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Corporate Timeline

About the authors
Caspar Henderson was openDemocracy's Globalisation Editor from 2002 to 2005. He is an award-winning writer and journalist on environmental affairs.
Iain Ferguson started working for OpenDemocracy as a commissioning editor in 2002 and left at the end of 2005 to work for ACTED, a development NGO in central Asia.

This timeline is still being developed. Please send your comments to corporatetimeline@openDemocracy.net


Before 1800
1553 Sir Richard Willoughby creates the first English joint stock company – “The Mysterie and Compagnie of the Merchant Adventurers for the Discoverie of Regions, Dominions, Islands and Places Unknown” – to finance his voyage to the East. The merchants who purchased stock in his company make a fortune when he returns from Moscow laden with treasures.
1718-20 The Mississippi Bubble in France – an early example of a huge speculative bubble around a corporate entity that does not deliver. The debacle nearly bankrupts the French state, and allows Britain to become the pre-eminent commercial power.
1757 British victory at Plassey in India – a decisive moment for expansion of the East India Company, one of the greatest ever corporate powers.
1776 Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, the foundational text of modern economics, is sceptical about companies, saying they have “proved, universally, either burdensome or useless, and have either mismanaged or confined the trade…Negligence and profusion, therefore, must always prevail.”
1784 India Act transfers executive management of East India Company’s Indian affairs to a Board of Control, answerable to the British Parliament.
1800-1899
1811-3 Luddites rise in rebellion in England against “labour-saving devices” destroying factories and machinery.
1827 The American Trade Union movement begins with the formation of the Mechanics Union in Philadelphia.
1833 The Factory Act in Britain defines the legal limit to the working day as fifteen hours starting at 5:30 a.m. Children aged 9-13 are not to work more than 10 hours a day in a factory. Luxury!
1834 Following the abolition of slavery within the British Empire, the Royal Navy begins to suppress the slave trade worldwide. An example of government action, as result of popular pressure, prevailing over powerful vested commercial interests.
1842 British victory over China in the opium war clears the way for massive imports of drugs into China and to the establishment of major corporations such as Jardine Matheson.
1842 Massachusetts enacts child labour laws.
1844 UK Joint Stock Companies Act defines the corporation as a charter granted by the state to a group of investors to gather private funds for a specific purpose.
1844 The Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society is founded by working men in Yorkshire, England. Later to be known as the Co-operative Society, it is the origin of modern co-operative movement, a form of ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange still seen in many quarters as a viable alternative to the equity corporation.
1848 The Communist Manifesto is published in German by a Manchester textile magnate and a London-based researcher and economist. It is to become one of the most influential articulations of the idea that capital and corporations are ‘a bad thing’ that should ultimately be abolished.
1850 Julius Reuter starts to transmit market information, the lifeblood of modern business, by telegraph.
1852 Alfred Krupp invents the seamless wheel flange for railways; its success makes his one of the largest companies in 19th century Europe. Krupp goes on to become a central player in Bismark’s ‘Blood and Iron’ Germany.
1855 UK Limited Liability Act is created to curtail risks for investors. It allows companies to limit the liability of their individual investors to the value of their shares. Prior to this, investors in a company stood to lose all their wealth if economic circumstances forced the company they had invested in out of business.
1857 East India Company dissolves and Indian territories are made the responsibility of the British Crown.
1868 Meiji restoration – Japan begins to modernise on its own terms. Mitsui, which started as a family firm of bankers and retailers in the seventeenth century, becomes one of the foremost zaibatsu, Japanese conglomerates that will eventually rival powerful American corporations.
1868 Standard Oil Company, one day to be the world’s largest corporation, is founded in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
1880 King Leopold of Belgium sets up a company to extract wild rubber from his territories in Congo, central Africa. In the next twenty years an estimated 5-8m natives die – half the population of the Congo – while Leopold becomes a billionaire by today’s money.
1884 US President Rutherford Hayes declares, “This is a government of the people, by the people and for the people no longer. It is a government of corporations, by corporations, and for corporations.”
1886 The corporation becomes a citizen – the US Supreme Court makes a landmark ruling, still contested to this day, that a private corporation is a person and therefore entitled to the same citizen rights and protections.
1890 Sherman Anti-Trust Act is enacted in the US. It is the first federal law directed against industrial combination and monopoly. The trend towards huge mergers is checked.
