The History of Project Management


The History of Project Management

Mike Herschel

MPM401-1003B-07: Project Management Theory

For Derrick Nelson

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The History of Project Management

A Maximum of Productivity with a Minimum of Participation

          Humans have needed tools since we were all swinging in the trees and scavenging for bananas; it is only the shape of the tools that they use that differentiate us from the Great Apes  (Herschel, 2010). Yet Project Management, as we know it now, began to codify only a few decades ago with an objective of maximum productivity with a minimum of participation. Henry Gannt is considered to be the father of project management – as his planning and organizing methods with the use of bar charts and spreadsheets as a project management tool – and history  recognizes him as the leading predecessor for modern project management practices deployed today.  The Giza Pyramid, the Parthenon, the Coliseum, the Gothic Cathedrals of Europe, the Taj Mahal, and the Transcontinental Railway:  to consider these massive projects without any proper management scheme would be an unjust commentary to journal today for their ancestors. These were not incongruities in history but projects delivered in a methodical way with features similar to today’s projects. Typically, they had a project charter, a business justification, followed a life-cycle of phases, and assimilated all of the Project Management Process Groups (initiating, planning, executing, monitoring and controlling, and closing), and addressed all nine PMBOK knowledge areas (Integration, Scope, Time, Cost, Quality, Human Resources, Communications, Risk, and Procurement)  (Allen , unknown). The conception of project management was alive in the womb of our civilization, but its name was coined and structure defined and designed by the modern world (Bista, unknown).

Renaissance Engineer

The Term Project Management

          Those unrelenting builders, the ancient Romans, gave us the genealogy of the words starting with the Latin projectum: meaning, originally, to throw something. And the word project originally meant ‘something that comes before anything else is done. When modern engineers of the 19th century first started bandying these terms about, it was understood to mean a plan of something but did not speak to the act of actually carrying it out. The modernization of the word project changed in the 1950’s when it became understood to incorporate the idea of an objective (Bista, unknown).  The first engineers were military engineers, irrigators, and architects. The same man was usually expected to be an expert at all three kinds of work. This was still the case thousands of years later, during the Renaissance, when Leonardo and Michelangelo were not only all-around professional engineers but stupendous artists too. The ancient monuments cannot fail to incite awe and wonder. The esteem is embodied in the name ‘engineer’ itself.  Originating in the eleventh century from the Latin word ingeniator:  meaning one with ingeniumor – or as we would say now, the ingenious one. The name, used for builders of inspired fortifications or makers of imaginative devices, was closely related to the concept of ingenuity, which was captured in the old meaning of  ‘engine’ until the word was taken over by steam engines and other mechanical devices.  In fact, Leonardo da Vinci bore the official title of Ingegnere Generale: ingenious general. His notebooks reveal that it was the Renaissance engineers who first began to ask systematically what works and why (Bista, unknown).


The Renaissance to the Scientific Revolution to the First Industrial Revolution

          The Renaissance led to the great European Voyages of Exploration of the 15th century. Spanning the oceans and the world with advances delivered by usage of grids/maps, the astrolabe, compass, lateen sail, and improvements in ship building; the projects were very high risk but had a great return on investment and, additionally, acted as reagents for adventures to the far corners of the earth. For example, only one of the five ships returned from Magellan’s fleet, packed with cloves, and this covered the costs of the whole of expedition. Within the last few hundred years there has been tremendous further development in project varieties. This was propelled by the First Scientific Revolution (spawned by the Renaissance) that made universally available significant scientific discoveries and inventions and directly impacted Western society. Developments in Mathematics and Physics had an impact on Project Management also as it moved from a purely non-empirical approach to one based on scientific and mathematical calculation that could reliably predict prospective empirical outcomes. The forces in a structure could now be calculated thereby vastly improving estimates for resource materials. This began the first phase of Modern Engineering that required professional project management to drive it.

