THE AGE OF INVENTION,
A CHRONICLE OF MECHANICAL CONQUEST
By Holland Thompson
This volume is not intended to be a complete record of inventive genius and mechanical progress in the United States. A bare catalogue of notable American inventions in the nineteenth century alone could not be compressed into these pages. Nor is it any part of the purpose of this book to trespass on the ground of the many mechanical works and encyclopedias which give technical descriptions and explain in detail the principle of every invention. All this book seeks to do is to outline the personalities of some of the outstanding American inventors and indicate the significance of their achievements.
Acknowledgments are due the Editor of the Series and to members of the staff of the Yale University Press particularly, Miss Constance Lindsay Skinner, Mr. Arthur Edwin Krows, and Miss Frances Hart—without whose intelligent assistance the book could not have been completed in time to take its place in the Series.
COLLEGE OF THE CITY OF NEW YORK,
May 10, 1921.
I. BENJAMIN FRANKLIN AND HIS TIMES
II. ELI WHITNEY AND THE COTTON GIN
III. STEAM IN CAPTIVITY
IV. SPINDLE, LOOM, AND NEEDLE IN NEW ENGLAND
V. THE AGRICULTURAL REVOLUTION
VI. AGENTS OF COMMUNICATION
VII. THE STORY OF RUBBER
VIII. PIONEERS OF THE MACHINE SHOP
IX. THE FATHERS OF ELECTRICITY
X. THE CONQUEST OF THE AIR
THE AGE OF INVENTION
CHAPTER I. BENJAMIN FRANKLIN AND HIS TIMES
On Milk Street, in Boston, opposite the Old South Church, lived Josiah Franklin, a maker of soap and candles. He had come to Boston with his wife about the year 1682 from the parish of Ecton, Northamptonshire, England, where his family had lived on a small freehold for about three hundred years. His English wife had died, leaving him seven children, and he had married a colonial girl, Abiah Folger, whose father, Peter Folger, was a man of some note in early Massachusetts.
Josiah Franklin was fifty-one and his wife Abiah thirty-nine, when the first illustrious American inventor was born in their house on Milk Street, January 17, 1706. He was their eighth child and Josiah's tenth son and was baptized Benjamin. What little we know of Benjamin's childhood is contained in his "Autobiography", which the world has accepted as one of its best books and which was the first American book to be so accepted. In the crowded household, where thirteen children grew to manhood and womanhood, there were no luxuries. Benjamin's period of formal schooling was less than two years, though he could never remember the time when he could not read, and at the age of ten he was put to work in his father's shop.
Benjamin was restless and unhappy in the shop. He appeared to have no aptitude at all for the business of soap making. His parents debated whether they might not educate him for the ministry, and his father took him into various shops in Boston, where he might see artisans at work, in the hope that he would be attracted to some trade. But Benjamin saw nothing there that he wished to engage in. He was inclined to follow the sea, as one of his older brothers had done.
His fondness for books finally determined his career. His older brother James was a printer, and in those days a printer was a literary man as well as a mechanic. The editor of a newspaper was always a printer and often composed his articles as he set them in type; so "composing" came to mean typesetting, and one who sets type is a compositor. Now James needed an apprentice. It happened then that young Benjamin, at the age of thirteen, was bound over by law to serve his brother.
James Franklin printed the "New England Courant", the fourth newspaper to be established in the colonies. Benjamin soon began to write articles for this newspaper. Then when his brother was put in jail, because he had printed matter considered libelous, and forbidden to continue as the publisher, the newspaper appeared in Benjamin's name.
The young apprentice felt that his brother was unduly severe and, after serving for about two years, made up his mind to run away. Secretly he took passage on a sloop and in three days reached New York, there to find that the one printer in the town, William Bradford, could give him no work. Benjamin then set out for Philadelphia. By boat to Perth Amboy, on foot to Burlington, and then by boat to Philadelphia was the course of his journey, which consumed five days. On a Sunday morning in October, 1723, the tired, hungry boy landed upon the Market Street wharf, and at once set out to find food and explore America's metropolis.
Benjamin found employment with Samuel Keimer, an eccentric printer just beginning business, and lodgings at the house of Read, whose daughter Deborah was later to become his wife. The intelligent young printer soon attracted the notice of Sir William Keith, Governor of Pennsylvania, who promised to set him up in business. First, however, he must go to London to buy a printing outfit. On the Governor's promise to send a letter of credit for his needs in London, Franklin set sail; but the Governor broke his word, and Franklin was obliged to remain in London nearly two years working at his trade. It was in London that he printed the first of his many pamphlets, an attack on revealed religion, called "A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain." Though he met some interesting persons, from each of whom he extracted, according to his custom, every particle of information possible, no future opened for him in London, and he accepted an offer to return to Philadelphia with employment as a clerk. But early in 1727 his employer died, and Benjamin went back to his trade, as printers always do. He found work again in Keimer's printing office. Here his mechanical ingenuity and general ability presently began to appear; he invented a method of casting type, made ink, and became, in fact, the real manager of the business.
The ability to make friends was one of Franklin's traits, and the number of his acquaintances grew rapidly, both in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. "I grew convinced," he naively says, "that TRUTH, SINCERITY, and INTEGRITY in dealings between man and man were of the utmost importance to the felicity of life." Not long after his return from England he founded in Philadelphia the Junto, a society which at its regular meetings argued various questions and criticized the writings of the members. Through this society he enlarged his reputation as well as his education.
The father of an apprentice at Keimer's furnished the money to buy a printing outfit for his son and Franklin, but the son soon sold his share, and Benjamin Franklin, Printer, was fairly established in business at the age of twenty-four. The writing of an anonymous pamphlet on "The Nature and Necessity of a Paper Currency" called attention to the need of a further issue of paper money in Pennsylvania, and the author of the tract was rewarded with the contract to print the money, "a very profitable job, and a great help to me." Small favors were thankfully received. And, "I took care not only to be in REALITY industrious and frugal, but to avoid all appearances to the contrary. I drest plainly; I was seen at no places of idle diversion." And, "to show that I was not above my business, I sometimes brought home the paper I purchased at the stores thru the streets on a wheelbarrow."
"The Universal Instructor in All Arts and Sciences and Pennsylvania Gazette": this was the high-sounding name of a newspaper which Franklin's old employer, Keimer, had started in Philadelphia. But bankruptcy shortly overtook Keimer, and Franklin took the newspaper with its ninety subscribers. The "Universal Instructor" feature of the paper consisted of a page or two weekly of "Chambers's Encyclopedia". Franklin eliminated this feature and dropped the first part of the long name. "The Pennsylvania Gazette" in Franklin's hands soon became profitable. And it lives today in the fullness of abounding life, though under another name. "Founded A.D. 1728 by Benj. Franklin" is the proud legend of "The Saturday Evening Post", which carries on, in our own times, the Franklin tradition.
The "Gazette" printed bits of local news, extracts from the London "Spectator", jokes, verses, humorous attacks on Bradford's "Mercury", a rival paper, moral essays by the editor, elaborate hoaxes, and pungent political or social criticism. Often the editor wrote and printed letters to himself, either to emphasize some truth or to give him the opportunity to ridicule some folly in a reply to "Alice Addertongue," "Anthony Afterwit," or other mythical but none the less typical person.
If the countryman did not read a newspaper, or buy books, he was, at any rate, sure to own an almanac. So in 1732 Franklin brought out "Poor Richard's Almanac". Three editions were sold within a few months. Year after year the sayings of Richard Saunders, the alleged publisher, and Bridget, his wife, creations of Franklin's fancy, were printed in the almanac. Years later the most striking of these sayings were collected and published. This work has been translated into as many as twenty languages and is still in circulation today.
Franklin kept a shop in connection with his printing office, where he sold a strange variety of goods: legal blanks, ink, pens, paper, books, maps, pictures, chocolate, coffee, cheese, codfish, soap, linseed oil, broadcloth, Godfrey's cordial, tea, spectacles, rattlesnake root, lottery tickets, and stoves—to mention only a few of the many articles he advertised. Deborah Read, who became his wife in 1730, looked after his house, tended shop, folded and stitched pamphlets, bought rags, and helped him to live economically. "We kept no idle servants," says Franklin, "our table was plain and simple, our furniture of the cheapest. For instance, my breakfast was a long time bread and milk (no tea), and I ate it out of a twopenny earthen porringer with a pewter spoon."
