Message Area
lblHidCurrentSponsorAdIndex =

  < Back to Table Of Contents  < Back to Topic: Create & Innovate Plus Home Made Gifts & Games

article number 397
article date 11-20-2014
copyright 2014 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Capital, Movement of Labor and Invention
by Roger Burlingame

From the 1942 book, March of the Iron Men, A Social History of Union through Invention.

§ 1

WE HAVE seen how the industrial revolution come to England motivated by the effort to establish a favorable commercial balance due to the exhaustion of agriculture, by fluid capital and by the new interest in science but borne on the solid shoulders of coal and iron.

Coal came first; it had been mined and burned for centuries but never on the scale which developed when it was used for smelting; the new use lowered the levels in the mines and the steam engine became necessary to make the lower levels accessible; the steam engine in its turn burned more coal.

With the steam engine perfected, power machinery multiplied, science aided it and skilled labor, released by the machine itself, developed its design.

Meanwhile the operation of the machine was taken over by the surplus unskilled labor and the idle, pauper population was absorbed by industry.

The fine interplay of all these ready factors achieved the revolution. It was finished by 1850.

This review of facts, already explored in detail, is desirable for an understanding of what happened in America where all movement was in another direction. Here agriculture increased while it diminished in England. Forests had to be cut and the wood used, postponing the demand for coal.

Charcoal smelted the iron for a century after it had been abandoned for this purpose in most of Europe. Water power turned what machinery there was, but, by the time there was anything which could properly be called industry, the westward movement had begun and the steam engine, when it arrived, was used entirely for transport and picked up its fuel on the way.

Skilled labor was absorbed by agriculture and migrations, there was no surplus of people: on the contrary there was a shortage which amounted to vacuum and sucked continuously at the surplus in Europe. And, as the vacuum filled, it was sucked at again by the vacuum beyond, to the westward, and agriculture instead of industry absorbed every momentary surplus.

Thus all the causes of an industrial revolution were absent. There remained only the necessity of supply to the transient people. This produced sporadic industry but not revolution. Such revolution requires a static condition for its operation.

Industrial revolution is, indeed, a stirring up of elements stagnantly at rest. It comes only when a society turns in upon itself for production. Society in America was persistently extrovert.

In their movement, Americans lived by the wealth they found on the way; they accumulated no capital which could in any sense become fluid until the movement slowed down. We were too busy moving to “exploit” anything for profit.

The idea of money—a symbol of wealth—could not arrive in men’s minds when wealth itself was all about them in immediate, tangible form, ripe for the picking. Just as we might prefer currency to a cheque on a bank, so they preferred goods to a fictitious greenback.


So, through most of the first half of the century, what industry there was had a hard time and a slow progress. Men put their money, when they had it, into land where it froze tight.

When they did not have it, government gave them the land in return for their labor of going to it and settling it. It was all a kind of socialism minus the industrial factor we associate with it today; it was rather an agrarian socialism.

In the absence of capital, capitalism only existed in the holdings of blocs of potential wealth. No one could invest much in such matters as manufacturing. When they stopped putting money into land, they put it into transport.

Strictly speaking, there was no industrial revolution in America. We became industrialized when frontiers disappeared but the condition had crept up on us in another way. Some of it came from invention, synthetically, instead of the other way round.

Invention, at times, became a kind of vogue or tide, an impulse in itself running ahead of necessity yet giving birth to necessities at every turn. Such things as the telephone, the airplane, the motion picture were not born of necessity but they produced immediate and compelling needs.

Nevertheless, in the first half of the nineteenth century, we find symptoms, appearances of industrial revolution and resemblances to what happened in Europe which tend to twist our retrospect away from the facts.

This late warping of our minds as we regard history is one of the most dangerous psychological phenomena of the present day.

Unless we can clarify our view of American history by the certainty that it is separate, different and altogether otherwise motivated than that of Europe—that it is indeed unique in the world—we shall be in danger of borrowing from modern Europe a dress which will misfit and utterly deform us.

§ 2

No forest lasts forever unless some economy is practised in its use. To the pioneer, the forest was looked upon as an obstacle and the various matters for which the cut timber was used were regarded as lucky by-products of destruction.

