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. Profits and Sustainability: A History of Green Entrepreneurship

    G. Jones

    This book explores the question whether profits and sustainability are compatible through the lens of a history of green entrepreneurship worldwide between the nineteenth century and today. It tells the story of the extraordinary and often eccentric men and women who defied convention and imagined that business could help save the planet, rather than consume it. The social and religious beliefs that drove many of these individuals are explored, as the book looks at how they overcame huge obstacles to execute their strategies in industries as diverse as renewable energy, organic food, natural beauty, eco-tourism, recycling, architecture, and finance. The pioneering efforts to build certification schemes and environmental reporting are examined, alongside the contested relationship between green business and governments. The struggles of early pioneers appear to have been rewarded by the growth of environmental awareness among consumers, business leaders, and others in recent years, but the Earth's environmental health continues to deteriorate. If profits and sustainability have proved challenging to reconcile, the book argues that one reason was how they were both defined.

    Keywords: Environmental Entrepreneurship; business history; Green Business; sustainability; Entrepreneurship; Ethics; Business History; Religion; Environmental Sustainability; Agriculture and Agribusiness Industry; Banking Industry; Beauty and Cosmetics Industry; Consumer Products Industry; Alternative Energy Industry; Financial Services Industry; Food and Beverage Industry; Green Technology Industry; Tourism Industry; Africa; Asia; Europe; Latin America; North and Central America; Oceania;


    Jones, G. Profits and Sustainability: A History of Green Entrepreneurship. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. View Details
  2. Cellophane, the New Visuality, and the Creation of Self-Service Food Retailing

    Ai Hisano

    This working paper examines how innovations in transparent packaging, specifically cellophane in the mid-twentieth century United States, helped retailers create full self-service merchandising systems, including selling perishable food. While self-service stores began appearing in the late 1910s, self-service was initially applied only to grocery and dry goods, such as canned foods and boxed breakfast cereals. It was not until after World War II that the majority of American grocers adopted self-service to meat and produce sections. Business historians have explored the development of this self-service merchandising from the perspectives of marketing strategies, store operations, and relationships between customers and store clerks. However, the significance of the development of cellophane as a new packaging material, and the role of packaging manufacturers in promoting self-service, has yet to be analyzed. This working paper fills this void by showing that the expansion of self-service operation and the increasing use of transparent packaging had a significant impact not only on how consumers purchased foods but also on how they understood food quality.

    Keywords: Food; Product Marketing; Business History; Food and Beverage Industry; United States;


    Hisano, Ai. "Cellophane, the New Visuality, and the Creation of Self-Service Food Retailing." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 17-106, May 2017. View Details
  3. Entrepreneurship, Policy, and the Geography of Wind Energy

    G. Jones

    This study examines the geography of the global wind energy industry before 2000. Between 1980 and 2000, the global generating capacity of wind power grew from 13 megawatts to 17,400 megawatts, but two-thirds of that capacity was in Denmark, Germany, Spain, and the United States. Wind turbine manufacture was clustered in Denmark and the United States through to the late 1980s, when there was a sudden rise of new entrants, especially Germany. The study shows that natural resource endowment is a poor explanatory variable for this geographical skewing. Public policy was a more important factor, although its impact was nuanced. The most important policy development was in California with the adoption of feed-in tariffs, subsidies, and tax credits in the 1980s. However the poor technological capabilities of U.S.-based firms meant that it was Danish and other foreign companies that benefitted most. Subsequently the combination of public policies to grow wind energy and local manufacturer requirements provided a major stimulus for the emergence of local firms in Germany and Spain. U.S. firms were unable to develop internationally competitive products partly because of a rush to capture lucrative contracts dependent on transient public policies and partly because of a failure to develop institutional structures for the industry as a whole.

    Keywords: renewable energy; wind power; entrepreneurship; Business and Government; business history; Renewable Energy; Entrepreneurship; Geography; Business and Government Relations; Policy; Business History; Energy Industry; Green Technology Industry; Asia; Europe; United States;


    Jones, G. "Entrepreneurship, Policy, and the Geography of Wind Energy." Chap. 12 in Green Capitalism? Business and the Environment in the Twentieth Century, edited by Hartmut Berghoff and Adam Rome, 206–231. Hagley Perspectives on Business and Culture. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017. View Details
  4. Edwin Land: The Art and Science of Innovation

    Tom Nicholas, Christopher Stanton and Matthew Preble

    Throughout the second half of the 20th century, Polaroid first invented—and then continuously reinvented—the field of instant photography. Under the leadership of its mercurial founder Edwin Land, the company regularly released new instant cameras and films, often without any market research. Land created a culture of innovation and exploration within Polaroid that became conducive to the development of new customer value propositions. However, this proved difficult to sustain over the long run, and the business ultimately went into bankruptcy in 2001. How did Polaroid rise to a position of such preeminence, and was its downfall inevitable?