The Scientific Revolution led to the First Industrial Revolution and the awesome changes it brought about. The industrial revolution began when the quality of iron was significantly improved and at a lower cost. Inexpensive iron stimulated the evolution of s the steam engine. By 1750 the revolution began to pick up pace as the steam engine started to be  applied to different problems which further propelled advances in mechanical engineering. The obtainability of cast iron made it a logical choice for structures like bridges as it was significantly lighter than a stone bridge that required an enormous arch span. The Iron Bridge project, over the River Severn in Coalbrookdale, demonstrated the challenges faced by projects and also the complications of new materials and technologies. For example, the project estimates were so significantly off for the Iron Bridge Project that it bankrupted Darby, the project builder (Bista, unknown).

The Second Industrial Revolution

The enormous changes in the Western World along with the Second Industrial Revolution needed a far more structured and disciplined approach to business and management. As the scale of objectives changed, projects based on scientific research and principles pushed out forever the now far, outdated models. With this came the nativity of management principles for the business world that bore manifest destiny to become the pillar of project management. With the onset of the 19th century the drop in production costs for materials like concrete and iron was a facilitator for growth in infrastructure projects for conveyance: like canals, bridges, and rails. There came with it a progressive rise in mega projects that were infinitely more complex and required superior planning. For example, the Transcontinental Railroad project, built in half the projected time, needed a supply chain that stretched 18,000 miles. Similarly, the Transatlantic Cable project pressed technologies to the limit in trying to establish an electrical link at depths of 4 miles. These milestones required more sophisticated systems of transportation, storage, manufacturing, assembly, and distribution. Now we required new institutions, establishments, and organizations as well as a multitude of new emerging technological breakthroughs namely: the chemical industry which grew from the manufacture of fertilizers that included the exploitation of fossil fuels.  The revolution also created the internal combustion engine which leads to the birth of the automotive industries. In parallel, the electrical industry develops from the electrical dynamo and motor which lead to an burst of consumer driven electrical devices and telephones. This was the Second Industrial Revolution that led to the mega infrastructure projects of the 20th century that, in turn heralded the creation road networks, hydro dams, electrical and telephone networks (Bista, unknown).


The World Wars, the Cold War to the Digital Age
“The work of the engineers in most departments is not sufficiently routinized to allow process control. The most satisfactory policy appears to be that of employing competent men and then holding them [responsible] for results in terms of the erection schedule, leaving ways and means largely to their individual discretion.”

–        MIT professor Erwin Schell articulated this philosophy, telling students in the 1930’s

The First World War mobilized continents with huge armies and resources into a global conflagration which came to be a protracted state of stalemate. It showed the industrialization of war and leveraged mass production, mass transportation, and mass mobilization. The logistical operation supplying the British Expeditionary Force, by 1918, was the largest the world had ever seen. Between the two world wars, new disciplines were augmented by studies of business management; notably, human relationships and industrial human relations schools of management arose to deal with the practical problems caused by the grinding repetition of tasks.  The Third Industrial Revolution, from 1940 to today, has been dominated by computers both electro-mechanical and electronic, information, and the Internet. It also has seen the institutionalization of management practices into business. This was hastened by the Second World War that brought mega projects: for example, the history of the world was changed by the Colossus computers at Bletchley Park (1943), the Normandy Invasion or D-day (1944), and the Manhattan project (1945). The Cold War mirrored the exhibition of the third industrial revolution and the advances made in the use of information/intelligence in the Second World War. It also saw the manufacturing of a large number of planes, rockets, and complex technology projects by the US Air Force and Navy based on experiments and prototypes in the Second World War. These projects saw the first use and development of both CPM (Critical Path Method) and PERT (Program Evaluation and Review Technique) techniques and charts, and Microsoft Project 2010 (Bista, unknown): giving project managers greater control than has ever been seen. Today has found us automating the process of Project Management: America – what a country!


Allen , P. (unknown). Lessons from the Past that Assist the Projects of Today. Retrieved August 28, 2010, from The History of Project Management:

Bista, B. (unknown). History and Evolution. Retrieved August 28, 2010, from Project Management:

Herschel, M. (2010). Project Management Tools. CTUO, MPM401-1003B-07: Project Management Theory. MPM401-1003B-07.

2 comments on “The History of Project Management

  1. sicurezza says:

    Blog interessante , grazie per l’ articolo! Continua a tenerci informati.Giulio

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