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article number 525
article date 04-12-2016
copyright 2016 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Opinions: American Technology and Human Welfare Part 2, Technology is Democracy 1800-1850
by Hugo Meier, Professor of History, Pennsylvania State University

From the book, Technology and Social Change in America.

* * *

The human relationships of technology have become in recent years of increasing interest to the historian as well as to the social scientist.

American historians, no longer satisfied that a listing of inventions adequately explains the impact of technology on society, are now trying to place technology in its true perspective within the history of ideas. They have shown an increasing awareness that the concept of technology is linked to long-familiar social ideas, such as nationalism and sectionalism, and to the idea of democracy.

In the half century following the Jeffersonian revolution, one may find a rapid if often still crude progress in technology accompanying and contributing to the major evolution of several great social ideas.

One of these ideas, democracy, became consciously and elaborately associated with American progress in the applied sciences. Evident in the early years of the republic, this association came to emphasize the special role of technology in providing the physical means of achieving democratic objectives of political, social, and economic equality, and it placed science and invention at the very center of the age’s faith in progress.

At the same time there arose an apprehension of the dangers of an exaggerated materialism as a social consequence of the emphasis on technology in a democratic form of society where, as observers from abroad remarked, concern with physical comforts and conveniences already tended to dominate intellectual, moral, and aesthetic interests.

Technology, to be sure, was not a term current in 1800. “The useful arts” was perhaps the phrase most commonly used in popular writings about applied science, and it was not until Jacob Bigelow, the first Rumford professor of “The Application of Science to the Art of Living” at Harvard College, published his ’Elements of Technology’ in 1829 that the new term entered into popular usage, although Bigelow had long used it in his lectures.

Nor was “democracy,” with its widespread connotation of mob rule and indiscriminate social and economic leveling, a term acceptably hygienic among many respectable people at the beginning of the century.

But the ideas of expanded political liberty and social and economic opportunity, of equality in class status, of the welfare of the many as opposed to the special privileges of the few, had long been taking root in America.

Since the days of revolutionary turmoil such “democratic” concepts were gradually interpenetrating the more familiar ideas of “republicanism.” It was the general republican notion of civil liberty combined with popular enlightenment, however, which first encouraged American engineers and inventors, as well as many others, to link the fortunes of technology with those of the new American political and social system.

Dramatic instances of this attempt to associate applied science with the fate of republicanism are to be found in Robert Fulton’s earnest efforts to win governmental support for his grandiose canal schemes and novel inventions for war.

His “creative canals,” Fulton argued in 1807, would unite the new republic economically and socially, greatly encouraging and securing the blessings of domestic republican institutions.

Fulton promised, too, that his “torpedoes” and his “plunging boat” or submarine would be a means of defending and extending republican institutions.

“Every order of things,” Fulton generalized, “which has a tendency to remove oppression and meliorate the condition of man directing his ambition to useful industry, is, in effect, republican.”

Fulton’s Nautilus,1798.

While individuals like Fulton sought to demonstrate that republicanism could be greatly assisted by technology, other citizens were developing the notion that progress in technology itself was powerfully dependent on the notions of equality and liberty inherent in republicanism.

Even Europeans, the ’American Journal of Science’ reported in 1822, were beginning to see that the rapid American progress in discovery and the great number of citizens of all classes participating in it were the product of republican freedoms unknown abroad.

Similarly, one of the early American technological journals commented that the cause of such progress in America was the “degree of civil liberty which leaves the human mind untrammeled to avail itself of its own strength.” And how else might one explain—in the 1850s—the triumphs of the yacht ’America’ on the high seas and of the McCormick reapers in the international exhibitions?

“When there is free labor upon a free soil, a free head and a free heart to direct, and a free hand to do, we need have no fear of the result,” was the confident conclusion.

American technology and American civil and intellectual liberty, in the eyes of representative spokesmen, were marching hand in hand in these years of rapid national growth. Could the Old World—tradition-bound, shackled in mind and spirit by monarchical institutions—profit from the example?

America, at least, could show the way. Levi Woodbury, whose career in state and federal politics closely involved him in the ferment of Jacksonian democracy, thought such leadership a genuine responsibility.

America, said Woodbury, must no longer seek only to equal the commercial and technological achievements of older powers. She had a new mission: “It is to demonstrate to the old world, by deeds no less than reasoning, that our new theory of private rights and public duties is conducive to progress in everything useful.”

Indeed, it was in this stress on usefulness that technology proved to be a catalyst, blending the ideas of republicanism with the rising democratic spirit in the early national period. Americans always had been pragmatically inclined; on occasion they felt obliged to apologize for their pragmatism, offering their explanation in terms of the nature of the environment and of their society.