With all this frugality, Franklin was not a miser; he abhorred the waste of money, not the proper use. His wealth increased rapidly. "I experienced too," he says, "the truth of the observation, 'THAT AFTER GETTING THE FIRST HUNDRED POUND, IT IS MORE EASY TO GET THE SECOND, money itself being of a prolific nature." He gave much unpaid public service and subscribed generously to public purposes; yet he was able, at the early age of forty-two, to turn over his printing office to one of his journeymen, and to retire from active business, intending to devote himself thereafter to such public employment as should come his way, to philosophical or scientific studies, and to amusements.
From boyhood Franklin had been interested in natural phenomena. His "Journal of a Voyage from London to Philadelphia", written at sea as he returned from his first stay in London, shows unusual powers of exact observation for a youth of twenty. Many of the questions he propounded to the Junto had a scientific bearing. He made an original and important invention in 1749, the "Pennsylvania fireplace," which, under the name of the Franklin stove, is in common use to this day, and which brought to the ill-made houses of the time increased comfort and a great saving of fuel. But it brought Franklin no pecuniary reward, for he never deigned to patent any of his inventions.
His active, inquiring mind played upon hundreds of questions in a dozen different branches of science. He studied smoky chimneys; he invented bifocal spectacles; he studied the effect of oil upon ruffled water; he identified the "dry bellyache" as lead poisoning; he preached ventilation in the days when windows were closed tight at night, and upon the sick at all times; he investigated fertilizers in agriculture. Many of his suggestions have since borne fruit, and his observations show that he foresaw some of the great developments of the nineteenth century.
His fame in science rests chiefly upon his discoveries in electricity. On a visit to Boston in 1746 he saw some electrical experiments and at once became deeply interested. Peter Collinson of London, a Fellow of the Royal Society, who had made several gifts to the Philadelphia Library, sent over some of the crude electrical apparatus of the day, which Franklin used, as well as some contrivances he had purchased in Boston. He says in a letter to Collinson: "For my own part, I never was before engaged in any study that so engrossed my attention and my time as this has lately done."
Franklin's letters to Collinson tell of his first experiments and speculations as to the nature of electricity. Experiments made by a little group of friends showed the effect of pointed bodies in drawing off electricity. He decided that electricity was not the result of friction, but that the mysterious force was diffused through most substances, and that nature is always alert to restore its equilibrium. He developed the theory of positive and negative electricity, or plus and minus electrification. The same letter tells of some of the tricks which the little group of experimenters were accustomed to play upon their wondering neighbors. They set alcohol on fire, relighted candles just blown out, produced mimic flashes of lightning, gave shocks on touching or kissing, and caused an artificial spider to move mysteriously.
Franklin carried on experiments with the Leyden jar, made an electrical battery, killed a fowl and roasted it upon a spit turned by electricity, sent a current through water and found it still able to ignite alcohol, ignited gunpowder, and charged glasses of wine so that the drinkers received shocks. More important, perhaps, he began to develop the theory of the identity of lightning and electricity, and the possibility of protecting buildings by iron rods. By means of an iron rod he brought down electricity into his house, where he studied its effect upon bells and concluded that clouds were generally negatively electrified. In June, 1752, he performed the famous experiment with the kite, drawing down electricity from the clouds and charging a Leyden jar from the key at the end of the string.
Franklin's letters to Collinson were read before the Royal Society but were unnoticed. Collinson gathered them together, and they were published in a pamphlet which attracted wide attention. Translated into French, they created great excitement, and Franklin's conclusions were generally accepted by the scientific men of Europe. The Royal Society, tardily awakened, elected Franklin a member and in 1753 awarded him the Copley medal with a complimentary address.*
* It may be useful to mention some of the scientific facts and mechanical principles which were known to Europeans at this time. More than one learned essay has been written to prove the mechanical indebtedness of the modern world to the ancient, particularly to the works of those mechanically minded Greeks: Archimedes, Aristotle, Ctesibius, and Hero of Alexandria. The Greeks employed the lever, the tackle, and the crane, the force-pump, and the suction-pump. They had discovered that steam could be mechanically applied, though they never made any practical use of steam. In common with other ancients they knew the principle of the mariner's compass. The Egyptians had the water-wheel and the rudimentary blast-furnace. The pendulum clock appears to have been an invention of the Middle Ages. The art of printing from movable type, beginning with Gutenberg about 1450, helped to further the Renaissance. The improved mariner's compass enabled Columbus to find the New world; gunpowder made possible its conquest. The compound microscope and the first practical telescope came from the spectacle makers of Middelburg, Holland, the former about 1590 and the latter about 1608. Harvey, an English physician, had discovered the circulation of the blood in 1628, and Newton, an English mathematician, the law of gravitation in 1685.
If Franklin's desire to continue his scientific researches had been gratified, it is possible that he might have discovered some of the secrets for which the world waited until Edison and his contemporaries revealed them more than a century later. Franklin's scientific reputation has grown with the years, and some of his views seem in perfect accord with the latest developments in electricity. But he was not to be permitted to continue his experiments. He had shown his ability to manage men and was to be called to a wider field.
Franklin's influence among his fellow citizens in Philadelphia was very great. Always ostensibly keeping himself in the background and working through others, never contradicting, but carrying his point by shrewd questions which showed the folly of the contrary position, he continued to set on foot and carry out movements for the public good. He established the first circulating library in Philadelphia, and one of the first in the country, and an academy which grew into the University of Pennsylvania. He was instrumental in the foundation of a hospital. "I am often ask'd by those to whom I propose subscribing," said one of the doctors who had made fruitless attempts to raise money for the hospital, "Have you consulted Franklin upon this business?" Other public matters in which the busy printer was engaged were the paving and cleaning of the streets, better street lighting, the organization of a police force and of a fire company. A pamphlet which he published, "Plain Truth", showing the helplessness of the colony against the French and Indians, led to the organization of a volunteer militia, and funds were raised for arms by a lottery. Franklin himself was elected colonel of the Philadelphia regiment, "but considering myself unfit, I declined the station and recommended Mr. Lawrence, a fine person and man of influence, who was accordingly appointed." In spite of his militarism, Franklin retained the position which he held as Clerk of the Assembly, though the majority of the members were Quakers opposed to war on principle.
The American Philosophical Society owes its origin to Franklin. It was formally organized on his motion in 1743, but the society has accepted the organization of the Junto in 1727 as the actual date of its birth. From the beginning the society has had among its members many leading men of scientific attainments or tastes, not only of Philadelphia, but of the world. In 1769 the original society was consolidated with another of similar aims, and Franklin, who was the first secretary of the society, was elected president and served until his death. The first important undertaking was the successful observation of the transit of Venus in 1769, and many important scientific discoveries have since been made by its members and first given to the world at its meetings.
Franklin's appointment as one of the two Deputy Postmasters General of the colonies in 1753 enlarged his experience and his reputation. He visited nearly all the post offices in the colonies and introduced many improvements into the service. In none of his positions did his transcendent business ability show to better advantage. He established new postal routes and shortened others. There were no good roads in the colonies, but his post riders made what then seemed wonderful speed. The bags were opened to newspapers, the carrying of which had previously been a private and unlawful perquisite of the riders. Previously there had been one mail a week in summer between New York and Philadelphia and one a month in winter. The service was increased to three a week in summer and one in winter.
The main post road ran from northern New England to Savannah, closely hugging the seacoast for the greater part of the way. Some of the milestones set by Franklin to enable the postmasters to compute the postage, which was fixed according to distance, are still standing. Crossroads connected some of the larger communities away from the seacoast with the main road, but when Franklin died, after serving also as Postmaster General of the United States, there were only seventy-five post offices in the entire country.