    Keywords: instant photography; company history; Change Management; Disruption; Forecasting and Prediction; Entrepreneurship; Business History; Innovation Strategy; Disruptive Innovation; Innovation and Management; Intellectual Property; Patents; Product Marketing; Brands and Branding; Product Launch; Product Development; Chemical Industry; Consumer Products Industry; United States;


    Nicholas, Tom, Christopher Stanton, and Matthew Preble. "Edwin Land: The Art and Science of Innovation." Harvard Business School Case 817-107, March 2017. View Details
  5. A. Lange & Söhne

    Stefan Thomke and Daniela Beyersdorfer

    The case describes how A. Lange & Söhne became one of world’s leading watch companies. Its obsession with quality and innovation were behind its initial rise in the 19th century and, after a 40-year involuntary hiatus under the East German regime, again at the end of the 20th century. In 2016 its current CEO Wilhelm Schmid and the heads of product development and production have to decide on how to price its innovative watch collection and how to grow the Glashütte-based watchmaker.

    Keywords: watches; operational excellence; Brand & product management; Product Development; Leadership; Growth and Development Strategy; Marketing Strategy; Product Positioning; Operations; Production; Innovation and Invention; Price; Business History; Germany;


    Thomke, Stefan, and Daniela Beyersdorfer. "A. Lange & Söhne." Harvard Business School Case 617-058, March 2017. View Details
  6. Explaining the Vertical-to-Horizontal Transition in the Computer Industry

    Carliss Y. Baldwin

    This paper seeks to explain the technological forces that led to the rise of vertically integrated corporations in the late 19th century and the opposing forces that led to a vertical-to-horizontal transition in the computer industry 100 years later. I first model the technology of step processes with bottlenecks and show how this technology rewards vertical integration, a hierarchical organization, and the use of direct authority. These properties in turn became the organizational hallmarks of so-called "modern" corporations. I then model platform systems, showing that, in contrast to step processes, this technology rewards the multiplication of options, increasing risk, and modularity. Moreover, given a modular architecture, a platform system can be open, with different components supplied by separate firms with no loss of interoperability or efficiency. Openness multiplies options and expands diversity, thus increasing the platform system’s value. The last two decades of the 20th century saw the rise of three distinct types of open platforms in the computer industry: (1) "forward open" platforms with downstream complementors, (2) "backward open" modular supply networks, and (3) "open exchange" platforms designed to facilitate transactions and other forms of social interaction. Whereas in 1980, vertically integrated firms dominated the industry, by 2000, the "verticals" had essentially disappeared. The largest firms in the industry in 2000 were sponsors and participants in open platform systems. I argue that the vertical-to-horizontal transition in the computer industry was an organizational response to a fundamental change in economic rewards to the technologies of rationalized step processes vs. open platform systems.

    Keywords: Organizational Design; Business History; Vertical Integration; Horizontal Integration; Technology Platform; Computer Industry;


    Baldwin, Carliss Y. "Explaining the Vertical-to-Horizontal Transition in the Computer Industry." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 17-084, March 2017. View Details
  7. Intellectual Ambition at Harvard Business School: Elton Mayo and Fritz Roethlisberger

    Jan W. Rivkin and Amram Migdal

    This case, set in the 1920s and 1930s, discusses Harvard Business School (HBS) Professors Elton Mayo and Fritz Roethlisberger and their contributions to management research at the School and the rise of the Human Relations Movement in management research. The case focuses on an overview of their research program at the Western Electric Hawthorne Works manufacturing plant between 1927 and 1932, known as the Hawthorne studies, and the resulting insights, publications, course development, and influence on colleagues and research methodology. Brief biographical details of Mayo and Roethlisberger are given, along with a synopsis of early research at HBS and the general history of management studies during the mid-20th century.

    Keywords: Education; Business Education; Curriculum and Courses; Executive Education; Higher Education; Interdisciplinary Studies; Learning; History; Business History; Human Resources; Employees; Employee Relationship Management; Management; Management Analysis, Tools, and Techniques; Organizations; Practice; Relationships; Groups and Teams; Labor and Management Relations; Rank and Position; Research; Social Psychology; Attitudes; Behavior; Emotions; Motivation and Incentives; Power and Influence; Social and Collaborative Networks; Status and Position; Trust; Society; Social Issues; Theory; Education Industry; United States; Massachusetts; Illinois;


    Rivkin, Jan W., and Amram Migdal. "Intellectual Ambition at Harvard Business School: Elton Mayo and Fritz Roethlisberger." Harvard Business School Case 717-469, March 2017. View Details
  8. Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Putin and the Russian Oligarchs

