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Vol. 6, No. 1: June 15, 2000

Lessons from Corporations Past:
Madison History Professor Develops Database of 19th-C. Corporate Charters

by Jennifer Smith

Business and technology historians, legal scholars, and history buffs will be excited to learn about a new website created by UW-Madison history professor Colleen Dunlavy. Dr. Dunlavy, who specializes in business history, has created a "Business and Technology" website that includes as its main component a database of nineteenth century corporate charters. The charters primarily span the years 1825-1865 and are from the U.S., Britain, France, and Germany. By studying these data, researchers and students can see that the U.S. incorporated unusually large numbers of companies even in the early nineteenth century. They can also explore variations, for example, in their initial capitalization or lines of business. One can also learn important lessons about corporate governance and shareholder rights and how those concepts have changed over time. This, in turn, can lead one to a fuller understanding of corporate governance today and what possibilities for change exist.

Professor Dunlavy has been aided in her Internet venture with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, as well as the UW-Madison Graduate School. This funding has provided her with both release time from teaching and graduate project assistants to help with the computer work. While the Business and Technology site went online a few months ago, the corporate charter database is not yet complete. Prof. Dunlavy hopes to have it finished and fully functional by the end of 2001. All in all, it will encompass over 10,000 records that will be searchable by country, year, type of business, and other parameters.

In related projects, Prof. Dunlavy is writing two books. The first will be a scholarly book on nineteenth-century corporate governance called Shareholder Democracy: The Forgotten History, with a more popularly-aimed follow-up titled Shareholder Democracy Now, looking at the current state of corporate governance. This second book will also include discussion of ways the Internet might be used (and is already being used) to enhance shareholder participation.

Dunlavy approaches her subject from the standpoint that today, while corporations are hugely powerful -- rivaling some national governments in their might -- most people know little about their history. As she writes on the Business and Technology site, "[W]e know surprisingly little about the history of the corporation -- least of all about how corporations once governed themselves or about variations in corporate governance across countries."

Dunlavy plans to incorporate her growing database into versions of a 200-level American business history course she will teach during the 2000-01 academic year. She hopes that, as a teaching tool, it will help students create a better picture of U.S. economic history and think more critically about corporate governance options.

To explore Prof. Dunlavy's evolving database of corporate charters, she suggests viewing it in Internet Explorer for the best results.

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