Parkinson, C. Northcote

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C. Northcote Parkinson

When British historian and satirist C. Northcote Parkinson (1909–1993) published his observations from working as a British army staff officer during World War II in Parkinson's Law, and Other Essays, in 1957, he might not have realized that its basic premise "work expands to fill the time available for its completion" would become a standard mantra describing modern business practices.

Cyril Northcote Parkinson was born on July 30, 1909, at Barnard Castle, Durham, England. His father, William Edward Parkinson, was an artist, and his mother was Rosemary (Curnow) Parkinson. He attended school at St. Olave's and St. Peter's schools in York, England, from 1916 until 1929, when he entered Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Parkinson received his bachelor of arts degree from Cambridge and then went on to King's College, University of London, where he earned a Ph.D. in history in 1935. Parkinson returned to Emmanuel College as a fellow and taught from 1935 until 1938, then left for a position as senior history master at Blundell's, a private school for boys located in Tiverton, Devon. When Great Britain entered World War II in 1939, Parkinson enlisted in the Royal Navy College at Dartmouth, England. It was during his wartime service, working in training and administration for the British War Office and the Royal Air Force, that his inspiration for Parkinson's Law was born. During the war he attained the rank of major as a member of the Queen's Royal Regiment of the British Army.

Law Inspired by Military Bureaucracy

In an obituary in the New York Times, at Parkinson's death in March 1993, Richard W. Stevenson recalled a comment Parkinson once made to the London Times regarding his tenure in the British military: "I observed, somewhat to my surprise, that work which could be done by one man in peacetime, was being given to about six in wartime." He added that he thought that "this was mainly because there wasn't the same opportunity for other people to criticize" such a lack of economic efficiency, adding that, in the event of such criticism, someone would likely retort: "Don't you know there's a war on?"

Following the war, Parkinson became a lecturer of naval history at the University of Liverpool, where he stayed until 1950. At that point he left for Singapore to become Raffles Professor of History at the University of Malaya. Parkinson stayed in Singapore until 1958 during which time he produced his now-famous essay, which was first published in the British magazine Economist in 1955, submitted by its author as an anonymous essay. When he left Singapore, Parkinson traveled to the University of Illinois at Urbana, where he served as Visiting George A. Miller Professor of History for two years. In 1960 he took on another visiting professorship, this one a year-long position at the University of California, Berkeley. While he was living in California, Parkinson had by now become noted for his creation of Parkinson's Law, and California Governor Ronald Reagan asked the British professor to lecture "on the precise reasons why the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge's original repainting crew of 14 members grew to 72 once a labor-saving paint sprayer had been introduced," recalled Francis X. Clines in his interview with of Parkinson for the New York Times.

Writing to Fill the Time

In addition to his career as a professor of history, Parkinson was a prolific writer and published a number of books prior to releasing Parkinson's Law, and Other Essays, in 1959. His expertise in naval history translated into the bulk of that work, and he was highly regarded as one of the foremost naval historians in Great Britain and throughout the fading British Empire. Some of Parkinson's early writings included Edward Pellew, Viscount Exmouth (1934), Trade in the Eastern Seas, 1793–1813 (1937), The Trade Winds (1948), The Rise of the Port of Liverpool (1952), A Short History of Malaya (1954), and Heroes of Malaya (1956), the last volume with his second wife, Elizabeth Parkinson.

The publication of Parkinson's Law, and Other Essays, by Houghton Mifflin in 1957 marked a somewhat new direction for the historian. That the book was initially displayed in bookstores in the "Law," "Humor," or "Politics" sections never ceased to delight its author, as well as baffle him. In addition to his Economist essay on bureaucratic inefficiency, Parkinson also includes writings on such topics as why driving on the left side of the road—as is the habit in Great Britain—is natural. In his interview with Clines, Parkinson offered a brief chronicle of what the publicity of Parkinson's Law, and Other Essays did for his career—in essence imbuing the academic with celebrity status for life. Clines noted that the then-78-year-old Parkinson, by the time of his New York Times interview living at Onchan, on the Isle of Man, was attempting to retire from the spotlight and quipped that his role as an "authority" on business practices following the publication of Parkinson's Law was a continuing source of humor to him.

Parkinson also recalled his mentor and hero, G. K. Chesterton, who had given him advice when he was a young man. At the time of his meeting with the British writer, Parkinson was slowly building his new law during lecture invitations, and as he traveled and observed people and their motivations. He found direction in Chesterton's example as a "literate Englishman and practicing essayist" who was active in English letters for much of his life. Parkinson recalled to Clines: "I met Chesterton when I was a young man and he was old, and it was from him that I derived the whole idea of conveying serious thoughts in the form of a joke. The humor made the whole thing more digestible and gave it great publicity."

