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article number 552
article date 05-05-2016
copyright 2016 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Our Revolutionary War and Invention.
by Roger Burlingame

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

§ 1

WAR has often advanced the history of invention by creating new needs. Some of these have been among the primary materials of war; weapons, explosives and fortification.

But invention has come also from the need of the secondary materials such as food and clothing in unexpected quantity, means of transport, means of communication, sustenance for the non-combatants.

A people at war must primarily fight the enemy but incidentally it must fight an abrupt economic stringency. Out of these combats come inventions beneficial to post-war society.

The classic example is the benefit to “creative chemistry” which came out of the World War. Fixed nitrogen is an essential of explosives. Before 1914, it was obtained from natural nitrate deposits. Before 1914, about 80 per cent of the world’s supply was in the caliche deposits of Chile.

It was known before that time that nitrogen could also be produced synthetically from the air but the process was so expensive that it was out of the question for commercial use.

But the war cut Germany off from the Chilean supply. So, as her existence depended upon fixed nitrogen, cost was no longer a factor. The Germans installed the equipment for the synthetic process on a vast scale and use soon cheapened the process. Today it is more profitable to get commercial nitrogen from the air than to get it from Chile.

As nitrogen has also value in time of peace, this cheapening of a synthetic process has benefited society.

In the same way, the need of making poison gas in the United States, brought the dye industry and many useful drugs out of their German corner to America. It is small comfort that these things have come out of the sacrifice of our dead and crippled and it seems a sad and cumbersome way of getting them but then the present economic organization of our society is also cumbersome and until it is altered, the struggles and the benefits are likely to keep pace with each other.


§ 2

The technical benefits which came from the War of Independence grew out of the answers to both economic and military needs. But both the economic and the military situations are hard for us to understand—not because they are complex but because the later history of invention and society has obscured them.

Today, we must look again at the social organization in America in the pre-war years; we must forget the America and the world we know and see those colonies from the inside: from the point of view of the people who lived in them.

We have come to think of all progress as uniting people, as making the world smaller: solidifying and making homogeneous a race, standardizing behavior, creating a bloc of opinion.

But the progress of the years from 1607 to 1775 in America had precisely the opposite effect. The groups which came from England were as like as beans in a pod. You could not have told a Virginian from a Rhode Islander during the first fifty years of the settlements. Their children going back to England were indistinguishable to the English.

But by 1775, they were distinct. They came homogeneous, they became diverse; they came united, they became separate; they came gregarious but they became hermits. A single tradition had multiplied into a dozen or a hundred, religions had broken into pieces, customs and tempers had been hardened or gentled by the climates.

The new wide lands had drawn folk out of the huddled settlements, men and women were living lonely on the frontiers, men and boys were sailing from Boston to Lisbon to the Bight of Benin to Surinam and back to Boston, gone half the year on their travels.

The single concentration on the farm had dissipated into a hundred trades and industries which in turn were being drawn out again into larger, different farms in new land and all the mores and morals and household gods were diversified in the process.

In 1775 there was anything but unity, everything but homogeneity; solidarity was hardly thinkable, public opinion was confined to the cities and differed between them.

And how was behavior to be standardized in the colonies when the act of a Carolinian could scarcely be known in the province of Maine until a month after he had performed it?

It was a strange country to go to war. And yet, over the years, the colonials had acquired a common focus of angry emotion. This was England. The distiller of Providence hated England for the enforcement of the Sugar Act with which the Virginian had little concern, but then the Virginia tobacco planter hated England for his burden of debt.

As we look back on the maternal colonial policy, it is amazing how expertly it seems to have been planned to touch every diverse element and transmute each separately into a common hate.

Unity, of course, was far from England’s real intent. We have seen how she received Franklin’s plan of political union. Yet unity she achieved—not the unity we understand but the beginning of a unity of thought which seems extraordinary under the physical circumstances.

Unity of hate began, we suppose, in the North, with the sugar and iron acts, the importation acts and the Stamp Act; it was consolidated in the Northern boycott of English goods. The South came along part way with the boycott because hate in the South was also strong but the boycott was hard on the planters who had no means or time to manufacture.

In the North, the boycott was a stimulus to industry and the North was very patriotic about it. Though few people knew it then, patriotism happened to be the side or which the North’s bread was buttered.

From the boycott to the war was a short step.