    Geoffrey Jones, Rachael Comunale and Kate Lazaroff-Puck

    This case examines the career of the Russian business oligarch Boris Berezovsky. Berezovsky was one of a small group of business tycoons that became fabulously rich after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, as the new Russian government, advised by prominent Harvard economists, privatized state assets. The case provides an opportunity to explore how this happened, and what its impact was both at the time and for the subsequent development of capitalism in Russia. Berevosky's business empire suffered a major reversal after the appointment of Russian President of Vladimir Putin in 2000. Berevosky's opposition to Putin's plans to restore the authority of the Russian state led to his exile in Britain, where he reinvented himself as an opponent of authoritarianism.

    Keywords: Russia; Business & government relations; business history; privatization; Government and Politics; Business History; Business and Government Relations; Privatization; Soviet Union; Russia;


    Jones, Geoffrey, Rachael Comunale, and Kate Lazaroff-Puck. "Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Putin and the Russian Oligarchs." Harvard Business School Case 317-005, March 2017. View Details
  9. Cantel Medical

    John R. Wells and Gabriel Ellsworth

    Cantel Medical Corporation provided infection prevention and control products and services for patients, caregivers, and other healthcare providers. In 2016, Cantel generated sales of $665 million and net profits of $60 million, double the levels of five years earlier. Chief Executive Officer Jørgen B. Hansen, appointed on August 1, 2016, was aiming to double the size of the business again. Cantel operated in three major vertical market segments: endoscopy, water purification and filtration, and healthcare disposables, which together accounted for more than 95% of Cantel’s sales. Over 90% of revenues were generated in North America. Hansen was looking to add new verticals to the portfolio, but he also saw opportunities to drive growth in Cantel’s core businesses, both at home and internationally. Over two decades, the company had delivered consistent organic growth and integrated over 30 acquisitions, providing total annual returns of 22% to its shareholders, with relatively limited leverage. Hansen was determined to maintain that track record, but the key question was how to achieve this goal. Was there enough growth in Cantel’s three key verticals in North America, or would more be needed? If so, which other verticals should Cantel consider? Should the company stick to infection control or add other products to its offering to leverage its customer relationships? How much would a drive into international markets help? And what organization was best suited to Cantel’s strategy? It had been run as a holding company in the past. Did that structure still make sense as the company ventured overseas?

    Keywords: Cantel; Charles Diker; furniture industry; Matrix organization; Acquisition; Mergers and Acquisitions; Business Conglomerates; Business Units; Business Growth and Maturation; Business Organization; For-Profit Firms; Chemicals; Profit; Revenue; Geographic Scope; Multinational Firms and Management; Health; Health Care and Treatment; Business History; Business or Company Management; Goals and Objectives; Growth and Development Strategy; Organizational Structure; Problems and Challenges; Research and Development; Opportunities; Strategy; Adaptation; Business Strategy; Competitive Strategy; Corporate Strategy; Diversification; Expansion; Technology; Biotechnology Industry; Chemical Industry; Health Industry; Manufacturing Industry; Medical Devices and Supplies Industry; Pharmaceutical Industry; United States; New Jersey;


    Wells, John R., and Gabriel Ellsworth. "Cantel Medical." Harvard Business School Case 717-482, March 2017. View Details
  10. Creating Ecotourism in Costa Rica, 1970–2000

    G. Jones and Andrew Spadafora

    Between the 1970s and the 2000s, Costa Rica became established as the world’s leading ecotourism destination. This article argues that although Costa Rica benefited from biodiversity and a pleasant climate, the country’s preeminence in ecotourism requires more than a natural resource endowment explanation. While previous literature has emphasized the efforts of the government and nongovernment organizations, this article demonstrates the critical role of small entrepreneurs in the co-creation of the industry. Making extensive use of oral history, the article explores the role of tour companies in drawing affluent Western ecotourists to the country, and of the creators of ecolodges and other forms of accommodation in providing them with somewhere to stay. Clustering created positive externalities drawing new entrepreneurs into the industry who could also learn from knowledge spillovers. There were downsides to the new industry. The creation of the national image of a natural paradise enabled many businesses that were not environmentally sustainable to freeride on the green image.

    Keywords: ecotourism; Entrepreneurship in emerging markets; sustainable business and innovation; tourism; Green Business; Entrepreneurship; Growth and Development; History; Business History; Tourism Industry; Latin America; Costa Rica;


    Jones, G., and Andrew Spadafora. "Creating Ecotourism in Costa Rica, 1970–2000." Enterprise & Society 18, no. 1 (March 2017): 146–183. View Details
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