Franklin took a hand in the final struggle between France and England in America. On the eve of the conflict, in 1754, commissioners from the several colonies were ordered to convene at Albany for a conference with the Six Nations of the Iroquois, and Franklin was one of the deputies from Pennsylvania. On his way to Albany he "projected and drew a plan for the union of all the colonies under one government so far as might be necessary for defense and other important general purposes." This statesmanlike "Albany Plan of Union," however, came to nothing. "Its fate was singular," says Franklin; "the assemblies did not adopt it, as they all thought there was too much PREROGATIVE in it and in England it was judg'd to have too much of the DEMOCRATIC."
How to raise funds for defense was always a grave problem in the colonies, for the assemblies controlled the purse-strings and released them with a grudging hand. In face of the French menace, this was Governor Shirley's problem in Massachusetts, Governor Dinwiddie's in Virginia, and Franklin's in the Quaker and proprietary province of Pennsylvania. Franklin opposed Shirley's suggestion of a general tax to be levied on the colonies by Parliament, on the ground of no taxation without representation, but used all his arts to bring the Quaker Assembly to vote money for defense, and succeeded. When General Braddock arrived in Virginia Franklin was sent by the Assembly to confer with him in the hope of allaying any prejudice against Quakers that the general might have conceived. If that blustering and dull-witted soldier had any such prejudice, it melted away when the envoy of the Quakers promised to procure wagons for the army. The story of Braddock's disaster does not belong here, but Franklin formed a shrewd estimate of the man which proved accurate. His account of Braddock's opinion of the colonial militia is given in a sentence: "He smil'd at my ignorance, and reply'd, 'These savages may, indeed, be a formidable enemy to your raw American militia, but upon the King's regular and disciplin'd troops, sir, it is impossible they should make any impression.'" After Braddock's defeat the Pennsylvania Assembly voted more money for defense, and the unmilitary Franklin was placed in command of the frontier with full power. He built forts, as he had planned, and incidentally learned much of the beliefs of a group of settlers in the back country, the "Unitas Fratrum," better known as the Moravians.
The death struggle between English and French in America served only to intensify a lesser conflict that was being waged between the Assembly and the proprietors of Pennsylvania; and the Assembly determined to send Franklin to London to seek judgment against the proprietors and to request the King to take away from them the government of Pennsylvania. Franklin, accompanied by his son William, reached London in July, 1757, and from this time on his life was to be closely linked with Europe. He returned to America six years later and made a trip of sixteen hundred miles inspecting postal affairs, but in 1764 he was again sent to England to renew the petition for a royal government for Pennsylvania, which had not yet been granted. Presently that petition was made obsolete by the Stamp Act, and Franklin became the representative of the American colonies against King and Parliament.
Franklin did his best to avert the Revolution. He made many friends in England, wrote pamphlets and articles, told comical stories and fables where they might do some good, and constantly strove to enlighten the ruling class of England upon conditions and sentiment in the colonies. His examination before the House of Commons in February, 1766, marks perhaps the zenith of his intellectual powers. His wide knowledge, his wonderful poise, his ready wit, his marvelous gift for clear and epigrammatic statement, were never exhibited to better advantage and no doubt hastened the repeal of the Stamp Act. Franklin remained in England nine years longer, but his efforts to reconcile the conflicting claims of Parliament and the colonies were of no avail, and early in 1775 he sailed for home.
Franklin's stay in America lasted only eighteen months, yet during that time he sat in the Continental Congress and as a member of the most important committees; submitted a plan for a union of the colonies; served as Postmaster General and as chairman of the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety; visited Washington at Cambridge; went to Montreal to do what he could for the cause of independence in Canada; presided over the convention which framed a constitution for Pennsylvania; was a member of the committee appointed to draft the Declaration of Independence and of the committee sent on the futile mission to New York to discuss terms of peace with Lord Howe.
In September, 1776, Franklin was appointed envoy to France and sailed soon afterwards. The envoys appointed to act with him proved a handicap rather than a help, and the great burden of a difficult and momentous mission was thus laid upon an old man of seventy. But no other American could have taken his place. His reputation in France was already made, through his books and inventions and discoveries. To the corrupt and licentious court he was the personification of the age of simplicity, which it was the fashion to admire; to the learned, he was a sage; to the common man he was the apotheosis of all the virtues; to the rabble he was little less than a god. Great ladies sought his smiles; nobles treasured a kindly word; the shopkeeper hung his portrait on the wall; and the people drew aside in the streets that he might pass without annoyance. Through all this adulation Franklin passed serenely, if not unconsciously.
The French ministers were not at first willing to make a treaty of alliance, but under Franklin's influence they lent money to the struggling colonies. Congress sought to finance the war by the issue of paper currency and by borrowing rather than by taxation, and sent bill after bill to Franklin, who somehow managed to meet them by putting his pride in his pocket, and applying again and again to the French Government. He fitted out privateers and negotiated with the British concerning prisoners. At length he won from France recognition of the United States and then the Treaty of Alliance.
Not until two years after the Peace of 1783 would Congress permit the veteran to come home. And when he did return in 1785 his people would not allow him to rest. At once he was elected President of the Council of Pennsylvania and twice reelected in spite of his protests. He was sent to the Convention of 1787 which framed the Constitution of the United States. There he spoke seldom but always to the point, and the Constitution is the better for his suggestions. With pride he axed his signature to that great instrument, as he had previously signed the Albany Plan of Union, the Declaration of Independence, and the Treaty of Paris.
Benjamin Franklin's work was done. He was now an old man of eighty-two summers and his feeble body was racked by a painful malady. Yet he kept his face towards the morning. About a hundred of his letters, written after this time, have been preserved. These letters show no retrospection, no looking backward. They never mention "the good old times." As long as he lived, Franklin looked forward. His interest in the mechanical arts and in scientific progress seems never to have abated. He writes in October, 1787, to a friend in France, describing his experience with lightning conductors and referring to the work of David Rittenhouse, the celebrated astronomer of Philadelphia. On the 31st of May in the following year he is writing to the Reverend John Lathrop of Boston:
"I have long been impressed with the same sentiments you so well express, of the growing felicity of mankind, from the improvement in philosophy, morals, politics, and even the conveniences of common living, and the invention of new and useful utensils and instruments; so that I have sometimes wished it had been my destiny to be born two or three centuries hence. For invention and improvement are prolific, and beget more of their kind. The present progress is rapid. Many of great importance, now unthought of, will, before that period, be produced."
Thus the old philosopher felt the thrill of dawn and knew that the day of great mechanical inventions was at hand. He had read the meaning of the puffing of the young steam engine of James Watt and he had heard of a marvelous series of British inventions for spinning and weaving. He saw that his own countrymen were astir, trying to substitute the power of steam for the strength of muscles and the fitful wind. John Fitch on the Delaware and James Rumsey on the Potomac were already moving vessels by steam. John Stevens of New York and Hoboken had set up a machine shop that was to mean much to mechanical progress in America. Oliver Evans, a mechanical genius of Delaware, was dreaming of the application of high-pressure steam to both road and water carriages. Such manifestations, though still very faint, were to Franklin the signs of a new era.
And so, with vision undimmed, America's most famous citizen lived on until near the end of the first year of George Washington's administration. On April 17, 1790, his unconquerable spirit took its flight.
In that year, 1790, was taken the First Census of the United States. The new nation had a population of about four million people. It then included practically the present territory east of the Mississippi, except the Floridas, which belonged to Spain. But only a small part of this territory was occupied. Much of New York and Pennsylvania was savage wilderness. Only the seacoast of Maine was inhabited, and the eighty-two thousand inhabitants of Georgia hugged the Savannah River. Hardy pioneers had climbed the Alleghanies into Kentucky and Tennessee, but the Northwest Territory—comprising Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin—was not enumerated at all, so scanty were its people, perhaps not more than four thousand.
Though the First Census did not classify the population by occupation it is certain that nine-tenths of the breadwinners worked more or less upon the soil. The remaining tenth were engaged in trade, transportation, manufacturing, fishing and included also the professional men, doctors, lawyers, clergymen, teachers, and the like. In other words, nine out of ten of the population were engaged primarily in the production of food, an occupation which today engages less than three out of ten. This comparison, however, requires some qualification. The farmer and the farmer's wife and children performed many tasks which are now done in factories. The successful farmer on the frontier had to be a jack of many trades. Often he tanned leather and made shoes for his family and harness for his horses. He was carpenter, blacksmith, cobbler, and often boat-builder and fisherman as well. His wife made soap and candles, spun yarn and dyed it, wove cloth and made the clothes the family wore, to mention only a few of the tasks of the women of the eighteenth century.
