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Project management through the 1950s

Alan Stretton
February 10, 2011

Projects have been undertaken since antiquity, however there is substantial agreement that modern project management as a distinctive discipline had its origins in the 1950s. There were, however, some relatively recent antecedents to these origins, which Peter Morris discusses in The Management of Projects, which I regard as the definitive history of project management up to the time of its publication in 1994. These antecedents include:

Project organisation

Early developments of ‘project office’ and ‘project engineer’ functions
Morris records that during the 1930s the US Air Corp’s Materiel Division moved progressively towards a project office function to monitor the development and progress of aircraft.

At the same time, Exxon and other (comparatively young) process engineering companies began to develop a project engineer function: an engineer who could follow a project as it progressed through its various functional departments.

In 1937, Lyndall Urwick edited a book in which Luther Gulick wrote a paper proposing that a coordinator be appointed to pull together the administration of a task involving several functional areas. This was the first appearance of a horizontal, or task, form of organisation in the academic writings on management.

World War II then intervened. Morris mentions the development of operations research in this period, but says that none of its work had “any direct relation to the concepts, tools or practices of project management”, although others do not agree. He specifically discusses the Manhattan Project and says that it “certainly displayed the principles of organisation, planning and direction that typify the modern management of projects. It also displayed many of the problems, such as cost overruns and concurrency, that have characterised defence projects ever since”.

Early ‘product management’ development
In the mid-to-late 1920s, Proctor and Gamble in the USA developed product management under the term ‘brand management’. Morris writes: “Like project management, product management stresses the integration of those functions influencing the successful outcome of a venture.”

Project tools, techniques, processes

Early planning/scheduling techniques
The first of these early techniques is relatively obscure. Around 1896, Poland’s Karol Adamiecki developed his Harmonygraph, which Morris describes as a forerunner of workflow network planning.

In contrast, the second of these early planning/scheduling techniques is very well known. In 1917, Henry Gantt in the USA developed his Gantt bar chart for production scheduling at the Frankford Arsenal. The Gantt bar chart was subsequently used in a very wide variety of application areas, including, of course, project management.

Alan Stretton
Alan Stretton's decades-long career in project management includes a stint as chairman of the Standards Committee of the Project Management Institute, upgrading its PMBoK. He is a Life Fellow of the Australian Institute of Project Management (AIPM).
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One thought on “Project management through the 1950s

  1. I enjoyed reading this article and agree with most of Alan’s timeline. The one major error is around the development of Bar Charts and Gantt Charts (which Peter Morris will be correcting in his new book).

    The origin of using bars to represent time can be traced back to at least 1765. The originator of the ‘bar chart’ appears to be Joseph Priestley (England, 1733-1804); his ‘Chart of Biography’ plotted some 2000 famous lifetimes on a time scaled chart “…a longer or a shorter space of time may be most commodiously and advantageously represented by a longer or a shorter line.”

    Priestley’s ideas were picked up by William Playfair (1759-1823) in his ‘Commercial and Political Atlas’ of 1786. Playfair is credited with developing a range of statistical charts including the line, bar (histogram), and pie charts. Both publications were widely sold throughout Europe. By the early 1900s, the modern barchart seems to have been fully developed and in use, at least in Germany (Schurch, 1916, p35) .

    I believe, but cannot substantiate, the reason Henry Gantt differentiated his ‘Gantt Charts’ from normal barcharts that had been in use for some 150 years was that the ‘Gantt Chart’ works back from the required delivery date to work out when a component needed to be in each stage of manufacture. Normal barcharts work forward from the start of the project. The ‘Gantt’ approach to manufacturing was a precursor to ‘just in time’ and minimized work in progress.

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