So, with frame houses, log cabins, corduroy roads, wooden, wood-burning steamboats, railroad ties and extremely wood-hungry locomotives, the by-products were exhausted and wood became a main or primary product. From the east, first, it disappeared. We began, then, to think seriously of coal, the revolutionary fuel.

The coal was there. It had been mined in Virginia in early times and used near the mines for heat and in blacksmith shops.

But in Pennsylvania, which had been invaded by industries, there was an odd problem. There was a black substance there which looked like coal when you first saw it but, when you tried to burn it, it was, apparently, just a kind of coal-black stone.


It was new, this stone, and it was American—no one had ever seen it anywhere else. A few persistent geologists knew that it was coal. Country blacksmiths, who were a kind of magician anyway, burned it. At the Pennsylvania Armory at Carlisle, it had even been used for a time by some advanced artisans in the manufacture of firearms during the War of Independence.

Early in the nineteenth century, it was mined by a few mad capitalists and it was shipped for sale as coal to several centers, but it was used largely to make “gravel” walks. The people called it stone coal. The geologists, however, called it anthracite.

The unique nature of anthracite held back the development of coal in this country for several years after the use of the bituminous variety had been fairly general where it was available. But the soft coal was much less accessible to the industrial areas than the anthracite.

Because anthracite was hard to ignite, the smelting industry stuck to charcoal. It was only when the wood gave out in earnest that a serious attempt was made to smelt the Pennsylvania ores with the peculiarly American coal.

In a strategic position in the anthracite region, adjacent to large deposits of iron ore and towering above the junction of the Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, stood the city of Pittsburgh. This was the old Fort Duquesne, scene of George Washington’s first military operation against the French.

From the combination of circumstances, the most important being the availability of the earliest medium of inland transportation, water, it became industrial the instant it graduated from a military post into a town, and lumber, brick and iron for the Ohio trade were manufactured there as far back as 1784.

Coal made it the largest center of iron smelting and iron manufacture in the nation. When the Bessemer process of steel arrived, it took the lead in steel manufacture, but by that time the iron ores of Lake Superior were supplanting the Pennsylvania supply.

We see here an extreme example of the centralization of industry about a nucleus of mineral resources. This was the same thing that had happened in England nearly a century before.

In America, meanwhile, industry had clustered about streams which furnished power or in places where wood was abundant. Now new methods of transport would decentralize again; when coal could he carried by railroad the steam engine would be used for industrial power in places where neither wood nor water existed.

The railroad, then, increasing the demand for rolled iron, would also spread the rolling mills. So, though they came late, coal and cheap iron became the backbone of industry here as well as in England, yet because they came so late they could not be called a cause of an “industrial revolution.”


§ 3

It might be well to identify this transition period which runs vaguely through the second quarter of the century by the embryonic and basic ideas which were patented then.

From 1825 to ‘30, began such revolutionary discoveries and inventions as the circular saw, babbitt metal, the wire-weaving power loom, pressed glass (a thoroughly American invention), annealed cast iron, petroleum, the typewriter. Illuminating gas was already in use and preceded kerosene by more than twenty-five years.

Between ‘30 and ‘40 came lead pencils, apparatus for making soda water, the shoe pegger, the electric dynamo and motor (imported), machines for making screws and horseshoes, the revolver, the friction match (imported) and the vulcanization of rubber.

From ‘40 to ‘50 came the anthracite iron furnace, the iron frame grand piano, electrotypes, the rubber ball, the steam fire engine, the anaesthetic use of ether, cornstarch, a new typewriter, the anthracite breaker, the turret lathe, the sewing machine, the Kelley steel (Bessemer) process, the cylindrical printing press, the electric locomotive, the disc harrow, the rock drill and American gold.

Those which had the most important, lasting effects upon society were illuminating gas, matches, soda water, the revolver, ether, the sewing machine, Bessemer steel and vulcanized rubber.

