835) and Francis Cabot Lowell (1775-1817). Slater, a skilled British textile machinery engineer helped to develop the country's first cotton spinning mill. Lowell, a member of a prominent New England mercantile family, established the first integrated cotton spinning and weaving facility in what became the city of Lowell, Massachusetts. Together Slater and Lowell brought the sophistication of British industrial revolution technology and introduced innovative methods of factory production to the United States.

    Keywords: Technological Innovation; Production; Business History; Manufacturing Industry; Great Britain; Massachusetts;


    Nicholas, Tom, and Matthew Guilford. "Samuel Slater & Francis Cabot Lowell: The Factory System in U.S. Cotton Manufacturing." Harvard Business School Case 814-065, January 2014. View Details
  7. Historical Origins of Environmental Sustainability in the German Chemical Industry, 1950s-1980s

    Geoffrey Jones and Christina Lubinski

    This working paper examines the growth of corporate environmentalism in the West German chemical industry between the 1950s and the 1980s. German business has been regarded as pioneering corporate environmentalism after World War II. In contrast, this study reveals major commonalities between the sustainability strategies of leading German and American firms until the 1970s. However during that decade the German firms diverged from their American counterparts in using public relations strategies not only to contain fallout from criticism of their pollution impact, but also to create opportunities for changes in corporate culture to encourage sustainability. While the U.S. chemical industry remained defensive and focused on legal compliance, there was a greater proactivity among the German firms. This paper stresses the importance of regional embeddedness of leading firms in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, which made their reputations especially vulnerable to criticism. The research supports organizational sociology theory, which has identified the importance of visibility in corporate green strategies. The German chemical firms were pioneers in understanding that investing in environmental sustainability could provide an opportunity to create value for the firm by delivering both commercial and reputational benefits.

    Keywords: sustainability; Green Business; business history; chemical industry; pollution; Environmental Sustainability; Business History; Chemical Industry; Germany; United States;


    Jones, Geoffrey, and Christina Lubinski. "Historical Origins of Environmental Sustainability in the German Chemical Industry, 1950s-1980s." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 14-018, August 2013. View Details
  8. Ford vs. GM: The Evolution of Mass Production (A)

    Willy Shih

    This case explores the very different paths taken by the Ford Motor Company and the General Motors Corporation in the first three decades of the twentieth century. Henry Ford's Model T was a car for the masses. After considerable experimentation, Ford Motor perfected a mass production system that converted the vast majority of jobs in the factory into routine tasks. It pioneered the moving assembly line, and it pursued processes that became increasingly integrated and mechanized. While its single-minded focus on cost minimization led to spectacular market success for a time, the resulting inflexibility made it difficult for the company to respond to market changes. This created an opportunity for General Motors and others, particularly in the face of technological shifts to closed-body designs and metal stamping technology, as well as the marketing-led idea of the annual model change.

    The case offers a setting to examine several frameworks: exploration versus exploitation, the emergence of dominant designs, and vertical integration versus transaction costs and supplier hold-up. The (A) case closes with the question of what GM should do about supplier Fisher Body. The (B) case summarizes the shift to all-steel body stamping and engine manufacturing as the core technologies for automobile production, and how these changes made it difficult for Ford to maintain its first-mover advantage.

    Keywords: innovation; Exploration; dominant design; Vertical Integration; Business Growth and Maturation; Business History; Innovation and Management; Innovation Strategy; Technological Innovation; Leading Change; Growth and Development Strategy; Product Positioning; Product Design; Product Development; Business Strategy; Corporate Strategy; Vertical Integration; Auto Industry; Manufacturing Industry; Michigan;


    Shih, Willy. "Ford vs. GM: The Evolution of Mass Production (A)." Harvard Business School Case 614-010, August 2013. (Revised November 2013.) View Details
  9. Novartis: Leading a Global Enterprise

    William W. George, Krishna G. Palepu and Carin-Isabel Knoop

    Novartis, the world's leading healthcare company, was formed in 1996 out of a merger of two very different, mid-tier Switzerland-based pharma companies. The case traces the company's evolution over the past 17 years, as it transformed into a truly global enterprise with 127,000 employees of 153 nationalities in 140 countries generating $56.7 billion in 2012 revenues and $9.6 billion in net income, making the firm one of the world's largest and most profitable companies. CEO since 2010, Joe Jimenez had taken over from one of the merger's architects and visionary legacy CEO Daniel Vasella. He recognized that the global health care environment would create severe challenges for Novartis in the years ahead and that Novartis needed to make sure it had the right strategy, structure, talent and spirit to live up to its ambitions.

    Keywords: Multinational Firms and Management; Talent and Talent Management; Organizational Structure; Organizational Culture; Success; Globalized Markets and Industries; Management Teams; Change Management; Business History; Mergers and Acquisitions; Global Strategy; Health Care and Treatment; Pharmaceutical Industry; Health Industry; Switzerland;


    George, William W., Krishna G. Palepu, and Carin-Isabel Knoop. "Novartis: Leading a Global Enterprise." Harvard Business School Case 413-096, May 2013. (Revised October 2014.) View Details
  10. Entrepreneurs, Firms and Global Wealth since 1850

    G. Jones

    This working paper integrates the role of entrepreneurship and firms into debates on why Asia, Latin America and Africa were slow to catch up with the West following the Industrial Revolution and the advent of modern economic growth. It argues that the currently dominant explanations, which focus on deficient institutions, poor human capital development, geography and culture are important, but not sufficient. This is partly because recent research in business history has shown that several of the arguments are not empirically proved, but especially because the impact of these factors on the creation and performance of innovative business enterprises is not clearly specified. Modern economic growth diffused from its origins in the North Sea region to elsewhere in western and northern Europe, across the Atlantic, and later to Japan, but struggled to get traction elsewhere. The societal and cultural embeddedness of the new technologies posed significant entrepreneurial challenges. The best equipped to overcome these challenges were often entrepreneurs based in minorities who held significant advantages in capital-raising and trust levels. By the interwar years productive modern business enterprise was emerging across the non-Western world. Often local and Western managerial practices were combined to produce hybrid forms of business enterprise. After 1945 many governmental policies designed to facilitate catch-up ended up crippling these emergent business enterprises without putting effective alternatives in place. The second global economy has provided more opportunities for catch up from the Rest, and has seen the rapid growth of globally competitive businesses in Asia, Latin America and Africa. This is explained not only by institutional reforms, but by new ways for business in the Rest to access knowledge and capital, including returning diaspora, business schools and management consultancies. Smarter state capitalism was also a greater source of international competitive advantage than the state intervention often seen in the past.

    Keywords: Wealth and Poverty; globalization; business history; institutional change; political economy; emerging economies; developing countries; industrial development; culture; human capital; Economic History; History; Wealth and Poverty; Business History; Emerging Markets; Globalization; Developing Countries and Economies; Manufacturing Industry; Mining Industry; Service Industry; Latin America; Asia; North and Central America; Africa; South America; Europe;


    Jones, G. "Entrepreneurs, Firms and Global Wealth since 1850." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 13-076, March 2013. View Details
See all faculty publications on Business History »