Suspecting that an English man of science might question the devotion of a scholar to the improvement of so humble an instrument as the plow, Thomas Jefferson carefully explained to the president of the Board of Agriculture in London that "the combination of a ’theory’ which may satisfy the learned, with a ’practice’ intelligible to the most unlettered labourer, will be acceptable to the two most useful classes of society.”

In much the same manner, the loquacious Federalist, Thomas Greene Fessenden, excused the utilitarian content of his new ’Register of Arts’ in 1808 on the ground that the mechanics of splitting logs and rooting out stumps was necessarily of greater interest to Americans than was mere scientific theory. And with considerable editorial frankness the ’Useful Cabinet’ cautioned the public not to search in its pages for “refined philosophical speculations.”

Even in these early years, however, the American stress on usefulness had to answer the skeptical criticism of those who felt utility a shallow criterion—a continuing controversy among intellectuals of this half century. It was objected, for example, that the exceedingly pragmatic approach of American science was a threat to progress in science itself.

In answer to the ’Useful Cabinet’ one troubled reader cautioned that America, encouraged by necessity and enterprise, sought so avidly after the luxuries of life that not only had not “the stream of science become her favorite beverage,” but ignorance of basic principles was resulting in fruitless experiments.

John Redman Coxe introduced his ’Emporium of Arts and Sciences’ in 1812 as something of an antidote to mere utilitarianism by promising to devote much of its space to advances in the science of Europe “from whence we must reasonably look for information for many years to come.”

Dr. Thomas Cooper, English-born scientist and Jeffersonian pamphleteer, seconded such sentiments by reminding the magazine’s readers that Americans were not yet so enlightened a people that they need pay no attention to mathematical and physical science.

But the utilitarian bias of American science was not to be gainsaid, and in its stress on the everyday needs of the average citizen it demanded that science descend from its ivory tower and serve the people.

Thomas Jefferson’s drawings of his moldboard plow.

Thomas Jefferson, no idler in matters theoretical, stressed the essentially democratic function of American science in his correspondence with Thomas Cooper in 1812:

“You know the just esteem which attached itself to Dr. Franklin’s science, because he always endeavored to direct it to something useful in private life,” said Jefferson.

“The chemists have not been attentive enough to this. I have wished to see their science applied to domestic objects, to malting, for instance, brewing, making cider, to fermentation and distillation generally, to the making of bread, butter, cheese, soap, to the incubation of eggs, etc. And I am happy to observe some of these titles in the syllabus of your lecture. I hope you will make the chemistry of these subjects intelligible to our good housewives.”

Nor was Jefferson’s advice a mere sop to empiricism. He was tremendously proud of the practical and largely self-contained economy of Monticello.

Similar advice to direct science to common needs was given in 1816 by Jacob Bigelow when he assumed his new post as professor of applied sciences at Harvard. In his inaugural address Bigelow urged that inventive genius be concentrated on the needs of the immediate neighborhood, aiming always at improving “the facilities of subsistence, and the welfare of those among whom we live.”

Unlike the laborious speculations of the Germans which, Bigelow said, probably added little to the real stock of knowledge, “the researches of most of our ingenious men have had utility for their object.”

With this kind of approval, one scarcely wonders at the practical trend of American technology by the time of Jackson’s presidency, and particularly at the way in which emphasis on applied science had come to influence educational practice.

Education in the young democracy reflected its technological emphasis. The roots for practical education extended into colonial times, as shown in Franklin’s 1743 “Proposal for Promoting Useful Knowledge among the British Plantations in America,” foreshadowing the beginning of the American Philosophical Society. Before the Revolution, too, Franklin was recommending the inclusion of courses in practical science to the trustees of the Philadelphia Academy.

Soon after the turn of the century Jefferson was proposing a similar emphasis on “technical philosophy” in his own scheme of education, with the special interests of mariners, carpenters, brewers, clockmakers, machinists, and similar artisans in mind.

In the years after the War of 1812 educational curricula were clearly reflecting the interest in technological learning. The versatile Jacob Bigelow made Bostonians increasingly aware of the subject of “technology” in his popular lectures on applied science as first incumbent of the Count Rumford chair at Harvard, a chair established to teach “the utility of the physical and mathematical sciences for the improvement of the useful arts, and for the extension of the industry, prosperity, happiness and wellbeing of society.”

Thomas Cooper, too, was among those interested in applying theory to the needs of a democratic society. He carried his practical approach to chemistry with him from Dickinson College to the University of Pennsylvania in 1816, where he was appointed to the chair of applied chemistry and mineralogy.

