Engineers in Managerial Positions in the U.S. and Britain, 1870-1920: A Big Data Approach

The professionalization of management in the early 20th century usually overshadows the role of technical experts in the emergence of big multinational corporations. Engineers and their strategic decision-making role are missing or irrelevant in most accounts of big global organizations' birth. Their place in history is usually restricted to patent development and technical problem-solving. This paper utilizes tools from digital humanities and data science to examine engineers’ roles in emerging large mining firms ca. 1870-1930. Our database, built through a combination of automatic and manual mining of data, contains information on over 80 thousand individuals working in 128 countries around the world, most trained in U.S., British, German, and French universities between 1850 and 1939. This database – one of the largest professional databases in existence – allows us to evaluate the importance of engineers in managerial roles in firms; the importance of managerial roles as a career path for mining engineers; the correlation of employment of mining engineers in managerial positions with the firm's organization, capital, technology, mineral sector and location; and the changing nature of engineering and management over the first half century or more of the growth of large corporations. We will use this presentation to discuss possibilities (and limits) of using big data and data science in historical work. As a coda for the presentation of the results, the authors will share with the audience a beta version of an interactive webpage containing the information and visualizations produced with this database.