The Origin of the Org Chart

Do you work in a company that utilizes an “org chart”? An org chart (short for, you guessed it, organizational chart) is a diagram of the hierarchy of an organization. It encompasses the major power positions within a company and reveals how they are being managed and communicated with one another. Org charts are so common that people may assume they have always existed. But org charts have their own unique origin story- and this one starts with the railways, an accident, and an idea.

wikimedia
wikimedia

Picture America in the 1800s. The Railways are being established and subsequently offering a valuable boost to the Industrial revolution in the East and literally paving the way for Westward expansion. Railways allowed people and goods to travel further, farther and faster. Demand was high and building the railways was costly. By 1840, Western Railroad, one of the first companies to build long rail lines, was managing multiple trains crossing paths everyday. This created an understandable hazard of trains colliding as they moved along the same track in opposite directions. In 1841, the hazard became a real-time reality when two trains collided head on, killing 2 people and injuring 17 others. The accident was a major turning point in railroad management and for the next 15 years railway companies began investing in oversight.

David McCallum, a superintendent for the New York an Erie Railroad, came up with an idea to boost profits and oversee the railways. He proposed that a specific group should oversee certain areas of the railway track. For example, central management would oversee regional divisions and monitor the trains passing through. McCallum also introduced several new management ideas, including strong hierarchical oversight that included an organization of the railroad with superintendents responsible for different areas of the railroad. He presented this idea in the form of a diagram, which may have been the first commercial org chart in history. After McCallum’s idea was initiated and successful, other railroads copied the org chart pattern. And because everyone likes a good idea, other firms coped the org chart from the railroad companies. And today, many companies still utilize the org chart to streamline their management.

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