- Historic Sites
Is it really true that the more things change, the more they stay the same? Once upon a time, before the bureaucratic society, before modern war and technology, there was a very different world, and not so long ago. Let us revisit, picking at random, the year
December 1969 | Volume 21, Issue 1
Clouds of sail billowing over their pencil-slim hulls, the American clippers set the world’s speed records, trading with Europe and the Orient, carrying the miners, the settlers, and the adventurers to California, bringing home the gold dust. The Sea Witch has made it from Hong Kong to New York, around the Horn, in seventy-four days; the Sovereign of the Seas has sailed from New York to Liverpool, crossing from pier to anchorage in thirteen days, twenty-two hours. One day has witnessed an unprecedented seven clippers beat majestically in through the Golden Gate. Yet before the 1850’s are over, the brief glory of the clippers will be past; already the steamship is superseding them. Other men of sail, the whalers of New Bedford and Nantucket, bringing the sperm oil to light the lamps of America, may also count their days. Professor Benjamin Silliman, Jr., the scientist, has found a way of refining the black petroleum that seeps out of the rocks in Pennsylvania; perhaps by drilling deep into the ground, as for water, one may find more of it. A. C. Ferris has built a workable petroleum lamp, and the stuff, think enthusiasts, may have other uses.
Powered by water, but increasingly by steam, mill wheels turn throughout the North and the Middle West. The factory system has driven out most household manufacturing, for in the factory, with integration of all industrial processes, mass production becomes possible. American population is up fourfold since 1815—but her output of manufactured products is ten times as great. Men are prepared to invest heavily, as do the Lowells of Boston, in great cotton and woolen mills. Over the last twenty-seven years the Middlesex Mills have averaged 16 per cent return, and lately 40 to 60 per cent profit in a single year has not been unusual in many New England factories. The iron industry is moving slowly westward, and the recent completion of a canal into Lake Superior has opened up vast new resources of ore in the Marquette area; Henry Bessemer, an Englishman, has taken out a United States patent this year for his steelmaking process. There is a perennial shortage of labor, and the agents of the textile mills range farther among the country villages hunting for operatives. The native workman tends to be rather independent; unlike his European counterpart he has formed strong labor unions here and there, and has won strikes; if things go wrong, well, he can go West. In fact, he rarely does; it is the rural American who settles the West. Increasingly the employers are sending their agents to Europe to bring in a new kind of labor. Already half the workers around Boston are Irishmen and their womenfolk. Their poverty is appalling, but the age accepts it.
America suffers no shortage whatever of industrial ideas. An average of 2,500 patents are being granted annually in this decade; there has never been anything like it. New jigs, gauges, taps, and dies speed factory work; there is a still newer device called a turret lathe. Sewing machines are beginning to whir in American homes; Cyrus McCormick is having his best year to date—23,000 reapers and a profit of a million and a quarter, and you can buy a brand new model that carries the cut grain to one side, bundles it, and dumps it for collection later. The output of the individual farmer is shooting up. Indeed, all this industrial activity of 1857 is possible because American manpower is being released from its age-old concentration on producing food.
The inventor is a new hero in the American pantheon, and it is an even bet that he is a Connecticut man. In fact, the story goes, when the Patent Office first opened its doors in 1790, a dozen men from the Nutmeg State were waiting outside. There are famous ones, like Sam Colt, Eli Whitney, David Humphreys, and Charles Goodyear, but 1857 is also familiar, or ought to be, with Thomas Howe of Derby, who succeeds in making pins out of one piece of metal, cheaply, and selling them in papers (they used to be very expensive, and the heads came oft). J. B. Williams of Glastonbury gives the nation a shaving stick; Linus Yale of Stamford perfects a cylinder lock; Benjamin Gilbert of Georgetown devises horsehair furniture covering, and cushions an age; John Bostwick of Sharon fulfills the legend, the better mousetrap.
Everywhere this restless, handy, inventive race is on the move. Charles T. Harvey, a twenty-four-year-old salesman pushing through the wilds of northern Michigan hawking Fairbanks scales, discovers that only a nineteen-foot fall of rapids and a mile of shallows cuts off Lake Superior from the rest of the Great Lakes. He throws aside his scales, collects money and workmen, and here, at Sault Sainte Marie, 450 miles from even a telegraph, builds the great Soo Canal. Another idea, to be developed later, is knocking about in his head: an elevated railroad for New York City. Down in Louisiana, young Henry Miller Shreve has built himself the strangest boat rivermen have ever seen, a huge, double-hulled “snagboat,” equipped with a rammer that batters out of the way the logs and dead trees that obstruct western rivers. He brings whole new areas into the orbit of trade. Frederic Tudor of Boston singlehandedly invents the ice business, makes Americans into year-round ice-water drinkers, and bestows refrigeration of a sort on the tropics. His ice boats ply the Caribbean, and as far away as India, with ice cut from the ponds of Middlesex County.