Picture, now, the outbreak of hostilities in this disconnected, incommunicado land. We think of war as bursting, overnight. —Overnight our wires are hot with news and propaganda; inspiring, uniting words come out of the air. —Units are mobilized at precisely the same moment in Seattle and Miami or even in Dresden and Harbin. —Enemy periscopes are sighted (or suspected) simultaneously off Nantucket and Honolulu. —Fighting planes take off at once from the airports of New Haven and Santa Barbara. —News of the first battle is known (or would be, if it were not falsified) to every one at the same time and when, at last, comes the cessation of hostilities, firing stops at a precise moment on every front.

—So, also, by a clever juggling of news and sentiment from a central station, every person in a fighting nation is able to preserve exactly the proper attitude toward his flag and his enemy and if, in spite of this incentive, some individual maintains an independent view, he is soon clapped into a compound with other undesirable thinkers, traitors, renegades, alien enemies, obstructionists and slackers.

But the news of the Battle of Lexington took a day to get to Pomfret, two days to New Haven, four days to New York and more than two weeks to Williamsburg, Virginia. It was nearly a month before the story reached England and, if we will look at copies of The Gentleman’s Magazine for the summer of 1775, we shall see that it was a long time before Englishmen understood that there was a war at all.

Meanwhile in America, thousands of people, getting only scanty news, continued to stand by their king; patriots in provinces remote from the fighting took their time about enlisting, knowing it would be long before the war reached them and scarcely believing, anyway, that news which had come so far could be true or important.

While the Bostonians were fighting at Bunker Hill or besieging British troops in the city, Philadelphians were still about their ordinary business.

The next year, the war left Massachusetts and ceased to be a reality to New Englanders except when it interrupted their commerce; the food shortages and nakedness followed the Army to New York, across to New Jersey and finally to Pennsylvania and the South.

Washington fought these conditions with a farsighted vision that could comprehend much territory at once but, largely, the conditions prevailed. Thus, to enter a home in Germantown, Pennsylvania, in 1775, or one in Braintree, Massachusetts, in 1777, would hardly have given a picture of a nation at war as we understand such things. In both these houses we should hear only local gossip and talk of the immediate crops; we should find folk spinning, sewing, planting, carpentering, buying and selling as usual for their own immediate needs.

Perhaps there would be a hint of war in the absence of a boy or two from the home fireside—drawn away by the genius of Washington—but the boys would be back when their little enlistments ran out and they would have strange tales to tell.

We must remember all this when we come to the effects of the Revolution on the history of invention. Otherwise the story will sound as odd to us as our story of millions of simultaneously sock-knitting women, of farmerettes, of a nation doing without white bread, sugar and gasoline would sound to the colonials of the seventeen-seventies.

The effects of the Revolution upon invention were slow and local; it was more than twenty years before there were significant results.

§ 3

Certain facts were quickly evident—within a few months—to all the colonists. One was the embargo on British goods, notably clothing, gunpowder and weapons. Gunpowder and weapons were local affairs though Washington and Congress tried to nationalize them; so was food because transport was difficult.

But clothing was a universal need as soon as the overseas supply was cut off: not uniforms alone—many soldiers wore what they already had on their backs—but civilian clothes.

Clothing brought with it other items: machinery for carding wool or cotton, wheels and looms (imported before), stocking frames, needles, buttons, buckles, lace, ribbon, stays, suspenders, a host of small matters which had come, normally, from abroad.

Carding—a combing process for raw wool or cotton—was an operation done by hand. It was done with a pair of “cards”—squares of leather having hundreds of bent wire teeth fixed into them. They were a little suggestive of the curry combs used on horses.

Hand carding implements.

The cards were also made by hand by women and children who cut and bent the wire and laboriously inserted and secured the teeth. When cards could no longer be imported from industrial England, the Americans turned to and made there own. In the Revolution, this was a doorstep occupation and the fingers of women and children were sore throughout the colonies.

A young genius from Delaware took the job out of their tired hands. This is an apt time to introduce this inventive boy though his important work came later. But the suggestion of his special genius came in his card-making machinery.

He devised a machine which cut and bent the teeth and shortly afterward added to it a device which inserted them and fixed them in the leather.

A carding machine as introduced by Samuel Slater in 1790.