In Philadelphia, too, the Franklin Institute opened its doors in 1824 to the serious-minded artisan, and in Troy, New York, in 1825, the school which was to become Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, welcomed its first students who, under the direction of Amos Eaton, sought to achieve “the application of science to the common purposes of life.”

Elsewhere by 1835 “mechanics’ institutes” and several reputable college programs in branches of technology had been introduced.

There was no escaping the exceedingly pragmatic view of science in the United States by 1830. And by that time, too, the trend toward identifying this utilitarian outlook with the “American way,” democracy, encouraged speculation as to the cause of the relationship.

Stephenson’s steam engine driven "Rocket".

The discerning French visitor Alexis de Tocqueville was one of the contemporary observers of Jacksonian democracy who pointed to the surprisingly close relationship between the social system of the United States and its technological emphases. Explaining, in his ’Democracy in America,’ “Why the Americans Are More Addicted to Practical Than to Theoretical Science,” Tocqueville pointed out that the concept of equality encouraged a taste for the tangible and the real, and a contempt for tradition and forms.

"Those who cultivate the sciences amongst a democratic people,” Tocqueville argued, “are always afraid of losing their way in visionary speculation. They mistrust systems; they adhere closely to facts and the study of facts with their own senses.”

Furthermore, the extreme social mobility in America was fertile soil for progress in technology, because democratic peoples were ambitious, never satisfied with their status, and—above all—were always free to change it.

“To minds thus predisposed,” Tocqueville explained, “every new method which leads by a shorter road to wealth, every machine which spares labor, every instrument which diminishes the cost of production, every discovery which facilitates pleasures or augments them, seems to be the grandest effort of the human intellect . . .

. . . You may be sure that the more a nation is democratic, enlightened, and free, the greater will be the number of these interested promoters of scientific genius, and the more will discoveries immediately applicable to productive industry confer gain, fame, and even power on their authors.”

If the utilitarian propensities of a democratic environment proved favorable to technological development as Tocqueville described it in the 1830s, no less real was the relationship of that technology after 1800 to the democratic goal of improving the lot of the common run of man. Indeed, the very utilitarian base of technology made it an instrument especially useful for furthering the ideal of “the greatest good for the greatest number.”

Since to the American "good” was in many ways becoming synonymous with “goods” (as Tocqueville so frequently emphasized), the goal of mass production became a conscious obligation imposed upon science and invention. In America, science through technology must multiply the resources of human enjoyment and universalize their availability.

An example of belief in “the greatest good for the greatest number” is concealed in Jefferson’s praise in 1815 of the invention of a machine to apply steam to the “small and more numerous calls of life,” for he believed that “a smaller agent, applicable to our daily concerns, is infinitely more valuable than the greatest which can be used only for great objects. For these interest the few alone, the former the many.”

This point of view grew more popular as the century advanced. “The true glory and excellency of Science consists in its aptitude to meliorate the condition of man,” commented an observer in 1827, while Levi Woodbury in the 1840s concluded that the attempt to benefit the many in practical ways had led to some of the greatest efforts and achievements of American science. He pointed, by way of illustration, to Franklin’s invention of the lightning rod and his improvement in design of the common stove.

How uniquely American seemed this concern for the welfare of the many rather than the luxury of the few was epitomized in London in 1851 when the nations of the world displayed the products of their genius and industry at the Crystal Palace. The humble reapers were America’s proudest contribution, and to Edward Riddle, who reported to the commissioner of patents on the exhibition, they epitomized an eloquent contrast between democracy and despotism.

The fruits of democracy were visible, too, in the stacks of machine-made water pails, pegged boots and shoes, garden tools, bell telegraphs, spring chairs, cooking ranges, and hot air furnaces.

“The Russian exhibition,” Riddle reported in contrast, “was a proof of the wealth, power, enterprise, and intelligence of Nicholas; that of the United States an evidence of the ingenuity, industry, and capacity of a free and educated people. The one was the ukase of an emperor to the notabilities of Europe; the other the epistle of a people to the working-men of the world . . . We showed the results of pure democracy upon the industry of men.”

When the burgeoning republic held its own Crystal Palace Exhibition in New York in 1853, “the results of pure democracy” again dominated the American departments. Horace Greeley, the ’Tribune’s’ energetic publisher, summed up the creative forces underlying a half century’s technological progress in glowing terms:

“We have ’universalized’ all the beautiful and glorious results of industry and skill,” Greeley said. “We have made them a common possession of the people . . . We have democratized the means and appliances of a higher life.” Like Jefferson’s chemistry that brewed and baked, technology was, indeed, in the service of the people.

"Goodyear Vucanite Court" at Crystal Palace, England Exhibition.