The organization of industry, however, was beginning. Here and there were small paper mills, glass factories-though many houses in the back country were without glass windows—potteries, and iron foundries and forges. Capitalists, in some places, had brought together a few handloom weavers to make cloth for sale, and the famous shoemakers of Massachusetts commonly worked in groups.
The mineral resources of the United States were practically unknown. The country seems to have produced iron enough for its simple needs, some coal, copper, lead, gold, silver, and sulphur. But we may say that mining was hardly practiced at all.
The fisheries and the shipyards were great sources of wealth, especially for New England. The cod fishers numbered several hundred vessels and the whalers about forty. Thousands of citizens living along the seashore and the rivers fished more or less to add to the local food supply. The deep-sea fishermen exported a part of their catch, dried and salted. Yankee vessels sailed to all ports of the world and carried the greater part of the foreign commerce of the United States. Flour, tobacco, rice, wheat, corn, dried fish, potash, indigo, and staves were the principal exports. Great Britain was the best customer, with the French West Indies next, and then the British West Indies. The principal imports came from the same countries. Imports and exports practically balanced each other, at about twenty million dollars annually, or about five dollars a head. The great merchants owned ships and many of them, such as John Hancock of Boston, and Stephen Girard of Philadelphia, had grown very rich.
Inland transportation depended on horses and oxen or boats. There were few good roads, sometimes none at all save bridle paths and trails. The settlers along the river valleys used boats almost entirely. Stage-coaches made the journey from New York to Boston in four days in summer and in six in winter. Two days were required to go between New York and Philadelphia. Forty to fifty miles a day was the speed of the best coaches, provided always that they did not tumble into the ditch. In many parts of the country one must needs travel on horseback or on foot.
Even the wealthiest Americans of those days had few or none of the articles which we regard today as necessities of life. The houses were provided with open—which, however cheerful, did not keep them warm—or else with Franklin's stoves. To strike a fire one must have the flint and tinderbox, for matches were unknown until about 1830. Candles made the darkness visible. There was neither plumbing nor running water. Food was cooked in the ashes or over an open fire.
The farmer's tools were no less crude than his wife's. His plough had been little improved since the days of Rameses. He sowed his wheat by hand, cut it with a sickle, flailed it out upon the floor, and laboriously winnowed away the chaff.
In that same year, 1790, came a great boon and encouragement to inventors, the first Federal Patent Act, passed by Congress on the 10th of April. Every State had its own separate patent laws or regulations, as an inheritance from colonial days, but the Fathers of the Constitution had wisely provided that this function of government should be exercised by the nation.* The Patent Act, however, was for a time unpopular, and some States granted monopolies, particularly of transportation, until they were forbidden to do so by judicial decision.
* The Constitution (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8) empowers Congress: "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."
The first Patent Act provided that an examining board, consisting of the Secretary of State, the Secretary of War, and the Attorney-General, or any two of them, might grant a patent for fourteen years, if they deemed the invention useful and important. The patent itself was to be engrossed and signed by the President, the Secretary of State, and the Attorney-General. And the cost was to be three dollars and seventy cents, plus the cost of copying the specifications at ten cents a sheet.
The first inventor to avail himself of the advantages of the new Patent Act was Samuel Hopkins of Vermont, who received a patent on the 31st of July for an improved method of "Making Pot and Pearl Ashes." The world knows nothing of this Samuel Hopkins, but the potash industry, which was evidently on his mind, was quite important in his day. Potash, that is, crude potassium carbonate, useful in making soap and in the manufacture of glass, was made by leaching wood ashes and boiling down the lye. To produce a ton of potash, the trees on an acre of ground would be cut down and burned, the ashes leached, and the lye evaporated in great iron kettles. A ton of potash was worth about twenty-five dollars. Nothing could show more plainly the relative value of money and human labor in those early times.
Two more patents were issued during the year 1790. The second went to Joseph S. Sampson of Boston for a method of making candles, and the third to Oliver Evans, of whom we shall learn more presently, for an improvement in manufacturing flour and meal. The fourth patent was granted in 1791 to Francis Baily of Philadelphia for making punches for types. Next Aaron Putnam of Medford, Massachusetts, thought that he could improve methods of distilling, and John Stone of Concord, Massachusetts, offered a new method of driving piles for bridges. And a versatile inventor, Samuel Mulliken of Philadelphia, received four patents in one day for threshing grain, cutting and polishing marble, raising a nap on cloth, and breaking hemp.
Then came improvements in making nails, in making bedsteads, in the manufacture of boats, and for propelling boats by cattle. On August 26, 1791, James Rumsey, John Stevens, and John Fitch (all three will appear again in this narrative) took out patents on means of propelling boats. On the same day Nathan Read received one on a process for distilling alcohol.
More than fifty patents were granted under the Patent Act of 1790, and mechanical devices were coming in so thick and fast that the department heads apparently found it inconvenient to hear applications. So the Act of 1790 was repealed. The second Patent Act (1793) provided that a patent should be granted as a matter of routine to any one who swore to the originality of his device and paid the sum of thirty dollars as a fee. No one except a citizen, however, could receive a patent. This act, with some amendments, remained in force until 1836, when the present Patent Office was organized with a rigorous and intricate system for examination of all claims in order to prevent interference. Protection of the property rights of inventors has been from the beginning of the nation a definite American policy, and to this policy may be ascribed innumerable inventions which have contributed to the greatness of American industry and multiplied the world's comforts and conveniences.
Under the second Patent Act came the most important invention yet offered, an invention which was to affect generations then unborn. This was a machine for cleaning cotton and it was offered by a young Yankee schoolmaster, temporarily sojourning in the South.
CHAPTER II. ELI WHITNEY AND THE COTTON GIN
The cotton industry is one of the most ancient. One or more of the many species of the cotton plant is indigenous to four continents, Asia, Africa, and the Americas, and the manufacture of the fiber into yarn and cloth seems to have developed independently in each of them. We find mention of cotton in India fifteen hundred years before Christ. The East Indians, with only the crudest machinery, spun yarn and wove cloth as diaphanous as the best appliances of the present day have been able to produce.
Alexander the Great introduced the "vegetable wool" into Europe. The fable of the "vegetable lamb of Tartary" persisted almost down to modern times. The Moors cultivated cotton in Spain on an extensive scale, but after their expulsion the industry languished. The East India Company imported cotton fabrics into England early in the seventeenth century, and these fabrics made their way in spite of the bitter opposition of the woolen interests, which were at times strong enough to have the use of cotton cloth prohibited by law. But when the Manchester spinners took up the manufacture of cotton, the fight was won. The Manchester spinners, however, used linen for their warp threads, for without machinery they could not spin threads sufficiently strong from the short-fibered Indian cotton.
In the New World the Spanish explorers found cotton and cotton fabrics in use everywhere. Columbus, Cortes, Pizarro, Magellan, and others speak of the various uses to which the fiber was put, and admired the striped awnings and the colored mantles made by the natives. It seems probable that cotton was in use in the New World quite as early as in India.
The first English settlers in America found little or no cotton among the natives. But they soon began to import the fiber from the West Indies, whence came also the plant itself into the congenial soil and climate of the Southern colonies. During the colonial period, however, cotton never became the leading crop, hardly an important crop. Cotton could be grown profitably only where there was an abundant supply of exceedingly cheap labor, and labor in America, white or black, was never and could never be as cheap as in India. American slaves could be much more profitably employed in the cultivation of rice and indigo.