1899 Labour Party founded in United Kingdom.
1900-1949
1903 US government encourages a revolution in Colombia to ensure American companies can proceed with construction of the Panama Canal – vital for trading and military interests.
1905 Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish founder of US Steel and one of the most ruthless capitalists of his era, becomes a key figure in corporate philanthropy.
1910 South Manchurian Railway Company begins construction – a principal force behind Japan’s brutal penetration and conquest of much of China.
1911 US Supreme Court orders that Standard Oil be broken up into 33 parts. The Chief Justice states: “The nation has been rid of a human-slavery…slavery that results from the aggregations of capital in the hands of a few individuals and corporations controlling, for their own profit and advantage exclusively, the entire business of the country, including the production and sale of the necessities of life.” Exxon/Esso, Mobil and Chevron grow out of the pieces.
1913 Ford Motor Company begins mass production of the Model T. Henry Ford greatly increases the pay of his employees to $5 a day. This helps create a legion of workers prosperous enough to buy one of his cars. Three years later two shareholders sue Ford for breach of fuduciary responsibility, complaining the money he was putting into plant expansion should be going into dividends to them. They win.
1914 In Britain, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill orders government purchase of a controlling stake in the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (later BP) to ensure strategic security of oil supplies for the Royal Navy.
1917 Russian Revolution – Bolshevik government abolishes private property. From the first five-year plan in 1928, Stalin promotes rapid industrialisation, and many hail the Soviet model as a preferable alternative to western corporate capitalism. But industrial production only recovers to pre-first world war levels by the late 1930s, and the regime murders many millions to enforce its power. The USSR relies heavily on British and US industrial muscle in second world war. The Soviet Union possesses the largest land area and richest natural resource base in the world, but stagnates economically, and by the 1980s is dependent upon western food and loans. It goes bankrupt and disintegrates in 1989-91, leaving a legacy of extreme poverty, pollution and crime. Today, the Russian Federation has a GDP considerably smaller than that of the Netherlands.
1929 Wall Street crash closes American ‘roaring twenties’ and the first era of mass consumption. In Russia, Stalin asks the economist Kondratieff to analyse impending downfall of capitalism. Kondratieff does detailed study, establishes resilience of capitalism and forecasts its recovery. A poor career move.
1933 Glass-Steagall Act in US separates ownership of banks and investment firms so as to decouple bank profits and lending patterns from the stock market.
1933 IBM provides the National Socialist Government of Germany with punch-card technology, winning its place as the business solution supplier to the Third Reich. The company IG Farben also lends a hand and in 1941 develops Zyklon B, a poison gas used by the Nazis to murder six million Jews and five million from other ethnic groups.
1934 US Congress creates the Securities Exchange Commission to restore investor confidence in the markets. It creates public disclosure and enforcement mechanisms to protect investors and promote the dissemination of reliable corporate information to the marketplace.
1941-45 Coca-Cola becomes the most conspicuous global brand once the US military introduce the drink to Europe, Asia and Africa.
1944 Aramco is created in Saudi Arabia – described by one investor as “by far the greatest, most important and most dramatic overseas American enterprise which has ever existed”. Aramco, the largest oil concession in the Middle East, is a guiding hand in the politics of the region for the next few decades, making the world safe for the extreme, Wahhabi version of Islam.
1945 Peter Drucker’s The Concept of the Corporation is published – the first full management study of a major corporation, General Motors. Drucker highlights the conflict between industrial efficiency and social harmony. He accuses GM of introspection and predicts, much to the annoyance of legendary CEO Arthur Sloan, that GM’s inability to read wider social changes will lead to loss of market share. In the 1970s, on the back of the oil crisis, Japanese car manufacturers, with their focus on the primacy of the consumer, overtake GM in the US market.
1945 Newly-elected Labour government in Britain nationalises major industries, starting with coal and railways.
1949 Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) is created. German works councils, with worker representation on company boards and participation in decision-making, are one of the defining aspects of Rhineland capitalism.
1950-1985
1954 United Fruit Company, the banana giant of Central America, assist a US-backed coup in Guatemala, toppling the country’s first elected government after decades of dictators. The socialist government was threatening to unionise the labour force; it was a business decision.