The influence present and future of the new machine production on the social status of American labor was another aspect of the relationship between technology and democracy which interested many Americans, and troubled some of them, after 1800.

Did the machines, the product of America’s technological skills and interests, mean a decline in independence and dignity for the laborers who operated them?

Higher wages, the opportunity to change jobs, and the comparative newness of machine industry in America no doubt helped to keep the dignity of machine labor in Jacksonian America above European levels. But even the carefully shepherded girls in the early Lowell textile mills felt obliged to make extensive apologies for their kind of employment until the influx of cheap immigrant labor settled the question of status for them.

That marvelous little literary effort, the ’Lowell Offering,’ occasionally hinted at the difficulties. “You must be ‘school-ma-am’ while you are here, for factory girls are nothing thought of in this place,” Miss Matilda was reminded when visiting a former mill companion now returned to her home town.

But Matilda was faithful to her Lowell training: “I could not long endure such bondage, and resolved to return where I could enjoy a dearly-loved freedom,” she reported to ’Offering’ readers.

Matilda’s sentiments were matched by other contemporary defenders of factory labor. The Reverend Stephen H. Tyng, for example, found the lot of the Lowell ladies a pleasant one—their machinery beautiful and varied, their workrooms clean, their moral purity as yet unspotted.

“But above all,” Tyng observed, “the universal and mental advantages which are freely provided for every class of operatives, so that the girl from the factory may become, without difficulty or remark, the teacher in the seminary, and the lady of the parlor, are all facts of American peculiarity and great American honor.”

Other interested supporters of the rising factory system and of technological advance spoke warmly of the beneficent influence of machinery on the status of labor. They pointed out, for example, to those who condemned the bustling factory world of mid-century that the power loom and spinning jenny had freed thousands of pallid women from the poisonous atmosphere of the small shop, while even in agriculture machinery was now emancipating men from its dullest, most tedious and unremunerative employment.

If the machine and the factory system found ready defense against the charges that they degraded the dignity of labor in a democracy, no less an effort was being made to elevated the social status of the men whose talents and labors were creating the machines.

A self-conscious technical journalism which sprang into being shortly after the turn of the century helped this new cause by bolstering the ego of the expanding class of inventors and engineers. Technology was demonstrated to be a high and honorable calling, and its practitioners were strengthened in their growing professional consciousness against snobbish exponents of the greater dignity of the law, of politics, and of religion.

The inventor and the engineer, it seemed, were at last coming into rightful esteem.

The belief that such a change in status was well deserved found one of its strongest supporters in Thomas Ewbank, whose administration of the Patent Office from 1849 to 1852 was energetic and creative. Ewbank, who
had emigrated from England in 1819, could look back from mid-century upon an active career as manufacturer, inventor, and technical writer.

Ewbank’s experiences and especially his work as commissioner of patents stimulated his interest in the social relationships of technology, and his pen was active in that cause. For technologists Ewbank had high regard, and he insisted that "The time is not distant when such men, instead of being deemed, as under the old regime, virtual serfs, will exert an influence in society commensurate with their contribution to its welfare.”

Thomas Davenport’s electric motor patent drawing, 1837.

Political fame, Ewbank argued, was ephemeral but “no fame is more certain or more durable than that which arises from useful inventions.” To Ewbank, the inventor and the engineer were leaders of men.

Though the dignity of engineer, inventor, or machine laborer was granted, commentators on technology in this era confronted another question quite as serious. In a democracy, economic opportunity supposedly was more freely open to all classes than was true in less fortunate lands. Had invention and the introduction of machinery on an extensive scale harmonized with this happy doctrine?

From industrial Europe filtered tales of strikes and anti-machinery riots, of miserable, underpaid men, women, and children laboring in dismal factories. What, indeed, were the economic prospects of American labor in a machine-minded democracy?

Pioneer promoters of American industrialism—men like Alexander Hamilton and Tench Coxe—had pointed out the great opportunities that the introduction of machinery must mean for labor in America.

Their confidence, however, was not shared by the hand sawyers who, revealing a more jaundiced view of technological improvement as a means to improve economic status, burned Oliver Evans’ new steam sawmill at New Orleans in 1813.

Also, intelligent observers like Thomas Cooper reported with misgivings the invasion of the United States by European machines such as the Cartwright loom.

Such skepticism and even fear of the deleterious effects of machinery on democratic economic opportunity continued to mid-century. There was no mellow praise for the technologist when, in the thirties, Philadelphia workmen raised a bitter toast to “Labor-saving machinery—Europe’s curse and America’s dread—Alike the monopolist’s idol and the Working Man’s scourge—The parent of idleness and consequently crime.”