Three varieties of the cotton plant were grown in the South. Two kinds of the black-seed or long-staple variety thrived in the sea-islands and along the coast from Delaware to Georgia, but only the hardier and more prolific green-seed or short-staple cotton could be raised inland. The labor of cultivating and harvesting cotton of any kind was very great. The fiber, growing in bolls resembling a walnut in size and shape, had to be taken by hand from every boll, as it has to be today, for no satisfactory cotton harvester has yet been invented. But in the case of the green-seed or upland cotton, the only kind which could ever be cultivated extensively in the South, there was another and more serious obstacle in the way, namely, the difficulty of separating the fiber from the seeds. No machine yet devised could perform this tedious and unprofitable task. For the black-seed or sea-island cotton, the churka, or roller gin, used in India from time immemorial, drawing the fiber slowly between a pair of rollers to push out the seeds, did the work imperfectly, but this churka was entirely useless for the green-seed variety, the fiber of which clung closely to the seed and would yield only to human hands. The quickest and most skillful pair of hands could separate only a pound or two of lint from its three pounds of seeds in an ordinary working day. Usually the task was taken up at the end of the day, when the other work was done. The slaves sat round an overseer who shook the dozing and nudged the slow. It was also the regular task for a rainy day. It is not surprising, then, that cotton was scarce, that flax and wool in that day were the usual textiles, that in 1783 wool furnished about seventy-seven per cent, flax about eighteen per cent, and cotton only about five per cent of the clothing of the people of Europe and the United States.
That series of inventions designed for the manufacture of cloth, and destined to transform Great Britain, the whole world, in fact, was already completed in Franklin's time. Beginning with the flying shuttle of John Kay in 1738, followed by the spinning jenny of James Hargreaves in 1764, the water-frame of Richard Arkwright in 1769, and the mule of Samuel Crompton ten years later, machines were provided which could spin any quantity of fiber likely to be offered. And when, in 1787, Edmund Cartwright, clergyman and poet, invented the self-acting loom to which power might be applied, the series was complete. These inventions, supplementing the steam engine of James Watt, made the Industrial Revolution. They destroyed the system of cottage manufactures in England and gave birth to the great textile establishments of today.
The mechanism for the production of cloth on a great scale was provided, if only the raw material could be found.
The romance of cotton begins on a New England farm. It was on a farm in the town (township) of Westboro, in Worcester County, Massachusetts, in the year 1765, that Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin, was born. Eli's father was a man of substance and standing in the community, a mechanic as well as a farmer, who occupied his leisure in making articles for his neighbors. We are told that young Eli displayed a passion for tools almost as soon as he could walk, that he made a violin at the age of twelve and about the same time took his father's watch to pieces surreptitiously and succeeded in putting it together again so successfully as to escape detection. He was able to make a table knife to match the others of a broken set. As a boy of fifteen or sixteen, during the War of Independence, he was supplying the neighborhood with hand-made nails and various other articles. Though he had not been a particularly apt pupil in the schools, he conceived the ambition of attending college; and so, after teaching several winters in rural schools, he went to Yale. He appears to have paid his own way through college by the exercise of his mechanical talents. He is said to have mended for the college some imported apparatus which otherwise would have had to go to the old country for repairs. "There was a good mechanic spoiled when you came to college," he was told by a carpenter in the town. There was no "Sheff" at Yale in those days to give young men like Whitney scientific instruction; so, defying the bent of his abilities, Eli went on with his academic studies, graduated in 1792, at the age of twenty-seven, and decided to be a teacher or perhaps a lawyer.
Like so many young New Englanders of the time, Whitney sought employment in the South. Having received the promise of a position in South Carolina, he embarked at New York, soon after his graduation, on a sailing vessel bound for Savannah. On board he met the widow of General Nathanael Greene of Revolutionary fame, and this lady invited him to visit her plantation at Mulberry Grove, near Savannah. What happened then is best told by Eli Whitney himself, in a letter to his father, written at New Haven, after his return from the South some months later, though the spelling master will probably send Whitney to the foot of the class:
"New Haven, Sept. 11th, 1793.
"... I went from N. York with the family of the late Major General Greene to Georgia. I went immediately with the family to their Plantation about twelve miles from Savannah with an expectation of spending four or five days and then proceed into Carolina to take the school as I have mentioned in former letters. During this time I heard much said of the extreme difficulty of ginning Cotton, that is, separating it from its seeds. There were a number of very respectable Gentlemen at Mrs. Greene's who all agreed that if a machine could be invented which would clean the cotton with expedition, it would be a great thing both to the Country and to the inventor. I involuntarily happened to be thinking on the subject and struck out a plan of a Machine in my mind, which I communicated to Miller (who is agent to the Executors of Genl. Greene and resides in the family, a man of respectability and property), he was pleased with the Plan and said if I would pursue it and try an experiment to see if it would answer, he would be at the whole expense, I should loose nothing but my time, and if I succeeded we would share the profits. Previous to this I found I was like to be disappointed in my school, that is, instead of a hundred, I found I could get only fifty Guineas a year. I however held the refusal of the school until I tried some experiments. In about ten Days I made a little model, for which I was offered, if I would give up all right and title to it, a Hundred Guineas. I concluded to relinquish my school and turn my attention to perfecting the Machine. I made one before I came away which required the labor of one man to turn it and with which one man will clean ten times as much cotton as he can in any other way before known and also cleanse it much better than in the usual mode. This machine may be turned by water or with a horse, with the greatest ease, and one man and a horse will do more than fifty men with the old machines. It makes the labor fifty times less, without throwing any class of People out of business.
"I returned to the Northward for the purpose of having a machine made on a large scale and obtaining a Patent for the invention. I went to Philadelphia* soon after I arrived, made myself acquainted with the steps necessary to obtain a Patent, took several of the steps and the Secretary of State Mr. Jefferson agreed to send the Patent to me as soon it could be made out—so that I apprehended no difficulty in obtaining the Patent—Since I have been here I have employed several workmen in making machines and as soon as my business is such that I can leave it a few days, I shall come to Westboro'**. I think it is probable I shall go to Philadelphia again before I come to Westboro', and when I do come I shall be able to stay but few days. I am certain I can obtain a patent in England. As soon as I have got a Patent in America I shall go with the machine which I am now making, to Georgia, where I shall stay a few weeks to see it at work. From thence I expect to go to England, where I shall probably continue two or three years. How advantageous this business will eventually prove to me, I cannot say. It is generally said by those who know anything about it, that I shall make a Fortune by it. I have no expectation that I shall make an independent fortune by it, but think I had better pursue it than any other business into which I can enter. Something which cannot be foreseen may frustrate my expectations and defeat my Plan; but I am now so sure of success that ten thousand dollars, if I saw the money counted out to me, would not tempt me to give up my right and relinquish the object. I wish you, sir, not to show this letter nor communicate anything of its contents to any body except My Brothers and Sister, ENJOINING it on them to keep the whole A PROFOUND SECRET."
* Then the national capital.
** Hammond, "Correspondence of Eli Whitney," American Historical Review, vol. III, p. 99. The other citations in this chapter are from the same source, unless otherwise stated.
The invention, however, could not be kept "a profound secret," for knowledge of it was already out in the cotton country. Whitney's hostess, Mrs. Greene, had shown the wonderful machine to some friends, who soon spread the glad tidings, and planters, near and far, had come to Mulberry Grove to see it. The machine was of very simple construction; any blacksmith or wheelwright, knowing the principle of the design, could make one. Even before Whitney could obtain his patent, cotton gins based on his were being manufactured and used.
Whitney received his patent in March, 1794, and entered on his new work with enthusiasm. His partner, Phineas Miller, was a cultivated New England gentleman, a graduate of Yale College, who, like Whitney, had sought his fortune as a teacher in the South. He had been a tutor in the Greene household and on General Greene's death had taken over the management of his estates. He afterwards married Mrs. Greene. The partners decided to manufacture the machines in New Haven, Whitney to give his time to the production, Miller to furnish the capital and attend to the firm's interests in the South.