The discovery of petroleum had to wait on many other collateral inventions such as refining processes and the internal combustion engine for its use. The gusher opened by accident in Kentucky in 1829 horrified its discoverers. They had no way of recognizing the oil; it was valueless and worst of all it ruined the fine salt well they were exploiting when they discovered it.

The typewriter, which started in America with Burt’s 1829 patent, remained a philosophic toy until the ‘70’s and so hardly comes within our scope here. The revolver and the sewing machine will be treated in separate chapters.


§ 4

The use of gas for lighting—a gas which could be made cheaply from coal, changed many things. It is astonishing to remember that before 1820 artificial light came only from fire, candles and whale-oil lamps.

For this reason, little successful work could be done after dark. The early curfew meant bed for most people. Only the rich could afford late-burning light.

Difficult, careful, small highly skilled work such as engraving, watch-making, jewelry could be done only by daylight. Most factories shut down at sunset. A little night-life, a few theatrical performances in the richer cities was kept going by spermacetti.

In general, the night was recognized as dark. People could see in it, no doubt, better than they can now; a modern policeman would have a hard time with a criminal by starlight.

Coal-gas changed all this, at least in the cities and in many factories, and by the time it was well-established in the cities, coal-oil had come to the outlying farms.

Now longer hours came for labor with a proportional human cost.

City hours grew longer too, bringing increased dissipation. The theatre, the opera, the “museum,” as many show places were called, all received immense impetus. With gas, undreamed-of effects could be produced on the stage.

Bright street-lighting tended to decrease crime in populous districts.

Illuminating gas was an English invention which arrived in this country only with the exploitation of soft coal. In England it dates to 1792 and its commercial use to 1807. It was produced by the slow heating (sometimes called distillation) of coal.

A coal-gas generator of 1813.

§ 5

Another English device, the friction match, was invented by John Walker in 1827 and arrived so gradually in this country that its revolutionary effects were hardly felt until matches had become a cheap, established fact.

The “locofoco,” an American adaptation by Alonzo D. Philips in 1836, received immense advertising from the presidential campaigns of 1840. Then the Democrats who opposed Harrison were called “locofocos” because, at one of their meetings, they had used match light to write their resolutions after the Whig landlord of the house they were using had turned off the gas. This meeting was a landmark, using as it did two new devices for light.

This gradual introduction of matches, partly due to their first horrid concomitant of stench, obscures the revolution which had been affected from the tinderbox-matchlock-hot-coal-carrying period. The greatness of the invention has been scarcely realized. It immediately reduced the consumption of fuel and the materials of light.

In older times fires, candles, lamps were often kept going because of the difficulty of lighting them. It must have reduced neighborliness when burning coals were no longer carried from house to house. It increased accidental fires as it fell into the hands of delighted children.

Lighting gas became far easier to manage. It established a new industry in which, though Americans invented the match-making machinery, the United States never held the lead.

§ 6

Water charged with carbon dioxide gas was largely an American invention and became, certainly, an American tradition which the sturdy Americans have miraculously survived. It came into popular use in the thirties following the invention in 1832 of an apparatus for making it by John Matthews of New York City.

In its train came the enormous soft drink business which brought with it ice-cream, the great variety of syrups and flavors, artificial ice, increased manufacture of glass, synthetic processes for flavorings, demand for sugar, chronic dyspepsia, diabetes, the American drug store and a few ineffably curious arguments against the use of alcohol. It established an entire social custom.

But it was a long time before it found its way into hard liquor, one of its happier uses today, in which it refines a raw habit that may have eaten the lining of many a pioneer stomach.


§ 7

Surgical operations in the eighteenth century and well on into the nineteenth were performed after tying the patient hand and foot in such a position that he could not move a muscle except perhaps those of his throat and lungs.

The piteous screams which issued from all hospitals where such simple surgery as amputation was practised or from dental “parlors” or from barber shops where dentistry was largely practised were taken for granted by the neighbors.

In operations, speed was the great requisite. “Surgeons,” we are told, “were pitted one against the other like runners on time. He was the best surgeon, both for patient and onlooker, who broke the three minute record in an amputation of lithotomy.”

It is true that many palliatives and anodynes had been tried—sometimes with disaster.