A harvesting machine that gave too efficient a demonstration in Michigan in 1847 prompted one pessimistic critic to declaim on “Scientific Improvements a Curse to the Country” and to predict that such so-called improvements would eventually place all economic power in the hands of a few men of capital, relegating labor to the condition of the hapless Irish.

Outstanding among critics of the increasing and uncontrolled production of goods by machinery was Robert Dale Owen whose utopian conscience struggled to weight the correct role of technology within a democratic society. “Mechanical improvements, inevitable even if they were mischievous, and in themselves a rich blessing as sure as they are inevitable—are becoming by some strange perversion of their use, a cruel and deadly curse,” Owen warned in 1848.

When “the wide and ever-extending west” with its cheap lands was gone, he asked, could the American laborer still hope to remain “a positive quantity”? “If the inventive genius of America, no whit behind that of Europe, brings into being machine after machine . . . is not the laborer, here as in England, thereby liable at last, to be crowded out of the permission to work for his daily bread?”

The Owenites, though they prophesied grimly about the machine, did not necessarily wish to eliminate it. Rather, “scientific distribution” as the answer to so-called overproduction became their slogan.

But as faith in industrialism took deeper root in the United States, technology and the ideal of democratic economic opportunity were ever more often equated. English disturbances, it was true, and the sufferings of underpaid or abused machine labor abroad, attracted American sympathy.

But there prevailed a strong reaction that “It can’t happen here”—America, after all, was a machine-hungry environment. “We do not dread that riot and famine will follow the introduction of such agents into our workshops,” proudly reported the chairman of a congressional committee in 1812. He urged instead the great need to import more machinery.

Textile laborers before industrialization.

When Charles Knight’s new book on ’The Results of Machinery,’ in part an answer to the anti-machinery riots in England, reached American shores in the early thirties, its generally optimistic points of view attracted wide attention.

Knight, with the evidence all around him of a machine civilization older and more advanced than that of the United States, argued that the only basis for the objection to machines lay in simple want of knowledge on that subject. Persuasively, he developed the argument that machinery necessarily benefited mankind in general and the lower economic and social groups in particular.

American reviewers picked up specific points of Knight’s exposition and editorialized freely upon them. Admitting, as had Knight, the temporary dislocations caused by technological change, one reviewer declared that no improvement in machinery could keep up with the advance in human wants, and that ignorance, vice, and lack of prudence caused the miseries for which machinery was blamed.

The prominent ’North American Review’ picked up Knight’s arguments with relish and enthusiastically recommended the new book “to all croakers,—to all praisers of the past and revilers of the present time. We ask a careful perusal of it, of those venerable grandmothers who see misery and ruin close at hand, because the sound of the spinning-wheel and the loom is no longer heard in all our farm houses.”

But what about the evidence of widespread British discontent? Blame such discontent, cautioned the writer, not on machinery but on vicious political institutions, unequal laws, grinding taxation. And these, happily, did not really exist in America.

Moreover, a more nearly objective view of the whole question was possible in America—industry here was free, labor was guaranteed its wage. Under well-regulated governments machinery always proved to be a blessing; the evils attendant upon its introduction were generally slight and transient, while the benefits “are seen every where, felt every where, and must abide forever.”

Indeed, concluded the writer, this was a question deserving of more attention in America, but “the general sentiment is decidedly, so far as we have been able to ascertain it, in favor of machinery. A few apostles of the opposite doctrine have arisen here and there; but their converts have not been numerous.”

This strong willingness in America to accept the introduction of machinery with such surprising good will, along with the relative absence of labor opposition, perplexed European observers. “Workmen hail with satisfaction all mechanical improvements” reported Joseph Whitworth to the House of Commons in 1854. This labor attitude and “this eager resort to machinery whenever it can be applied,” as well as superior education and intelligence, explained, he believed, the remarkable prosperity of the United States.

Democratic economic opportunity, in summary, appears—like social opportunity—to have been advanced rather than retarded by the increasing influence of technology in the United States after 1800. The doubters appeared to be in a minority and remained so until mid-century.

Permeating the concept of democracy in the United States and closely linking its notions of social and economic opportunity with technology, was the current spirit of optimism which historians have labeled the “idea of progress.” So closely were the technologist and his creations associated with progress in America during this period that believers in the relationship seemed often to share a faith more naive than realistic.

Not in terms of religion, nor of philosophy, nor in those of military glory or artistic achievement was the story of human progress to be told. Rather, progress must be identified with the sweeping advances which this age was making in applying science to the satisfaction of human wants.

