The world’s first organigram: saving lives with railroad reporting lines

By SANDRA RENDGEN

The railroads of the mid 19th century ran two-way traffic on a single track. One delayed train could leave several waiting in the few passing places they had, and head-on crashes were a constant threat. But how did an organisational chart solve the problem?

Once we have grown used to a new technology, it is hard to imagine what life could have been like without it. Life pre-internet feels to many – even those who experienced it – like a kind of prehistoric, limited existence.

Likewise, the inception of the railways in the mid-19th century would have been mind-blowing for those who lived through it. The volume and speed of passenger and freight traffic overland shot up to unprecedented heights within just a few years.

New York and Erie Railroad diagram, 1855

This beauty of a diagram, considered to be the first organisational chart ever, was drawn in 1855. It shows the structure of the New York and Erie Railroad Company, a business of some 4,715 employees that operated five railway lines and about 500 miles of track at the time. The company is envisioned as a magnificent tree; its roots are the board of directors, and at their centre sits the company President.

New York and Erie Railroad diagram, 1855, Detail

Sprouting from the root structure are six general officers and their teams, as well as the General Superintendent; from here, the company’s organisational branches spread out towards the sky. Stylised round leaves each serve to encode one employee. It is alluring how the graphic oscillates between its floral, even poetic appeal and its somewhat – let’s say – practical contents. The whole chart displays an admirable swinging symmetry – someone really wanted to make this look pretty. But why would a railway company need such an elaborate org chart in the first place?

Managing traffic on the new railway lines was proving to be a complex task. The single tracks had only a few passing places along the route and, in the early days, traffic was controlled using a simple time interval system. This meant that a train would sometimes have to wait for hours (!) until an oncoming train had passed.

In the early 1850s, two managers of the New York and Erie Railroad Company – Charles Minot and his successor Daniel McCallum – worked on an overhaul of the system that would make use of the new electrical telegraph system to manage traffic and dispatch trains.

Telegraph offices were built at several crucial stations along the routes. These were able to communicate in real time with other stations along the line and transfer timely orders for trains to pass or wait. Some of the traffic-related decision-making was taken over by the local station managers, as only they knew the current situation on the route. But it was essential they only talked to the right people in the process; chains of communication had to be crystal clear to everyone – which brings us back to our diagram.

New York and Erie Railroad diagram, 1855, Detail

The explanation note on the lower right explicitly discusses who can talk to whom – which is always and only the person succeeding or preceding an employee in the hierarchy drawn here. At first, it seemed a dangerous idea to have the stations communicate with each other independently, and to dispense with the time interval system which had worked as a buffer to prevent trains from running into each other. But real-time communication very soon proved to be cutting delay times and other incidents.

Unfortunately we have no evidence of whether and how the chart was used in the company’s offices, but there is no doubt that it is visually compelling enough to make people remember what they needed to know regarding their daily work flow.

The power of trees, right there.

For more information on the New York and Erie Railroad and their early use of the telegraph look here and here. Images via Library of Congress. Someone took the effort to photoshop this scan in order to hide those ripped margins, you’ll find that file on Wikimedia. If you’ve developed an appetite for tree diagrams, I recommend the excellent Book of Trees by Manuel Lima, published by Princeton Architectural Press.


Sandra Rendgen is the author of two bestselling books on data visualisation and infographics, both published by Taschen. She is currently getting lost in the history of data visualisation.