From Chaos to Systems: The Engineering Foundations of Organization Theory, 1879-1932

Article excerpt

Several academic disciplines have devoted considerable attention to the study of organizations, most notably management, economics, sociology, political science, and psychology. Despite this massive attempt to produce scientific knowledge about organizations, researchers have done little to understand the historical origin of organization studies and its cultural and political context (for the few exceptions, see Waring, 1991; Barley and Kunda, 1992; Guillen, 1994). This paper traces the initial efforts to produce theories of organizations as "systems" during the period 1879-1932 in the United States. The study has two objectives: first, to demonstrate that the systems perspective has an intellectual history that predates general systems theory and, second, to show that the rise and evolution of this perspective should be understood as a product of professional, cultural, and political forces, not necessarily of functional and economic needs. The main argument is that the systems perspective in the management of organizations was crystallized within mechanical engineering during the last decades of the nineteenth century and was institutionalized as a legitimate canonical discourse during the Progressive period (1900-1917). Three factors were instrumental in facilitating this process: (1) The professionalization of mechanical engineering; (2) the political culture of Progressivism; and (3) the politics of labor unrest.


The ascendance of industrial capitalism in the U.S. after the Civil War was evident in the integration of markets, the consolidation of production, the professionalization of engineering, the concentration of labor in large firms, and industrial unrest (Sklar, 1988). By the late 1920s the organization of production was characterized by multi-unit, large-scale, and complex bureaucratic firms supervised by professional managers (Chandler, 1977; Fligstein, 1990). Concurrent with these processes were efforts to produce literature about organizations. Emerging from the rhetoric


engineering ideas and practices. As one writer stated in 1904, "system is neither more nor less than method" (Engineering Magazine, November 1904: 211).

This is not to say that everyone agreed with this professional ideology. There was considerable opposition within the ASME to the attempt to enforce standards and systems arbitrarily. Many members of the ASME criticized the movement, arguing that very few individuals are competent enough to judge a standard, that standardization implies taking a stand in business competition, and that standardization may produce unforeseen hazards for those forced to adopt standards. Others, who sided with owners of small shops, argued that standardization constrains free trade, is costly, and interferes with the freedom of industrial producers and the principle of laissez faire. Still others criticized systematization as rigid and antithetical to the ideals of spontaneity and innovation in engineering. In a controversial article entitled "Wake up America!," Louis Bell warned the engineering community that there are dangers "lurking in over-confidence in system" and that workmen become "mere belts, wheels, and oil-cans" where "one can hardly find an artisan" (Engineering Magazine, September 1906: 801-808).

This opposition failed for at least two reasons. First, there were frequent accidents that were attributed to the lack of standards. In 1904 Baltimore's entire business district was destroyed by fire, despite there being an ample water supply, because the screw threads on the fire hydrants did not fit couplings on the hoses of fire engines that arrived from other towns (Sinclair, 1980). Such incidents verified engineers' claims for the urgent need to standardize. Second, the effort toward standardization was partly driven by large firms as a response to the antitrust movement. As Haber (1964) and Hounshell (1996) explained, Progressive activists (such as Louis Brandeis) demanded that monopolistic firms increase their efficiency. …