Enthusiastic support for this belief made technology a central element in the optimistic doctrine of progress in America, and by the time of Jackson was shaping for American engineers and inventors a solemn responsibility.

Indeed, by 1830 very many Americans had come to believe that their age was superior to any other, and the prospects of further progress greater, because of remarkable material advancements. Comfort, convenience, and good health were practical evidences of that progress, and constituted, too, a goal for future efforts.

Textile laborers at Lowell Massachusetts looms.

Machinery itself became a throbbing symbol of this notion of progress. The writer in the ’North American Review’ who had found Knight’s defense of machinery so deserving had added: “What we claim for machinery is, that it is in modern times by far the most efficient physical cause of human improvement; that it does for civilization, what conquest and human labor formerly did, and accomplishes incalculably more than they accomplished.”

Edward Everett, then governor of Massachusetts and soon to become president of Harvard, declared in 1837 that “Mind, acting through the useful arts, is the vital principle of modern civilized society. The mechanician, not the magician, is now the master of life.”

With so much confidence in the contemporary role of technology, it is not surprising that many Americans saw even greater future challenges for science and invention. Utopia, even, had a technological coloring. Not only did Owen’s New Harmony ’Gazette’ lend ample space to descriptions of new improvements, but the Associationists invited to their ranks men with special scientific and mechanical experience, trusting in the principle of co-operation to control technology in the common interest. It was a modest but calculated surrender to the machine.

Nature’s untamed might—steam, water power, electricity—fascinated these nineteenth-century adherents of social progress through technology. What wonders might man not perform by further mastery of wind and tide and the sun’s own heat!

But it was the glory of steam power, especially, which thrilled Americans and ever greater seemed its promises as each puffing locomotive or steamboat passed by. Not even the compass or the printing press or gunpowder could equal in social significance the impact of steam power, insisted the Reverend James T. Austin in 1839:

“It is to bring mankind into a common brotherhood; annihilate space and time in the intercourse of human life; increase the social relations; draw closer the ties of philanthropy and benevolence; multiply common benefits, and the reciprocal interchange of them, and by a power of yet unknown kindness, give to reason and religion an empire which they have but nominally possessed in the conduct of mankind.”

Praises and predictions, indeed, went far beyond that of Austin, whether in prose or verse or song. Serious studies tried to define more closely the challenge of exploiting nature’s powers. Thomas Ewbank, especially, made his most earnest efforts in such works, coming from his pen after 1840, as ’A New Theory of Steam,’ ’The Position of Our Species in the Path of Its Destiny,’ and ’The World a Workshop.’

A German-born immigrant inventor, John Adolphus Etzler, imbibed this Yankee enthusiasm and sought a wide audience after 1830 for the descriptions of his carefully blueprinted technological wonderland. Etzler’s imagination was vivid, his enthusiasm for the powers of nature unbounded.

Etzler addressed “To All Intelligent Men” his detailed prospectus called ’The Paradise within the Reach of All Men, without Labor, by Powers of Nature and Machinery.’ Etzler outlined his amazing plans to harness tidal action, to subdue the very winds to man’s needs, and capture the heat of the sun to power the advanced technological civilization his plans prognosticated.

If Etzler inclined to gloss over the ’how’ of some of the crucial applications by hypothesizing “some simple device,” his enthusiasms carried his ideas—and the familiar request for some kind of subsidy—to Congress itself.

But such enthusiasms belonged not alone to technically minded planners and dreamers. Even the statesman John C. Calhoun confessed that “the subjugation of electricity to the mechanical necessities of man would mark the lost era in human civilization.”

The striking tendency of Americans in these years to measure social progress in material terms brought charges that excessive emphasis on technology was making American democracy dangerously materialistic. What must be the eventual effects of such emphasis on the mind and morals, the religion and aesthetic interests of the average American?

Tocqueville, indeed, not only decided that materialism was a dangerous disease of the human mind, but that it was especially to be dreaded in democratic nations. “Democracy encourages a taste for physical gratification: this taste, if it becomes excessive, soon disposes men to believe that all is matter only,” he cautioned, and reported that uppermost in every American mind was the determination to satisfy even the least wants of the body and every desire for conveniences.

New York City.

Some Americans picked up the refrain. “Our philosophy comes from Bacon. It deals only with the wants of man and uses of nature,” lamented one of them.

Other prominent critics of America’s preoccupation with material interests included churchmen like William Ellery Channing and outstanding thinkers like Emerson and Thoreau. The whole question was admirably pointed up by the Reverend Joseph B. Bittinger before an audience at Pennsylvania College in 1860 when he demanded that technologists reexamine their social mission:

"And when our capricious, fictitious and factitious wants demand of the mechanic ’Cui bono?’ it is not enough for him to say, it will make hats, caps, and shoes, not even if they are waterproof, nor that it will cover umbrellas and make comfortable pillows.