As the nineteenth Century moved on, laudanum, an opium tincture, was used in various operations, sometimes in perilous overdoses.

Nitrous oxide (laughing gas) had already been in use in England and there is a known case of its use in America in 1844.

The story of the introduction of ether as an anæsthetic has caused a good deal of controversy. We find here the familiar conflict of credit between the man who first used it successfully and the men who brought it before the world.

Circumstances in the forties made the village of Jefferson, Georgia, less accessible to the savants of medicine and surgery than Boston, Massachusetts. So when Doctor William Thomas Green Morton, the celebrated Boston dentist, introduced sulphuric ether as an anæsthetic into the Massachusetts General Hospital in 1846, neither he nor the world outside knew that it had been used successfully four years before in the isolated southern town.

Doctor Fulton tells a pleasing story of how Long’s first experiments came about. Long was practising in Jefferson in 1842 and we may imagine it was a sad little town with long monotonous periods in some of its seasons. At any rate, some of the doctor’s friends, hearing of the new laughing gas, urged him to stage a “nitrous oxide frolic” for them.

Doctor Long had no nitrous oxide, but, he explained, “I had a medicine (sulphuric ether) which would produce equally exhilarating effects.” He had, apparently, tried it himself.

So he arranged the frolic. In it several of the frolickers got bruised and Long himself remained sober enough to observe “that the bruises were unaccompanied by pain.”

This led him to operate on a cystic tumor with the aid of this new anæsthetic and from that successful operation he went on to perform some seven others in the next four years. But so remote, apparently, was Jefferson that the news never got out until three years after the other inventor had applied for a patent in Boston.


Most authorities, therefore, have agreed that the credit should go to Doctor Morton and to Doctor Warren, also of Boston, for making the practice of anæsthesia by sulphuric ether known to the world. Yet Morton seems to have got the idea from the chemist, Doctor Charles T. Jackson, whom we met in the telegraph controversy—an ambitious inventor on his own account.

This does not greatly matter except that Jackson made such an obstructing row over Morton’s patent that the invention was happily able to leak through to free medical practice where no patents could encumber it.

Morton must have been an unusual dentist in his era, because we find him actually filling a tooth in 1844 and using chloric ether as a local anæsthetic. Then when Jackson began to lecture on the fact that sulphuric ether when inhaled would cause a loss of consciousness, Morton tried inhaling it himself.

It is a curious fact that Jackson’s mind does not seem to have made the jump from loss of consciousness to absence of pain during surgery. Morton, the practical dentist, daily harassed by screaming patients, made the jump instantly and, having tried it on himself and on his pet dog, used it to extract a tooth with complete success.

Morton was not, as most doctors are nowadays said to be, exclusively interested in the welfare of humanity. Humanity in 1846, was probably a vague abstraction even in Boston. Doctor Morton was a poor dentist. He saw in his ether, an invention and a private fortune. So he decided to keep it a secret.

The news of the extraction leaked out (probably through the delighted patient) and the story was printed in a Boston paper, but not the name of the drug.

Doctor Henry Jacob Bigelow, a Boston surgeon, read the account and told Doctor John Collins Warren and together they persuaded Morton to bring his miracle-worker to the Massachusetts General Hospital to be tried in an operation on a “congenital but superficial vascular tumor.” They did not, however, persuade him to disclose the name of the drug and, for some reason difficult for the modern reader to understand, it was not recognized.*

* This is especially curious, as the use of ether for asthma was known in 1785. Herbert C. Crouch, Anæsthetics, Encyclopedia Britannica, 13th ed.,1907.

But Doctor Warrens operation was a success and was, indeed, the greatest event in his professional career. The Massachusetts General Hospital still celebrates “Ether Day” on October 16th.

Morton got his patent on November 12th in the United States and about a month later in England. He called his drug “Letheon,” an early example of a proprietary name.

Jackson, and later Long, fought the patent and, fortunately for humanity, it was never enforceable, so Morton died in poverty and bitterness. The week after Morton got his patent, the celebrated Massachusetts physician Doctor Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote him a letter suggesting the word “anæsthetic.


