Many people may think of a human resources department as a relatively modern innovation. However, a look at the history of human resources reveals that the ideas underpinning the discipline stretch as far back as human history itself. Maximizing worker potential and management of people is a concern stretching back to ancient times. Those ideas were further developed starting in the 18th century, culminating in today’s human resources departments.

See our ranking of the Top 50 Best Online Master’s in HR Degree Programs (MSHR).

Modern Origins of Human Resources

The clearest antecedent of modern human resources is likely the work of two men, Charles Babbage and Robert Owen, who devised the idea against the backdrop of the industrial revolution that the well-being of the worker was critical to worker productivity. Early names for human resources-like initiatives in the workplace in the 19th and early 20th century included “industrial welfare,” “personnel management” and “scientific management.” Fields including organization management and industrial psychology contributed to building the practice of human resources as it is known today.

The Development of Human Resources Ideas

In the early 20th century, the near-simultaneous rise of trade unions and personnel management departments within companies laid the groundwork for the formal discipline of human resources. The ideas of mechanical engineer Frederick Taylor that explored how to make manufacturing workers more efficient were important underpinnings for the discipline’s development. Unions were important in pressing for employee rights alongside that increased efficiency, and these two principles have continued to develop in tandem as crucial elements in the history of human resources.

According to Fast Company, The National Cash Register Company may have been the first modern human resources department. Although at the time it was called “personnel,” its focus on managing wages and workplace safety as well as dealing with employee grievances meant its aims were similar to human resources departments today.

The Rise of Human Resources Departments

The relationship between employee and employers changed in the 20th century, and this change was both driven by and reflected in human resources departments. By the middle of the 20th century, human resources was its own discipline taught in universities. As the influence of unions decreased, the role of human resources departments grew. Employment legislation passed throughout the latter half of the 20th century protected workers belonging to various classes, and ensuring that these workers’ rights were not violated also became a focus of human resources departments along with training, recordkeeping, managing employee benefits and ensuring compliance with state and federal law. In the 21st century, the responsibility of human resource departments has grown and changed along with the economy and the demands of technology to take a greater part in management decisions and to help manage employees who may be working remotely and scattered throughout the world.

The history of human resources is a rich and complex one, shaped by fields including business and psychology as well as the civil rights movement and legal cases dealing with workers’ rights. It is anticipated that technological innovations will continue to advance the field and keep it relevant for companies and their workforces in the future.