1956 The first manufacturing company in what is to become the Mondragon Corporacion Cooperativa (MCC) is set up in the Basque Country, northern Spain. MCC is now a business group of 150 companies with 43 production plants worldwide - a world leader in corporate organisation along co-operative principles,.
1951 -64 Nehru’s central planning in India allows for growth of a few very large corporations but little dynamism or innovation in the economy as a whole.
1958 Mao Tse-tung announces the Great Leap Forward in China, and the abolition of private property and all corporations. China rapidly descends into extreme poverty, and only starts to recover with Deng Xiao-ping’s reforms in the 1980s, which allow for property rights and capital accumulation.
1962 Milton Friedman argues in Capitalism and Freedom that within a democracy, business has a single focus – economic – and the measure of it is profit. “The business of business is business” and corporations have neither the legitimacy nor the interest to consider wider questions of social responsibility.
1970 Environmental pressure groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth begin campaigns against pollution and waste by corporations.
1972 Eastman Kodak tries to give money to a black civil rights group but is stopped by its shareholders.
1973 Religious investors in the US form a coalition called the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility, and start using the shareholder proposal process to influence company behaviour. A new era of shareholder activism begins.
1973 Shell capitalises on the oil crisis, transforming into one of the top three oil companies in the world. Its investments in non-Middle East oil exploration, as a contingency for such an event, pay off. Long-term planning and risk management become part of core business strategy applied to, amongst other things, corporate social responsibility.
1974 Beginning of civil society pressure on Barclays Bank and other financial institutions to stop lending to the South African apartheid government. Protests peak in the 1980s.
1976 US Supreme Court Justices White, Brennan, and Marshall observe that “the special status of corporations has placed them in a position to control a vast amount of economic power by which they may, if not regulated, dominate not only the economy but also the very heart of our democracy, the electoral process.”
1977 Leon Howard Sullivan, the first black member of the board of the General Motors Corporation, secures GM’s support in the development of the Sullivan Principles, a code of conduct for American businesses operating in South Africa. The principles are later widened for universal application.
1980 Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation is established. In UK, NewsCorp breaks print unions, opening the way for more flexible, affordable media. Today his $40 billion global empire dominates much of US, UK and Australian media and plays an important role in China, India and elsewhere. With 60 subsidiaries incorporated in offshore tax havens in the Caribbean, News Corp pays taxes averaging just 5.7% during the 1990s, while competitors like Walt Disney, Time Warner and Viacom pay on average around five to seven times more.
1980 Diamond v Chakrabarty in US Supreme Court sets precedent for patentability of man-made organisms. The idea that corporations can own life forms is born.
1984 A tank containing lethal chemicals explodes at Union Carbide facility in Bhopal, India, sending a toxic gas cloud over the city. By cutting corners on safety, Union Carbide causes the world’s worst industrial accident with up to 7,000 dead and scores to hundreds of thousands injured, maimed and blinded – most of them inhabitants of the shantytowns that ring the plant. Union Carbide pays no compensation. In 2002 Greenpeace activists doorstep on former boss of the company hiding out in Long Island, New York, and serve writ.
1984 Nestlé meets with the organisers of a consumer boycott staged over its aggressive promotion of baby milk formula, which is linked to the deaths of millions of infants. It is the first time a movement of ordinary people has forced a transnational corporation to the negotiating table. Nestlé agrees to abide by the WHO’s Code of Marketing for Breast Milk Substitutes, but pressure groups maintain that violations continue, and so does the boycott.
1984 AT&T, the world’s largest corporation, is dismantled for having monopoly control on US telecommunications.
1985-2003
1987 Nike’s “Revolution” advertisements commodify dissent.
1989 Gazprom is set up under state control in Russia. Privatised in 1993, it is now the world’s largest gas company.
1991 The “golden summer”, when Indian Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao begins to open up India’s economy by removing state control on corporations, allowing foreign investment and increasing international trade.
1992 The World Business Council for Sustainable Development, a pro-business lobby, plays an influential role at Earth Summit in Rio.
1993 Child Labor Deterrence Act (the Harkin Bill) passes through US Congress. Tens of thousands of children in Bangladesh and elsewhere lose their jobs and are impoverished.