It would be superfluous to expand on the effects of the use of this anæsthetic. The first practice on any large scale was in the unhappy Mexican War which broke in the same year and in which some 3400 United States troops were wounded. Its use in the Civil War nearly twenty years later changed the whole aspect of the military hospital.

One great invention remains to us in this group. Vulcanization rubber is a story by itself which has many aspects, economic well as technical. Upon it rides the whole of motor traffic of today.

§ 8

Rubber seems to have appeared in Western Europe about 1730, being brought there from South America. It was in the form of coagulated sap which, when heated and kneaded, was found to have the property of erasing and cleaning, hence its name and use during the eighteenth century.

By 1820, the South Americans themselves had learned to work it—especially the Portuguese settlers, and in that year a pair of rubber shoes was brought on a ship to Boston and seems to have aroused considerable curiosity. The next shipment contained five hundred pairs.

They must have been something of a monstrosity though none are intact today for reasons which will presently become evident. They seem to have tickled the Yankee ingenuity and by the time some half million pairs had been imported and sold at large prices, the New Englanders had learned how to make them.

Rubber was one of the great financial bubbles of the twenties. Shoes, coats and other articles seemed so practical at first that fortunes were invested in a material which science had never approached.

Rubber was, in fact, a complex material and organic chemistry was far behind the inorganic.

The disillusion came first when the rubber boots and shoes which did such fine service in the snow and the mud were brought into the house and set by the fire to dry. At that moment, the family was forced out.

From about the little stoves in general stores, now becoming popular places of social intercourse and gossip, there spread, on wet winter days, an effluvium which immediately nullified the stores’ business.

But the disillusion was complete when, in the heat of summer, all rubber goods decomposed in a sticky mass whose stench was so overwhelming that it had to be buried.

Thus, soon after rubber came in, its reputation became so bad that the invested fortunes were lost. The usefulness of the boots was forgotten in the violent olfactory memory of their dissolution and rubber became an indecent subject for parlor conversation.

There were, however, a few less sensitive, more persistent people who remembered the substance in its effective state. One was the man whose name may forever be associated with the product we know—or at least until some synthesis effectively drives the natural material from the field.

The story of Charles Goodyear is largely tragic. He was certainly an inventor in the old tradition.

Unscientific, a trial-and-error worker, a person who for all his commercial ambition had not the faintest notion of the value of money; extravagant to the point of fantasy, as hopeful as Micawber, indomitable, single-tracked, concentrated, attacked by sporadic vision, spurred on by misfortune and demoralized by success.


Goodyear never stopped inviting the abuse of gods and men. He was somewhat like John Fitch with less excuse, though there was in spots a likeness between John Fitch’s childhood and his.

He was the son of a maker of Yankee notions and a dealer therein. His father made buttons, buckles, spoons and clocks, he also invented farm implements among them the elastic steel pitchfork.

Charles was profoundly religious, dominated by the mysterious commands of scripture, a serious boy without humor but fanatic in faith.

He wanted to be a minister. His father wanted him in the hardware business. Here was the Fitch parental conflict in reverse.

The father won and, at seventeen, Charles left for Philadelphia to be an apprentice in a hardware store.

Whether from the conflict with his inner “call” or from the sternness of his personal habits, Charles, about 1829, broke down. He never again had much to boast of in the way of health or physical constitution.

He had to give up business and lived from hand to mouth except when a debtor’s prison fed him. During this period most of his thoughts were taken up with invention. It was while he was in jail in New York in the middle thirties that rubber laid hold of him with a grip which it never relinquished.

Goodyear has always been a favorite subject for the romantic writer of the history of invention. He was poor, dishevelled, absent-minded (meaning, of course, that he was so present-minded as to be inaccessible to his acquaintances), but, most romantic of all, his successes usually arrived by so-called accident.

Thus the story of his dropping a bit of melted rubber on a hot stove has been immortalized to a point where many a schoolboy believes that this is all there is to vulcanized rubber. Goodyear himself told the story formally in the third person: “He was surprised to find that a specimen, being carelessly brought in contact with a hot stove, charred like leather.”