At the outset the partners blundered seriously in their plan for commercializing the invention. They planned to buy seed cotton and clean it themselves; also to clean cotton for the planters on the familiar toll system, as in grinding grain, taking a toll of one pound of cotton out of every three. "Whitney's plan in Georgia," says a recent writer, "as shown by his letters and other evidence, was to own all the gins and gin all the cotton made in the country. It is but human nature that this sort of monopoly should be odious to any community."* Miller appears to have calculated that the planters could afford to pay for the use of the new invention about one-half of all the profits they derived from its use. An equal division, between the owners of the invention on the one hand and the cotton growers on the other, of all the super-added wealth arising from the invention, seemed to him fair. Apparently the full meaning of such an arrangement did not enter his mind. Perhaps Miller and Whitney did not see at first that the new invention would cause a veritable industrial revolution, or that the system they planned, if it could be made effective, would make them absolute masters of the cotton country, with the most stupendous monopoly in the world. Nor do they appear to have realized that, considering the simple construction of their machine and the loose operation of the patent law at that time, the planters of the South would never submit to so great a tribute as they proposed to exact. Their attempt in the first instance to set up an unfair monopoly brought them presently into a sea of troubles, which they never passed out of, even when they afterwards changed their tack and offered to sell the machines with a license, or a license alone, at a reasonable price.
* Tompkins, "Cotton and Cotton Oil", p. 86.
Misfortune pursued the partners from the beginning. Whitney writes to his father from New Haven in May, 1794, that his machines in Georgia are working well, but that he apprehends great difficulty in manufacturing them as fast as they are needed. In March of the following year he writes again, saying that his factory in New Haven has been destroyed by fire: "When I returned home from N. York I found my property all in ashes! My shop, all my tools, material and work equal to twenty finished cotton machines all gone. The manner in which it took fire is altogether unaccountable." Besides, the partners found themselves in distress for lack of capital. Then word came from England that the Manchester spinners had found the ginned cotton to contain knots, and this was sufficient to start the rumor throughout the South that Whitney's gin injured the cotton fiber and that cotton cleaned by them was worthless. It was two years before this ghost was laid. Meanwhile Whitney's patent was being infringed on every hand. "They continue to clean great quantities of cotton with Lyon's Gin and sell it advantageously while the Patent ginned cotton is run down as good for nothing," writes Miller to Whitney in September, 1797. Miller and Whitney brought suits against the infringers but they could obtain no redress in the courts.
Whitney's attitude of mind during these troubles is shown in his letters. He says the statement that his machines injure the cotton is false, that the source of the trouble is bad cotton, which he ventures to think is improved fifty per cent by the use of his gin, and that it is absurd to say that the cotton could be injured in any way in the process of cleaning. "I think," he says, writing to Miller, "you will be able to convince the CANDID that this is quite a mistaken notion and them that WILL NOT BELIEVE may be damn'd." Again, writing later to his friend Josiah Stebbins in New England: "I have a set of the most Depraved villains to combat and I might almost as well go to HELL in search of HAPPINESS as apply to a Georgia Court for Justice." And again: "You know I always believed in the 'DEPRAVITY OF HUMAN NATURE.' I thought I was long ago sufficiently 'grounded and stablished' in this Doctrine. But God Almighty is continually pouring down cataracts of testimony upon me to convince me of this fact. 'Lord I believe, help thou,' not 'mine unbelief,' but me to overcome the rascality of mankind." His partner Miller, on the other hand, is inclined to be more philosophical and suggests to Whitney that "we take the affairs of this world patiently and that the little dust which we may stir up about cotton may after all not make much difference with our successors one hundred, much less one thousand years hence." Miller, however, finally concluded that, "the prospect of making anything by ginning in this State [Georgia] is at an end. Surreptitious gins are being erected in every part of the country; and the jurymen at Augusta have come to an understanding among themselves, that they will never give a verdict in our favor, let the merits of the case be as they may."*
* Cited in Roe, "English and American Tool Builders", p. 153.
Miller and Whitney were somewhat more fortunate in other States than in Georgia though they nowhere received from the cotton gin enough to compensate them for their time and trouble nor more than a pitiable fraction of the great value of their invention. South Carolina, in 1801, voted them fifty thousand dollars for their patent rights, twenty thousand dollars to be paid down and the remainder in three annual payments of ten thousand dollars each. "We get but a song for it," wrote Whitney, "in comparison with the worth of the thing, but it is securing something." Why the partners were willing to take so small a sum was later explained by Miller. They valued the rights for South Carolina at two hundred thousand dollars, but, since the patent law was being infringed with impunity, they were willing to take half that amount; "and had flattered themselves," wrote Miller, "that a sense of dignity and justice on the part of that honorable body [the Legislature] would not have countenanced an offer of a less sum than one hundred thousand dollars. Finding themselves, however, to be mistaken in this opinion, and entertaining a belief that the failure of such negotiation, after it commenced, would have a tendency to diminish the prospect, already doubtful, of enforcing the Patent Law, it was concluded to be best under existing circumstances to accept the very inadequate sum of fifty thousand dollars offered by the Legislature and thereby relinquish and entirely abandon three-fourths of the actual value of the property."
But even the fifty thousand dollars was not collected without difficulty. South Carolina suspended the contract, after paying twenty thousand dollars, and sued Miller and Whitney for recovery of the sum paid, on the ground that the partners had not complied with the conditions. Whitney succeeded, in 1805, in getting the Legislature to reinstate the contract and pay him the remainder of the money. Miller, discouraged and broken by the long struggle, had died in the meantime.
The following passage from a letter written by Whitney in February, 1805, to Josiah Stebbins, gives Whitney's views as to the treatment he had received at the hands of the authorities. He is writing from the residence of a friend near Orangeburg, South Carolina.
"The principal object of my present excursion to this Country was to get this business set right; which I have so far effected as to induce the Legislature of this State to recind all their former SUSPENDING LAWS and RESOLUTIONS, to agree once more to pay the sum of 30,000 Dollars which was due and make the necessary appropriations for that purpose. I have as yet however obtained but a small part of this payment. The residue is promised me in July next. Thus you see my RECOMPENSE OF REWARD is as the land of Canaan was to the Jews, resting a long while in promise. If the Nations with whom I have to contend are not as numerous as those opposed to the Israelites, they are certainly much greater HEATHENS, having their hearts hardened and their understanding blinded, to make, propagate and believe all manner of lies. Verily, Stebbins, I have had much vexation of spirit in this business. I shall spend forty thousand dollars to obtain thirty, and it will all end in vanity at last. A contract had been made with the State of Tennessee which now hangs SUSPENDED. Two attempts have been made to induce the State of No. Carolina to RECIND their CONTRACT, neither of which have succeeded. Thus you see Brother Steb. Sovreign and Independent States warped by INTEREST will be ROGUES and misled by Demagogues will be FOOLS. They have spent much time, MONEY and CREDIT, to avoid giving me a small compensation, for that which to them is worth millions."
Meanwhile North Carolina had agreed to buy the rights for the State on terms that yielded Whitney about thirty thousand dollars, and it is estimated that he received about ten thousand dollars from Tennessee, making his receipts in all about ninety thousand dollars, before deducting costs of litigation and other losses. The cotton gin was not profitable to its inventor. And yet no invention in history ever so suddenly transformed an industry and created enormous wealth. Eight years before Whitney's invention, eight bales of cotton, landed at Liverpool, were seized on the ground that so large a quantity of cotton could not have been produced in the United States. The year before that invention the United States exported less than one hundred and forty thousand pounds of cotton; the year after it, nearly half a million pounds; the next year over a million and a half; a year later still, over six million; by 1800, nearly eighteen million pounds a year. And by 1845 the United States was producing producing seven-eighths of the world's cotton. Today the United States produces six to eight billion pounds of cotton annually, and ninety-nine per cent of this is the upland or green-seed cotton, which is cleaned on the Whitney type of gin and was first made commercially available by Whitney's invention.*
* Roe, "English and American Tool Builders", pp. 150-51.
More than half of this enormous crop is still exported in spite of the great demand at home. Cotton became and has continued to be the greatest single export of the United States. In ordinary years its value is greater than the combined value of the three next largest exports. It is on cotton that the United States has depended for the payment of its trade balance to Europe.
