“The ratings given by the large commercial ratings
agencies are on the whole remarkably exact.”
— Peter P. Wahlstad, Credit and the Credit Man (1917)
When R. G. Dun & Co. and J. M. Bradstreet & Company merged to form Dun & Bradstreet in 1933, both were early adopters—even drivers—of technological innovations in an emerging information industry. Dun & Bradstreet (D&B) donated its historical corporate records to Baker Library, and this research collection highlights much of the industry’s progress over time. For example, D&B began introducing digital products in 1963, and by the mid-1970s, the firm’s data-collection operations were fully computerized.
In the dazzle of digital, however, it is easy to forget that the information age began well before the computer. Nineteenth-century credit ratings agencies—and D&B’s predecessor firms in particular—rode a wave of data processing innovations that enabled a marked increase in productivity. Moreover, the success of these early business machines made clear the insatiable demand for faster data processing, paving the way for the digital age. With the early adoption of typewriters, telegraphy, xerography, and digital technology, these credit ratings firms were always in the vanguard.
From the 1840s to the 1890s, clerks compiled the information that Mercantile Agency (later R.G. Dun & Company) reporters had collected in the field into enormous handwritten ledgers kept at the firm’s New York headquarters. The information in these ledgers was condensed into a “Reference Book” that was printed and distributed regularly; full information would be available to subscribers upon request. Though cumbersome, the ledgers served the credit ratings firms for more than half a century.
In 1962, D&B gave 2,580 of these ledgers to Baker Library, where they have become a valuable historical source for business historians and scholars from a variety of other disciplines. The ledger entries contain unique data on large and small companies, firms, and entrepreneurs.
Robert Graham Dun, head of the Mercantile Agency from 1859 to his death in 1900, was one of the first to perceive the business potential of the typewriter. A commercially successful model had been in production since 1867, but most saw it as little more than a novelty or toy. Dun thought differently, and, in 1874, placed an order with E. Remington and Sons for one hundred machines at $55 each. The ability to paste typewritten entries into the credit ledgers considerably speeded up work at the Mercantile Agency. Moreover, Dun’s first commercial order enabled Remington to begin manufacturing typewriters on a major scale.16
Copying was another bottleneck for early information industries. In its earliest years, the Mercantile Agency’s only alternative to painstaking handwritten duplicates was the letter copying press, which made copies by pressing a newly written document onto damp tissue paper. Carbon paper, following on the heels of the typewriter, was a considerable advance. In the 1950s, D&B, always on the alert for better copying and duplicating methods, became one of the first companies to embrace xerography, a new invention from the Haloid Company, now known as Xerox.
D&B was also an early adopter of information technology when it came to computers. Innovations that were first seen primarily as a means of reducing costs would go on to expand the quality and range of products and services available from the firm. In 1976, a century after R. G. Dun adopted the first typewriter on a scale for business, D&B installed a network of minicomputers in its eighty field offices that linked to the mainframes housing its central database. A firm whose credit reports and reference books had remained basically unchanged for over a century now entered a period of rapid change and diversification.17
16 Madison, “The Evolution of Commercial Credit Reporting Agencies in Nineteenth-Century America,” 76.
17 Dun, Dun & Bradstreet and the Rise of Modern Business, 43.