1995 Annus horribilis for Shell: in the same year as allegations of complicity in the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa in Nigeria, Shell try to sink the disused Brent Spar oil platform into the North Sea but are stopped by Greenpeace direct action protests. Shell temporarily loses confidence of the public and investors. It is a defining moment: the trigger for an acceleration of civil society actions against corporations; and a signal to corporations that public relations and their reputations matter more than ever. Greenpeace later admit that Shell’s proposal to sink the platform would have been less costly to the environment than the solution it forced through – that the rig be pulled ashore and dismantled.
1997 Staggering under huge debts, South Korea’s industrial conglomerates – the chaebol – are blamed for the country’s economic crisis. The IMF demands ties between chaebol leaders and South Korean politicians be broken.
1998 US v Microsoft – The US Justice Department and 20 state attorneys file an antitrust suit against Microsoft, charging the company with abusing its market power to thwart competition. After much wrangling in September 2001 the Justice Department softens – it wants to settle the case and no longer seeks to break up Microsoft.
1998 Exxon and Mobil (two of the offspring of the Standard Oil break up in 1911) merge in a $76bn deal to from the world’s largest oil company.
1999 Repeal of Glass-Seagall Act (see 1933). Companies such as Citicorp and Travelers merge in anticipation of the law’s demise.
1999 Protestors at World Trade Organisation Summit in Seattle say the WTO is a charter for corporate world domination. Naomi Klein’s No Logo becomes the bible of a new generation of activists.
2000 McDonalds switches to recyclable packaging under pressure from child consumers who, in disgust, send thousands of McDonald’s styrofoam burger boxes to its outlets and offices.
2000 50 corporations and 12 labour organisations sign up to the UN Global Compact on Corporate Accountability – the first attempt to lay down norms and standards for the global social and environmental responsibilities of business. Compliance is voluntary, and many NGOs criticise it as toothless and irrelevant (For more see here)
2001 Republican Administration comes to power in the US, having received more than 70% of presidential campaign contributions from corporations. Senior figures in the administration, including the President and Vice President, are drawn from major corporate interests.
2001 First annual World Social Forum takes place in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Participants define themselves in opposition to the ‘neo-liberal’ order of corporate capitalism, saying ‘another world is possible’.
2001-2002 Enron, Global Crossing, WorldCom and Tycho collapse demonstrating large scale fraud and deception in some of the world’s most dynamic corporations.
2001 Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s most powerful businessman, becomes its prime minister for a second time. Then changes the law in order to evade prosecution for past crimes.
2001 The London Principles, a charter for investment decisions, are written. At their core is a risk assessment of the ongoing environmental and social balance of business activity.
2002 Chinese government welcomes wealthy businessmen into the Communist Party.
2002 At the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development there are calls for a charter on compulsory global corporate regulation.
2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act follows Enron and other scandals. It is intended to improve quality and transparency in financial reporting, independent audits and accounting services for public companies.
2003 January AOL Time Warner’s reports overall loss for 2002 of $98.7bn, one of the largest corporate losses in history. Ahold, the world’s third largest retailer, becomes ‘Europe’s Enron’ on discovery it has overstated its profits by $500 million. Deutsche Telekom reported $ 28bn loss – the largest corporate loss in Europe since the second world war.
2003 February American mining giant Freeport McMoran admits making large payments over an extended period to the Indonesian military, who have long record in torture and extra-judicial murder, to protect their operations in West Papua, a troubled Indonesian province.
2003 March After war in Iraq where next for military-political-industrial links? Richard Perle resigns as chairman of an influential Pentagon advisory board after disclosures that he would receive a large payment for persuading the government to allow US telecommunications infrastructure belonging to the collapsed Global Crossing corporation to be sold to Chinese investors. The US government's Agency for International Development announces that Halliburton, an oil services company chaired by US Vice-President Dick Cheney for five years until 2000, is not in the running for a $600m (£381m) US government contract to rebuild Iraq; but Halliburton's subsidiary Kellogg Brown and Root secures some business . Becthel, whose board includes a former Republican Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State secures the $600m reconstruction contract instead. And, as war continues, TotalFinaElf looks set to see the deal it secured to exploit the 20 billion barrel oil field at Majnoon in southern Iraq rendered void: "policy ought to be that all companies will have equal rights to bid for Iraqi oil deals when the fight is over - but only when Jacques Chirac and the likes of Thierry Desmarest, head of TotalFinaElf, are also gone, along with the outlaw Iraqi regime which they abetted", comments the Wall Street Journal.

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