The countless hours, days and sleepless nights of experiment required to bring the melted rubber in the pot to a point where a hint of vulcanization could come from this accident are seldom recorded in the popular story.

Actually he reached this point after a slow and laborious attempt to arrive at a proper fusion of rubber gum and sulphur based upon a Patent granted to Nathaniel Hayward in 1838. Hayward’s process was that of “hardening and drying the gum by placing a small amount of sulphur in it, or by spreading a small quantity over it, and submitting it to the heat of the sun.”

Hayward maintained that the idea was revealed to him in a dream. Occult believers may suspect that this dream was a transference of thought from Doctor Leudersdorff who had made the same discovery, independently, in Germany.

At any rate, Goodyear found that this “cure” of the rubber, as it was called, was by no means final and, after scrupulously paying Hayward for an assignment of his patent if and when he got it, experimented on his own.

So the melted rubber in the pot which accidentally fell upon the stove was a careful mixture of gum and sulphur.

Charles Goodyear demonstrates vulcanization.

“He endeavored,” he now remarks, having spilled the rubber and picked it up, “to call the attention of . . . some other individuals who were present . . . to this effect, as remarkable, and unlike any before known, since gum elastic always melted when exposed to a high degree of heat.

“The occurrence did not at the time appear to them to be worthy of notice. . . . However, he directly inferred that if the process of charring could be stopped at the right point, it might divest the gum of its native adhesiveness throughout, which would make it better than the native gum.

“Upon further trial with heat, he was further convinced of the correctness of this inference by finding that India rubber could not be melted in boiling sulphur at any heat ever so great but always charred . . .

“But there were further . . . indications of ultimate success. . . as upon the edge of the charred portions of the fabric, there appeared a line, or border, that was not charred, but perfectly cured.”

There now occurred one of those unhappy sequences characteristic of the age:
- Capitalism, that great support of invention (if not always of inventors), had not yet come into its own.
- The debtor’s prison was still a threat to the man who had to borrow.
- There was not fluid capital enough to start a company in the way this is done today.

Goodyear borrowed enough from kind friends to make, himself, all kinds of articles of vulcanized rubber and thus abundantly prove the efficacy of his process. The story is told that, for a time, he dressed entirely in rubber of his own manufacture as evidence that all the old obstacles had been overcome.

But new capital was not there, the gates of the prison yawned and the best he could do was to sell the right to manufacture rubber shoes to an established factory.

Charles Goodyear.

He seems to have got a good deal in royalties as we gather from the fact that in the next few years he paid out $35,000 to cover old debts. Meanwhile, an Englishman with a keen nose smelled the sulphur in the vulcanized rubber and closed the English market to Goodyear forever.

Goodyear got a patent in the United States and later in France, where, however, an attempt to start a factory failed. It was ironic but characteristic that when the Cross of the Legion of Honor was awarded to him, the news was brought to him at the debtor’s prison in Clichy.

Goodyear’s invention was a true invention in the sense that he transferred an idea from the realm of surmise to the realm of practice. Furthermore, alone, he thoroughly perfected his process.

This movement was to a large extent the reverse of what happened in the case of Morse’s telegraph, though, as a promoter, Morse was far more effective and successful.

Goodyear died, as the romantic historian never forgets to inform us, leaving debts worth $200,000.

§ 9

We stand now upon the threshold of economic change. The period of transition in which may have occurred the outbreak of an industrial revolution in America was drawing to a close.

“Industrial revolution,” as we have guessed, is a convenient phrase and may only mean the presence of industry in a country hitherto agricultural.

Nevertheless, in the late forties, the die had somehow been cast which determined us as an industrial nation. The scheme had been plotted. Veins and arteries were there. The industrial viscera waited only for the blood.

The intrinsic value of a certain noble metal has always been a subject of mystery to students of human behavior. This intrinsic value seems to lie in three properties: first, that it does not easily corrode; second, that it is malleable, which leads to its third aspect, beauty under the hand of man.

