Published Articles

John K. Brown

The Sherman Act (1890) inaugurated the commitment of the American federal government to block the horizontal combinations or “trusts” then beginning to dominate many industries. But the statute’s sweeping language nearly demanded interpretation by the executive branch and the judiciary. Two decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1911, Standard Oil and American Tobacco, promulgated a “rule of reason” that sent American antitrust law in a new direction, grounded in economic analysis. In its next antitrust case, the court used the rule to uphold a monopoly for the first time. To date, historians have overlooked that case, United States v. Terminal Railroad Association of St. Louis (1912). This article reviews the events that led to this prosecution under the Sherman At, and it explores a fallacy at the heart of the justices’ unanimous opinion. Contrary to their analysis, the Terminal Railroad of St. Louis lacked any legitimate claim to being a natural monopoly. In turn, their egregious misreading of fact and theory suggests that the justices were ill-equipped to wield economic analysis in shaping antitrust law.

Read ‘The Rule of Reason’ and an Unnatural Monopoly Here

The Eads Bridge, a double-deck road and rail bridge across the Mississippi River at St. Louis, celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2024. It is the oldest bridge in daily use on the river, but the structure has been amazing and improbable from its origins. A riverman, James Eads, proposed it in 1867 with all its major design concepts. He had never designed or built a bridge, yet this one, his first offering, would break world records for the length of its spans and the depth of its stone foundations. To place those two piers on bedrock beneath the flowing Mississippi and its sandy riverbed, Eads became the North American pioneer in using pneumatic caissons. He was so influential that Washington Roebling went to St. Louis to learn all he could before undertaking his own bridge in Brooklyn.

Read “An Improbable Masterpiece” Here

Academic historians seldom write explicit counterfactuals, despite their value in isolating the causes and contingencies that shaped events. Surprisingly, historians of technology have ignored this analytic tool, even though firms and engineers commonly considered alternative designs and actions while developing a product or technology. This article provides a “constrained counterfactual,” comparing two designs for bridges across the Mississippi River at St. Louis, both proposed in 1867: the Eads Bridge, and the Boomer/Post bridge. It covers three topics: exploring the conventional narratives on the Eads Bridge (completed in 1874); comparing the Eads design to that of the Boomer/Post alternative; and offering a counterfactual service life for that proposed crossing. The article seeks to isolate why James Eads’s design and his company succeeded, and to show the analytic value of counterfactuals for historians of technology.

Read “Not the Eads Bridge” Here

Assume that Lucius Boomer had won against James Eads in the summer of 1867, and that Boomer then completed his bridge at St. Louis by January 1871.  Given those postulates, what results for railway development in the region might have flowed from the Boomer/Post bridge?  And how does that counterfactual history compare to the events that transpired, the landscapes that were built?  This analysis must be more speculative than a constrained counterfactual, considering ramifications across three decades, throughout the city and beyond.  But these bridges served the corporate needs and strategies of railways.  And those railroads in turn had broad regional and national consequences.  So this contingent counterfactual takes us to some interesting and important historical developments.

Read “A Different Counterfactual Perspective on the Eads Bridge” Here

After 1865, a new industry, uniquely American, grew to prominence making standard and semi-custom iron bridges for roads and railways. Using illustrated catalogues, specialized firms like Keystone Bridge, Phoenix Bridge, and American Bridge Company created national markets for their pin-connected bridges. With nested routines and procedures ordering the processes of design and production, they transformed bridge building from a local and empirical art into a rationalized industry. After 1870, an innovative entrepreneur, James Eads, upset established procedures at these firms. Promoting a new arched design and a new material—steel—Eads insisted on new routines in the industry. Concurrently, civil engineers and editors of technical journals advocated new approaches in design and construction to counter the problem of bridge collapses. These novel routines became instruments to force institutional and technological change among the railroads, iron and steel mills, consulting engineers, and bridge makers that built these essential structures.

Read “Heuristics, Specifications, and Routines” Here

Saying that the Eads Bridge saved a riverboat town from irrelevance and created the modern city of St. Louis seems like a bold declaration, but it is entirely defensible.  By 1860 the United States had 30,000 miles of railroads—roughly the same as Europe—but nearly all those tracks lay east of the Mississippi River.  Without a direct rail connection to that network, the town would surely wither.  The unique talents of Captain James Eads—a steamboat man, mechanical engineer, and promoter par excellence—eventually triumphed with the graceful structure that endures to this day.

Read “The Eads Bridge: The Structure that Made St. Louis” Here