Other momentous results followed on the invention of the cotton gin. In 1793 slavery seemed a dying institution, North and South. Conditions of soil and climate made slavery unprofitable in the North. On many of the indigo, rice, and tobacco plantations in the South there were more slaves than could be profitably employed, and many planters were thinking of emancipating their slaves, when along came this simple but wonderful machine and with it the vision of great riches in cotton; for while slaves could not earn their keep separating the cotton from its seeds by hand, they could earn enormous profits in the fields, once the difficulty of extracting the seeds was solved. Slaves were no longer a liability but an asset. The price of "field hands" rose, and continued to rise. If the worn-out lands of the seaboard no longer afforded opportunity for profitable employment, the rich new lands of the Southwest called for laborers, and yet more laborers. Taking slaves with them, younger sons pushed out into the wilderness, became possessed of great tracts of fertile land, and built up larger plantations than those upon which they had been born. Cotton became King of the South.
The supposed economic necessity of slave labor led great men to defend slavery, and politics in the South became largely the defense of slavery against the aggression, real or fancied, of the free North. The rift between the sections became a chasm. Then came the War of Secession.
Though Miller was dead, Whitney carried on the fight for his rights in Georgia. His difficulties were increased by a patent which the Government at Philadelphia issued in May, 1796, to Hogden Holmes, a mechanic of Augusta, for an improvement in the cotton gin. The Holmes machines were soon in common use, and it was against the users of these that many of the suits for infringement were brought. Suit after suit ran its course in the Georgia courts, without a single decision in the inventor's favor. At length, however, in December, 1806, the validity of Whitney's patent was finally determined by decision of the United States Circuit Court in Georgia. Whitney asked for a perpetual injunction against the Holmes machine, and the court, finding that his invention was basic, granted him all that he asked.
By this time, however, the life of the patent had nearly run its course. Whitney applied to Congress for a renewal, but, in spite of all his arguments and a favorable committee report, the opposition from the cotton States proved too strong, and his application was denied. Whitney now had other interests. He was a great manufacturer of firearms, at New Haven, and as such we shall meet him again in a later chapter.
CHAPTER III. STEAM IN CAPTIVITY
For the beginnings of the enslavement of steam, that mighty giant whose work has changed the world we live in, we must return to the times of Benjamin Franklin. James Watt, the accredited father of the modern steam engine, was a contemporary of Franklin, and his engine was twenty-one years old when Franklin died. The discovery that steam could be harnessed and made to work is not, of course, credited to James Watt. The precise origin of that discovery is unknown. The ancient Greeks had steam engines of a sort, and steam engines of another sort were pumping water out of mines in England when James Watt was born. James Watt, however, invented and applied the first effective means by which steam came to serve mankind. And so the modern steam engine begins with him.
The story is old, of how this Scottish boy, James Watt, sat on the hearth in his mother's cottage, intently watching the steam rising from the mouth of the tea kettle, and of the great role which this boy afterwards assumed in the mechanical world. It was in 1763, when he was twenty-eight and had the appointment of mathematical-instrument maker to the University of Glasgow, that a model of Newcomen's steam pumping engine was brought into his shop for repairs. One can perhaps imagine the feelings with which James Watt, interested from his youth in mechanical and scientific instruments, particularly those which dealt with steam, regarded this Newcomen engine. Now his interest was vastly quickened. He set up the model and operated it, noticed how the alternate heating and cooling of its cylinder wasted power, and concluded, after some weeks of experiment, that, in order to make the engine practicable, the cylinder must be kept hot, "always as hot as the steam which entered it." Yet in order to condense the steam there must be a cooling of the vessel. The problem was to reconcile these two conditions.
At length the pregnant idea occurred to him—the idea of the separate condenser. It came to him on a Sunday afternoon in 1765, as he walked across Glasgow Green. If the steam were condensed in a vessel separate from the cylinder, it would be quite possible to keep the condensing vessel cool and the cylinder hot at the same time. Next morning Watt began to put his scheme to the test and found it practicable. He developed other ideas and applied them. So at last was born a steam engine that would work and multiply man's energies a thousandfold.
After one or two disastrous business experiences, such as fall to the lot of many great inventors, perhaps to test their perseverance, Watt associated himself with Matthew Boulton, a man of capital and of enterprise, owner of the Soho Engineering Works, near Birmingham. The firm of Boulton and Watt became famous, and James Watt lived till August 19, 1819—lived to see his steam engine the greatest single factor in the new industrial era that had dawned for English-speaking folk.
Boulton and Watt, however, though they were the pioneers, were by no means alone in the development of the steam engine. Soon there were rivals in the field with new types of engines. One of these was Richard Trevithick in England; another was Oliver Evans of Philadelphia. Both Trevithick and Evans invented the high-pressure engine. Evans appears to have applied the high pressure principle before Trevithick, and it has been said that Trevithick borrowed it from Evans, but Evans himself never said so, and it is more likely that each of these inventors worked it out independently. Watt introduced his steam to the cylinder at only slightly more than atmospheric pressure and clung tenaciously to the low-pressure theory all his life. Boulton and Watt, indeed, aroused by Trevithick's experiments in high-pressure engines, sought to have Parliament pass an act forbidding high pressure on the ground that the lives of the public were endangered. Watt lived long enough, however, to see the high-pressure steam engine come into general favor, not only in America but even in his own conservative country.
Less sudden, less dramatic, than that of the cotton gin, was the entrance of the steam engine on the American industrial stage, but not less momentous. The actions and reactions of steam in America provide the theme for an Iliad which some American Homer may one day write. They include the epic of the coal in the Pennsylvania hills, the epic of the ore, the epic of the railroad, the epic of the great city; and, in general, the subjugation of a continental wilderness to the service of a vast civilization.
The vital need of better transportation was uppermost in the thoughts of many Americans. It was seen that there could be no national unity in a country so far flung without means of easy intercourse between one group of Americans and another. The highroads of the new country were, for the most part, difficult even for the man on horseback, and worse for those who must travel by coach or post-chaise. Inland from the coast and away from the great rivers there were no roads of any sort; nothing but trails. Highways were essential, not only for the permanent unity of the United States, but to make available the wonderful riches of the inland country, across the Appalachian barrier and around the Great Lakes, into which American pioneers had already made their way.
Those immemorial pathways, the great rivers, were the main avenues of traffic with the interior. So, of course, when men thought of improving transportation, they had in mind chiefly transportation by water; and that is why the earliest efforts of American inventors were applied to the means of improving traffic and travel by water and not by land.
The first men to spend their time in trying to apply steam power to the propulsion of a boat were contemporaries of Benjamin Franklin. Those who worked without Watt's engine could hardly succeed. One of the earliest of these was William Henry of Pennsylvania. Henry, in 1763, had the idea of applying power to paddle wheels, and constructed a boat, but his boat sank, and no result followed, unless it may be that John Fitch and Robert Fulton, both of whom were visitors at Henry's house, received some suggestions from him. James Rumsey of Maryland began experiments as early as 1774 and by 1786 had a boat that made four miles an hour against the current of the Potomac.
The most interesting of these early and unsuccessful inventors is John Fitch, who, was a Connecticut clockmaker living in Philadelphia. He was eccentric and irregular in his habits and quite ignorant of the steam engine. But he conceived the idea of a steamboat and set to work to make one. The record of Fitch's life is something of a tragedy. At the best he was an unhappy man and was always close to poverty. As a young man he had left his family because of unhappy domestic relations with his wife. One may find in the record of his undertakings which he left in the Philadelphia Library, to be opened thirty years after its receipt, these words: "I know of nothing so perplexing and vexatious to a man of feelings as a turbulent Wife and Steamboat building." But in spite of all his difficulties Fitch produced a steamboat, which plied regularly on the Delaware for several years and carried passengers. "We reigned Lord High Admirals of the Delaware; and no other boat in the River could hold its way with us," he wrote. "Thus has been effected by little Johnny Fitch and Harry Voight [one of his associates] one of the greatest and most useful arts that has ever been introduced into the world; and although the world and my country does not thank me for it, yet it gives me heartfelt satisfaction." The "Lord High Admirals of the Delaware," however, did not reign long. The steamboat needed improvement to make it pay; its backers lost patience and faith, and the inventor gave up the fight and retired into the fastnesses of the Kentucky wilderness, where he died.