Life after the "Law"

After formulating his primary "law," Parkinson continued to be inspired to formulate expansions on his central theme, among them Mrs. Parkinson's Laws, which addresses the issues of household management in a similar way to those Parkinson addressed in business. By the late 1980s he was developing a new law, which he revealed to Clines as follows: "The chief product of a highly automated society is a widespread and deepening sense of boredom." As Clines explained, "Parkinson has been studying a new generation busy with glyphs and dreams at their work computers, a tool which he declines to pick up." Parkinson cited as "proof" of his new law the example of of one resident of the Isle of Man, an office worker who had "measured an average work week of 56 hours, but found [himself] … happier for having to typically do three jobs: farming, carpentry, plus some tourism labors." Parkinson suggested that two days of manual labor in addition to the ever-increasing computer workload was the best preventive for boredom. He suggested that people are happiest when they are doing some kind of physical work.

Parkinson wrote over 60 books during his life, with the majority of those nonfiction. However, he also used his humor and his background in naval history to set the literary world on end again when he published his "Richard Delancey" seafaring mystery novels, telling the story of the quick-witted Delancey's adventures when he enters the disorderly world of the Royal Navy. Throughout the popular six-book series readers have the opportunity to travel with Delancey to the Mediterranean, the East Indies, the Netherlands, and beyond and follow his remarkable adventures.

Fictional Seafarer Biographies Proved Popular

Two of Parkinson's novels, both fictional "biographies," followed somewhat the same path after publication as did Parkinson's Law, and Other Essays. Both The Life and Times of Horatio Hornblower and Jeeves: A Gentleman's Personal Gentleman were shelved in bookstores in the "Biography" or, in the case of the Hornblower "biography," the "History" section, when in fact they are works of fiction.

When Parkinson published The Life and Times of Horatio Hornblower in 1970, he based the book on the fictional 19th-century naval hero created by author C. S. Forester. Forester based his Hornblower character on actual reports from a variety of naval officers of the period and made him so realistic that many readers believed him to be a real person—in fact, the British National Maritime Museum often encountered visitors looking for the "Hornblower Papers." Similarly, Jeeves: A Gentleman's Personal Gentleman is based on the fictional butler created by popular British humorist P. G. Wodehouse and who is featured in a series of Wodehouse's novels.

Parkinson's other books included another work of nautical fiction, 1990's Manhunt. In the area of naval history, he also authored Samuel Waters, Lieut. R.N. (1949), Britannia Rules (1977), and Gunpowder, Treason, and Plot (1978). Others books by Parkinson, which ranged from cultural commentary to more overt satire, include The Evolution of Political Thought (1958), The Law and the Profits (1960), In-Law and Outlaws (1962), Left Luggage (1967), and The Law of Delay (1970).

Parkinson married three times during his life. His first wife was Ethelwyn Edith Graves, whom he married in 1943; that marriage was dissolved. Journalist and author Elizabeth Ann Fry became his second wife in September of 1952; and at the time of his death he was married to Iris Hilda Waters, his wife since 1985. Parkinson's children from his first marriage are Alison Barbara and Christopher Francis Graves; those from his second marriage are Charles Nigel Kennedy, Antonia Patricia Jane, and Jonathan Neville Trollope.

A Contemporary Authors contributor once noted of Parkinson: "Typical of his tongue-in-cheek satire on managerial bureaucracy is his estimation that the managerial ranks inevitably increase between 5.7 and 6.56 percent annually." "Other observations," the contributor added, "include his statement that the difference between a senior and a junior businessman is the time it takes for each to arrive at his office." Also described was Parkinson's insistence that he was really a satirist rather than a humorist. "A humorist," Parkinson explained, "… writes about wildly improbabl[e] things; but the whole point about me is that whatever I write is true. Nothing is dreamt up. It's how the world is actually organized."

Parkinson enjoyed a busy life of travel, writing, and teaching. He also found time for leisure activities, such as painting, theater, listening to radio, and watching television, and also enjoyed investigating castle ruins. He died on March 10, 1993, at a clinic near his home in Canterbury, England.


Contemporary Authors, Gale, 1969.


Law Gazette, September 9, 2002.

New York Times, June 11, 1971; September 25, 1987; March 12, 1993.