Edited by Nancy F. Koehn
Harvard Business Press, 2009
The Story of American Business is a historical guide for the curious reader, but more importantly, it is an important foundation for the modern businessperson to know the past so they can better understand the future. Nancy F. Koehn artfully captures the extraordinary history of American enterprise as told through the insightful, archived news articles of The New York Times.
The book is organized into three parts: The Corporation, The Changing Nature of Work, and Defining Moments in Technology. Each segment encapsulates 150 years of headlines as well as a chronological banner and appendix identifying key dates and events that help support her narrative.
Central to The Story of American Business is the theme of entrepreneurship underscored throughout the many articles in the book. Rooted in the tradition of economist Joseph Schumpeter, who characterized the enduring dynamic of capitalism as creative destruction, the rise of American business is in fact unique to American culture, particularly through the perspective of the entrepreneur.
In every case, from the first article that records the completion of the Union Pacific Railroad on May 10, 1869, at Promontory Summit—that connected the entire United States by rail—to the last articles that herald the new email and iPod technologies of the 2000s, the American quest for progress is apparent. Quoting Schumpeter, Koehn recognizes that American capitalism is American entrepreneurship whereby the relentless advancement of corporate, work, and technological progress “revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.”
Without understanding where we have been, it is impossible to know where we are going. This is a familiar mantra for those who value history. It is common for the contemporary business practitioner and manager to have a minimalist survey of the American tradition. Koehn helps fill this void by teaching the reader not only what happened in history on a particular day according to The New York Times, but rather what happened in the story of American progress.
The Story of American Business, like all effective historical perspectives, is essential reading for Americans who wish to continue the story of economic growth. At the same time, it is also a playbook for the many readers around the world who wish to replicate the American model or put it to its greatest test in the 21st century.