The next inventor to struggle with the problem of the steamboat, with any approach to success, was John Stevens of Hoboken. His life was cast in a vastly different environment from that of John Fitch. He was a rich man, a man of family and of influence. His father's house—afterwards his own—-at 7 Broadway, facing Bowling Green—was one of the mansions of early New York, and his own summer residence on Castle Point, Hoboken, just across the Hudson, was one of the landmarks of the great river. For many years John Stevens crossed that river; most often in an open boat propelled by sail or by men at the oars. Being naturally of a mechanical turn, he sought to make the crossing easier. To his library were coming the prints that told of James Watt and the steam engine in England, and John Fitch's boat had interested him.
Robert Fulton's Clermont, of which we shall speak presently, was undoubtedly the pioneer of practicable steamboats. But the Phoenix, built by John Stevens, followed close on the Clermont. And its engines were built in America, while those of the Clermont had been imported from England. Moreover, in June, 1808, the Phoenix stood to sea, and made the first ocean voyage in the history of steam navigation. Because of a monopoly of the Hudson, which the New York Legislature had granted to Livingston and Fulton, Stevens was compelled to send his ship to the Delaware. Hence the trip out into the waters of the Atlantic, a journey that was not undertaken without trepidation. But, despite the fact that a great storm arose, the Phoenix made the trip in safety; and continued for many years thereafter to ply the Delaware between Philadelphia and Trenton.
Robert Fulton, like many and many another great inventor, from Leonardo da Vinci down to the present time, was also an artist. He was born November 14, 1765, at Little Britain, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, of that stock which is so often miscalled "Scotch-Irish." He was only a child when his father died, leaving behind him a son who seems to have been much more interested in his own ideas than in his schoolbooks. Even in his childhood Robert showed his mechanical ability. There was a firm of noted gunsmiths in Lancaster, in whose shops he made himself at home and became expert in the use of tools. At the age of fourteen he applied his ingenuity to a heavy fishing boat and equipped it with paddle-wheels, which were turned by a crank, thus greatly lightening the labor of moving it.
At the age of seventeen young Fulton moved to Philadelphia and set up as a portrait painter. Some of the miniatures which he painted at this time are said to be very good. He worked hard, made many good friends, including Benjamin Franklin, and succeeded financially. He determined to go to Europe to study—if possible under his fellow Pennsylvanian, Benjamin West, then rising into fame in London. The West and the Fulton families had been intimate, and Fulton hoped that West would take him as a pupil. First buying a farm for his mother with a part of his savings, he sailed for England in 1786, with forty guineas in his pocket. West received him not only as a pupil but as a guest in his house and introduced him to many of his friends. Again Fulton succeeded, and in 1791 two of his portraits were exhibited at the Royal Academy, and the Royal Society of British Artists hung four paintings by him.
Then came the commission which changed the course of Fulton's life. His work had attracted the notice of Viscount Courtenay, later Earl of Devon, and he was invited to Devonshire to paint that nobleman's portrait. Here he met Francis, third Duke of Bridgewater, the father of the English canal system, and his hardly less famous engineer, James Brindley, and also Earl Stanhope, a restless, inquiring spirit. Fulton the mechanic presently began to dominate Fulton the artist. He studied canals, invented a means of sawing marble in the quarries, improved the wheel for spinning flax, invented a machine for making rope, and a method of raising canal boats by inclined planes instead of locks. What money he made from these inventions we do not know, but somewhat later (1796) he speaks hopefully of an improvement in tanning. This same year he published a pamphlet entitled "A Treatise on the Improvement of Canal Navigation", copies of which were sent to Napoleon and President Washington.
Fulton went to France in 1797. To earn money he painted several portraits and a panorama of the Burning of Moscow. This panorama, covering the walls of a circular hall built especially for it, became very popular, and Fulton painted another. In Paris he formed a warm friendship with that singular American, Joel Barlow, soldier, poet, speculator, and diplomatist, and his wife, and for seven years lived in their house.
The long and complicated story of Fulton's sudden interest in torpedoes and submarine boats, his dealings with the Directory and Napoleon and with the British Admiralty does not belong here. His experiments and his negotiations with the two Governments occupied the greater part of his time for the years between 1797 and 1806. His expressed purpose was to make an engine of war so terrible that war would automatically be abolished. The world, however, was not ready for diving boats and torpedoes, nor yet for the end of war, and his efforts had no tangible results.*
* The submarine was the invention of David Bushnell, a Connecticut Yankee, whose "American Turtle" blew up at least one British vessel in the War of Independence and created much consternation among the King's ships in American waters.
During all the years after 1793, at least, and perhaps earlier, the idea of the steamboat had seldom been out of his mind, but lack of funds and the greater urgency, as he thought, of the submarine prevented him from working seriously upon it. In 1801, however, Robert R. Livingston came to France as American Minister. Livingston had already made some unsuccessful experiments with the steamboat in the United States, and, in 1798, had received the monopoly of steam navigation on the waters of New York for twenty years, provided that he produced a vessel within twelve months able to steam four miles an hour. This grant had, of course, been forfeited, but might be renewed, Livingston thought.
Fulton and Livingston met, probably at Barlow's house, and, in 1802, drew up an agreement to construct a steamboat to ply between New York and Albany. Livingston agreed to advance five hundred dollars for experimentation in Europe. In this same year Fulton built a model and tested different means of propulsion, giving "the preference to a wheel on each side of the model."* The boat was built on the Seine, but proved too frail for the borrowed engine. A second boat was tried in August, 1803, and moved, though at a disappointingly slow rate of speed.
* Fulton to Barlow, quoted in Sutcliffe, "Robert Fulton and the Clermont", p. 124.
Just at this time Fulton wrote ordering an engine from Boulton and Watt to be transported to America. The order was at first refused, as it was then the shortsighted policy of the British Government to maintain a monopoly of mechanical contrivances. Permission to export was given the next year, however, and the engine was shipped in 1805. It lay for some time in the New York Customs House. Meanwhile Fulton had studied the Watt engine on Symington's steamboat, the Charlotte Dundas, on the Forth and Clyde Canal, and Livingston had been granted a renewal of his monopoly of the waters of New York.
Fulton arrived at New York in 1806 and began the construction of the Clermont, so named after Livingston's estate on the Hudson. The building was done on the East River. The boat excited the jeers of passersby, who called it "Fulton's Folly." On Monday, August 17, 1807, the memorable first voyage was begun. Carrying a party of invited guests, the Clermont steamed off at one o'clock. Past the towns and villages along the Hudson, the boat moved steadily, black smoke rolling from her stack. Pine wood was the fuel. During the night, the sparks pouring from her funnel, the clanking of her machinery, and the splashing of the paddles frightened the animals in the woods and the occupants of the scattered houses along the banks. At one o'clock Tuesday the boat arrived at Clermont, 110 miles from New York. After spending the night at Clermont, the voyage was resumed on Wednesday. Albany, forty miles away, was reached in eight hours, making a record of 150 miles in thirty-two hours. Returning to New York, the distance was covered in thirty hours. The steamboat was a success.
The boat was then laid up for two weeks while the cabins were boarded in, a roof built over the engine, and coverings placed over the paddle-wheels to catch the spray—all under Fulton's eye. Then the Clermont began regular trips to Albany, carrying sometimes a hundred passengers, making the round trip every four days, and continued until floating ice marked the end of navigation for the winter.
Why had Fulton succeeded where others had failed? There was nothing new in his boat. Every essential feature of the Clermont had been anticipated by one or other of the numerous experimenters before him. The answer seems to be that he was a better engineer than any of them. He had calculated proportions, and his hull and his engine were in relation. Then too, he had one of Watt's engines, undoubtedly the best at the time, and the unwavering support of Robert Livingston.
Fulton's restless mind was never still, but he did not turn capriciously from one idea to another. Though never satisfied, his new ideas were tested scientifically and the results carefully written down. Some of his notebooks read almost like geometrical demonstrations; and his drawings and plans were beautifully executed. Before his death in 1815 he had constructed or planned sixteen or seventeen boats, including boats for the Hudson, Potomac, and Mississippi rivers, for the Neva in Russia, and a steam vessel of war for the United States. He was a member of the commission on the Erie Canal, though he did not live to see that enterprise begun.