"The Question to be asked and answered, by man, for man, is, will these improvements tend to make men wiser and better . . . If man can rise no higher than a mere artisan, if all his cunning devices and witty inventions shall terminate in time, and be lavished on the body, then will his boasted civilization be a mere Epicureanism . . . his glorious intellect be regarded as no better than a transcendant mud-wasp, or beaver talent."

Along with such vigorous critiques, of course, appeared also numerous defenses against the charge that technology was breeding gross materialism. One defender protested, for example, that it must be expected that a young nation stoop a little in the path of progress to pick up a few of the material jewels scattered so prodigally at its feet.

Some held it unjust to compare the American ideal of improvement for the many with the ascetic or aristocratic concept of the Orient or classical Greece and Rome.

When Thomas Carlyle scorned the age as having abandoned the tradition of learning and discovery for the pursuit of gadgetry, American critics hastened to point out that an era of gas lights and lucifer matches could be as enlightened as an era of pine knots and torches.

“A chemistry which brews and bakes and cooks for the moderns is quite as philosophical as that which crazed the ancients with a promise of the philosopher’s stone,” one speaker assured Carlyle’s collegiate audience. “The epoch of steam engines and magnetic telegraphs is no more heretical than the ‘devotional ages’ when witches were hung, and ghosts exorcised by the priests and then shot with silver bullets.”

Nor did the argument rest with a defense of technological materialism. Morally and ethically Americans need anticipate no real danger from science and invention, and should derive great blessings. Mechanical enterprise, after all, provided the freedom and leisure needed to develop man’s better nature; the findings of science brought men only a better understanding of, and hence heightened regard for, the handiwork of God.

William Barton in 1813 observed in the course of his commentary on the work of the astronomer, David Rittenhouse, that practitioners of this type of “philosophy” must be ranked equal with teachers of religion and morals as disciples of universal truth.

Because science enlarged man’s views of the operations of Providence in relation to the past and present scenes of the world, clergymen could defend the incessant probing into the secrets of the universe as “but an extensive survey of the empire of God.”

Let a writer in the ’Edinburgh Review’ accuse the age as one of technological materialism and an American reader could hasten to reply that this very emphasis on mechanical matters had furnished mankind the freedom and leisure necessary to the true development of the spiritual and immortal part of mankind.

Technology, then, a citizen of the nineteenth century might point out, was also a potent weapon against superstition. “Much less, at the present day, when thoughts and words are free, and science is not within the power of intolerance and bigotry, can empty denunciations and misapplied epithets hinder the spirit of progressive investigation and arrest the march of discovery.”

Technology’s materialistic emphasis was examined not only in the light of its philosophical and spiritual effects, but also for its effect on the intellect of the citizen, especially the machine laborer. Most Americans seemed willing to grant Tocqueville’s view that democracies slighted the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.

But would the machine, too, actually dull the imagination and intelligence of the laboring masses? The greatest threat was the specialization of labor which, from the viewpoint of efficiency, minimized skills and boosted production.

Can making machinery.

William Ellery Channing found these attributes scarcely consonant with his own dreams of self-improvement for the laboring class. “The division of labor,” cautioned Channing, “tends to dwarf the intellectual powers, by confining the activity of the individual to a narrow range, to a few details, perhaps to the heading of pins, the pointing of nails, to the typing together of broken strings.”

But optimistic writers, especially in the technical press, had ready replies to the critics of technology’s influence on the laborer’s intellect. A reader of the ’Working Man’s Advocate’ in the thirties reminded this Owenite journal that knowledge and consequent enlightenment of public opinion followed in exact proportion the improvements in mechanics and use of artificial power.

Meanwhile, the various mechanics’ institutes springing up everywhere lured ambitious laborers from the comforts of home or grog-shop to venture into areas of knowledge not immediately restricted to the workbench.

But when Samuel Colt explained to a British engineering group in 1851 that uneducated laborers made the best workers in his new mass-production arms factory because they had so little to unlearn, there was at least the implication that the machine had introduced a new imponderable in American education.

The life of the mind, the improvement of the spiritual side of man, the expansion of democratic institutions—all these features by 1860 had become a significant part of what many Americans conceived to be the social responsibility of technology in a democratic society.

One final point of debate was the relationship between technology and the aesthetic sense. It was here that Tocqueville made an especially severe criticism of democratic societies and found Americans, especially, wanting in artistic taste or artistic inclination. Quite consistently he linked this weakness with the social mobility, the ambition, the eagerness for immediate results and for physical comforts which he had found so evident.

