Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Rosenthal on “Big Data in the Age of the Telegraph”

Detail from Plan of Organization, New York and Erie Railroad, 1855. Courtesy of the Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.
In an article in the March 2013 McKinsey Quarterly, HBS Newcomen Fellow and recent BHC Krooss Prize winner Caitlin Rosenthal discusses the difficulty of organizing "Big Data in the Age of the Telegraph." She focuses on the 1854 organizational chart of Daniel McCallum, who was superintendent of the New York and Erie Railroad in the mid-nineteenth century (and later head of all military railroads in the United States during the Civil War). He is credited with creating one of the first organizational charts in American business. As Rosenthal writes, "The problem was not a lack of information: the growing use of the telegraph gave the company an unprecedented supply of nearly real-time data, including reports of accidents and train delays. Rather, the difficulty was putting that data to use, and it led McCallum to develop one of the era’s great low-tech management innovations: the organization chart."
    Rosenthal explains that, although Alfred Chandler had described the chart and referred to it often in his work, he indicated that he had never seen it and had based his description on an advertisement in the American Railroad Journal. She therefore began a quest to locate the image. With the help of historian Peter Knight of the University of Manchester, she discovered that an original is held in the Library of Congress.
    As it turns out, Charles Wrege and Guidon Sorbo, Jr., had located the chart earlier, and discussed it in their "A Bridge Builder Changes a Railroad: The Story of Daniel Craig McCallum," Canal History and Technology Proceedings 24 (March 2005): 183-218. They credit George Holt Henshaw as the artist who drew the image. See Albert J. Churella, The Pennsylvania Railroad, Vol. 1: Building an Empire, 1846-1917 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), 842n8.

Tip of the hat to the Organizations and Markets blog.