Abstract: Knowledge Generation, Managerial Reform, and Self-Regulation in the Nineteenth-Century American Railroad Industry

Benjamin Schwantes


During the antebellum and post-Civil War periods, American railroad officials attempted to organize voluntary associations to develop and implement common technical and operating standards for member railroads. Most of these associations published a flurry of informative reports on the condition of railroading in the United States, but then quickly faded into oblivion without implementing any real reforms. Without a national body to develop and implement uniform operating standards in the United States, individual railroads developed their own operating practices in the post-Civil War period. These standards differed markedly from one another, which led to dangerous operating conditions as companies began to pool resources and share access to tracks and equipment in the late 1870s and 1880s. Officials with the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) were cognizant of this growing management problem and in the mid-1880s used an existing organization known as the General Time Convention to develop new operating standards for the rail industry. PRR officials employed a carrot and stick approach to encourage members to adopt new, universal operating standards based on PRR practices. Through this process of consensus building and coercion, railroads throughout the United States quickly adopted new operating standards based, in large part, on PRR operating practices during the 1890s.