The workman in democracies, said Tocqueville, directed every effort to invent methods which might help him to work not only better but more quickly and cheaply. Sometimes this would mean cutting corners and turning out an inferior product.

But if American watches, for example, were vastly inferior to the handful of watches once possessed by aristocrats, at least every American owned a cheap, machine-made watch. Democracy did not necessarily preclude the cultivation of excellent craftsmanship, but few in America were willing to pay the price for such time and trouble, so that on the whole, American workmen remained “in a state of accomplished mediocrity.”

But were not the inferior quality, the abundance, and the cheapness of commodities themselves excellent evidences of a society where privilege and class distinctions were declining? After all, democracies preferred the arts which rendered life easy rather than those which merely adorned it. “They will habitually prefer the useful to the beautiful, and they will require that the beautiful should be useful.”

To what degree were Tocqueville’s conclusions confirmed by Americans themselves? That expediency might have to take precedence over adornment in a new country had been suggested by Tench Coxe in his admonition to American printers just before the turn of the century to omit the elegancies of fine copperplates and vellum paper because speed of publication was more essential than artistic detail, and because artistic detail “costs more than is agreeable to the people of this country, who desire valuable material for their money.”

It was only grudgingly that the editors of Fessenden’s ’Register of Arts’ admitted in 1808 that “the cover of the Schuylkill Bridge compelled ornament and some degree of design lest it should disgrace the environs of a great city,” however unnecessary such expenditures might be in other locations.

And in the 1830s, when the appearance of the American countryside was being altered by the cuts and embankments of the new railroads, the ’Boston Mechanics’ Magazine’ cautioned those who would beautify the new right of way of the Baltimore and Ohio that “Directors and engineers of works of this kind ought to feel that every dollar expended for show and elegance is worse than lost” because it simply cut funds available for other useful projects.

Evidence, however, that the aesthetic impulse was not excluded from technological creation even in the high tide of Jacksonian democracy was to be found in some engineering works both technically and artistically distinguished, and in a modest propaganda for improvement in this relationship.

Boston street scene, 1840s.

Again, the utilitarian character of the age came under scrutiny. In 1832 the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia reported the deplorable tendency to over-ornament the manufactures of the age, but noted happily the signs also of a growing competence and style in some of them and advised Americans to produce commodities both simple and neat.

The goal of a democratic industrial art, wrote Charles G. Page, a former patent commissioner and now editor of a polytechnic review, in 1854, must be as utilitarian as American science. But this did not exclude an aesthetic purpose.

"The form and proportion of every implement or dwelling has a close relation to its purpose,” Page instructed, and he praised the American clipper ships as excellent examples of the art in which “the means are directly adapted to the end in view.”

In American society, Page argued, there was no room for “castellated villas for retired burghers.”

In the Crystal Palace exhibition in New York in 1853, Americans could witness personally the proud summing up of a half century of American technological and artistic achievement. Not alone the structure itself but the variety and excellence of the exhibits evoked enthusiasm—the fruits of American engineering and mechanical genius.

Graceful form, beautiful outline, and poetic thought, remarked one observer, might now be traced not only in a Madonna or Venus but in “swan-like-boats, those light and airy carriages, and highly finished engines—the epics of mechanics—and the host of tiny-handed operators for sewing, for card making, for spinning, for ornamental weaving, and a multitude of other works, including that wonderful distributor of thought, the printing press.”

To the Americans, therefore, the New York Crystal Palace exhibition, like the great London international exhibition two years earlier, offered an opportunity to display before the mid-nineteenth-century world a new conception of aesthetic expression. There remained much to be desired in the finish and polish of the samples of machinery and articles of manufacture produced by their own countrymen; but there was no question of the sincerity of purpose and the dedication of those products to the service of Everyman. Their very simplicity and humbleness suggested that.

In a much broader sense, the great exhibitions also summarized the general relationship of technology to the concept of democracy in America, and it seemed appropriate that Walt Whitman should have assisted at the dedication ceremonies in New York in 1853.

There was no denying the tremendous technological progress that had been made since 1800—the constant improvement in engineering and the never ending multiplicity of new inventions.

As it had begun, so the period ended, with American science and invention still in the service of the people. Popular needs still tended to determine the goals of engineers, inventors, mechanics, and their spokesmen.

Perhaps inevitably, the materialistic approach of technology fitted admirably the tone of life of a bustling people who wanted to get things done quickly, who worshipped abundance, and who believed that every free citizen was entitled to a generous share of the things which brought physical comfort in their world.

American technology in the years before the Civil War served those objectives well—a fact of which most Americans seemed fully aware.

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