These properties having been recognized, it received its greatest prestige from the fact of its rare occurrence. King Midas, however, discovered its primary drawback and gave evidence of an important economic law in the fact of its indigestibility when, cursed by an aichemic touch, he lapsed into starvation.

The American pioneers were not accustomed to gold. They were usually firm in disbelief of its remote existence as backing for paper exchange. On the frontier, they sold goods for goods, often an inconvenient process, but nevertheless an immediate and reliable one.

Thus when a young man in January, 1848, working as a hydraulic carpenter in the farthest frontier of all, picked up from a mill-race a handful of sand which sparkled somewhat more than usual, an economic convulsion arrived which altered the face of the country.

We must not dwell too much on the facts of this mid-century event. Hydraulic and dirt mining in California did not last long, nor did it produce fabulous wealth for all the states. But it bred a psychological condition which released all the inhibited industrial forces.


Men were able, suddenly, to deal tangibly in futures, to understand banking, to believe in a currency and a credit backed by this palpable, traditional, universally valuable, apparently real and at the same time convenient, substance.

Prospecting Midases in remote places undoubtedly starved on beds of nuggets, but not if it were humanly possible for any one to reach them and take their gold in exchange for food. The effort to do this was immediate and colossal. Almost overnight, the transcontinental migration became a rush.

The overland trails which had been made and followed by hundreds of thousands of plodding settlers seeking the wealth of land and peaceful life were not good enough for the seekers of gold. They must go in ships with more speed and a lesser risk, and shipmasters were willing and eager to wait on futures for their passage.

Ships were built and made faster with sudden new invention, the way of Magellan fell under contempt, lazy Panama became a mad center of activity and speculation, a railroad was projected across the isthmus and its labor was so expendable that one Chinaman was said to have died of yellow fever for every tie that was laid.

Great minds, newly released, saw rails across the continent itself. What were Rocky Mountains when gold lay beyond them?

Men and women by new hundreds of thousands went to California to wash the rivers. Other thousands followed them to find still easier ways to wealth by removing from the miners the gold they had washed.

Many of these people came back. They brought with them sacks of nuggets and dust. On the way, running their fingers through the pleasant, soft metal, they came to reflect that this stuff was not merely a thing which could be used to exchange for goods.

Up from their fingers ran the sense of its propagative, its reproductive power. It was alive, it could breed, it could “make” money.

As soon as these men landed in the East they were met by other men who told them how. Many were speculators, gamblers, and wildcat financiers.

But among them, also, were true, eager industrialists whose industries were paralyzed or frozen. California gold became their first fluid blood, but their movement which never stopped sprang from a mental release.

Two things happened then, simultaneously. Industries grew by leaps and bounds but the men who should man them were drawn away by the lure of new gold. This stimulated invention but it made necessary, also, the importation on a colossal scale of foreign labor.

From that moment, it was evident that society might change. There would be groups, blocs, where before there had been individuals.


Unity was necessary; east and west were already shaking hands with each other. At the same time relations with the rest of the world—with Europe, with South America, perhaps indeed with Asia might become closer, more inextricable.

Would foreign ways, foreign methods, foreign philosophies become dominant or would there be a “melting pot” to fuse all these ingredients into something new and different?

As we trace the true history from this point, we are surprised at how slowly these changes came. There were, of course, other forces at work. In many ways the very mid-century events which combined for union were violently individualistic in their nature.

In any case the period following California gold developed an apex of individualism perhaps never before and certainly never since attained in the world’s history.

One of its foremost symbols was the clipper ship. This thoroughly American invention was a natural development brought to its climax both directly and indirectly by the great new force we have just encountered. It was short-lived and leaves no trace on modern shipping or modern commerce. It is doubtful if its effect on American society was very great except where it made Americans familiar with the arts and produce of far places.

Yet its story is inevitable in any history of America if only as a closing and climactic chapter to the long development of a merchant marine—of which, indeed, it sang the swan song. Nor can it be omitted from any history of invention in America, for it was the top triumph of nineteenth-century Yankee ingenuity on the water.

It was potent in the growth of the idea of speed and, for a few years, it made the world perceptibly smaller, but most important of all it was an indispensable factor of union.

< Back to Top of Page