Here was an epoch-making invention. Hitherto a machine had performed a single operation. A rolling mill, for instance, had rolled bar iron, a slitting mill had cut it, nails had been finished by hand.

But Oliver Evans made, in his twenty-third year, a machine which combined three operations. It established a new industrial tradition.

A flour mill from an engraving in Oliver Evans’s ’The Young Mill-wright and Miller’s Guide.’

Several historians have deprived Evans of the credit for this invention. This is because it was almost immediately stolen from him by a company which manufactured his machines and put them out as their own.*

* Weeden among them in his "Economic and Social History of New England", who gives credit to “Amos Whittemore, an ingenious gunsmith, formerly employed by Giles Richards and Co.” As this firm was the one which absorbed Evans’s inventions, the inference is natural that Whittemore merely perpetuated the Evans plans. But we have other proof.

Invention-stealing was common in Evans’s day and in the vague understanding of people unenlightened by patent law it is not surprising. But if we study his own writings and contemporary records carefully, it is difficult to deny him the credit.

It is impossible in the light of his later achievements. The whole direction of his mind was toward machines which combined different operations and eliminated manual effort in manufacturing processes.

His famous flour mill for which no one denies him credit was merely an elaboration of the card-making pattern. It is easy to see how the thought of the boy developed from one to the other.

The flour mill took in grain as it was delivered by a wagon, weighed it, elevated it to the top of the building, dropped it into hoppers whence it passed between millstones and was ground, elevated the meal, cooled it, dropped it again, bolted it and barreled it without a single manual operation.

We, today, are so accustomed to products “untouched by human hands” that manufacturers have dropped the cliché from their advertising. But such a performance in the childhood of the nation was startling. “It may have been,” writes Clark, cautiously, “the first instance of an uninterrupted process of mechanical manufacture, from raw material to finished product, in the history of industry.”

But we are ahead of our story. We shall come again to Evans and his industrial vision. His card-making machine was a product of the Revolution.

Oliver Evans. Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Historical Society.

§ 4

However incohesive the colonies were and however confused about the war, one need was certain in the theatre of operations and Washington and the Congress eventually made it felt throughout the Northern colonies. This was the necessity for the actual materials of war, now that the foreign supply was cut off.

Gunpowder was badly needed. An anonymous inventor devised a way of making saltpeter, the primary ingredient of powder. He did it, according to Bolton, in response to an act of the provincial congress of Massachusetts to pay a certain price for all saltpeter manufactured in the province in the following year.

Bolton gives the letter describing his method:

“. . . to take the earth from under old houses, Barns, &c., & put it lightly into a hogs-head or Barrel; & then fill it with water, wch immediately forms a lie. This lie he then puts into an ashes leach that has all the goodness extracted before, this being only as a strainer.

"After it run thro’ wch, he boils the Lie so clarified to a certain Consistance, & then puts it to cool, when the saltpetre forms, & is immediately fit for use; & from every Bushel of earth he produces ¾lb. saltpetre.”

The letter adds that “on this information . . . the Act was suppressed for Amendment.”


Grist mills, as we have seen, were readily turned into powder mills, and, eventually, there was enough powder though it was often at the wrong place.

Small arms were not needed at once. Almost every male over the age of twelve had a gun of some sort. The men furnished their own pieces. This was the custom of the time throughout the world. When muskets or rifles were lost or damaged in action they had to be replaced and gunsmiths were kept busy. But the making of small arms in the Revolution never went on an industrial basis.

Meanwhile there were cannon, shot, shells, anchors, and a hundred incidental things to be made out of iron quickly. “Turned out in a hurry” we should say, but the phrase did not exist then. We have seen the laborious iron-making processes and we have seen, too, the random habits of artisans whose minds were half in their plowed fields.

Yet many circumstances were favorable to the manufacture of iron. English laws against steel furnaces no longer had any force. The quantity of pig iron made annually for export to England could now be turned to domestic use.

Several large works were English-owned or owned by loyalists to the British cause. These were confiscated and set to work on war materials.

The great difficulty was in organization, in making the need felt in peaceful parts of the country and in paying for the products in some sort of currency that would seem worth while to an iron maker who had not forgoten his pocketbook in a surge of patriotism.

It is interesting that many owners of foundries simply shut up shop when they found their English market cut off and retired from business without ever thinking that there might be a sudden, new, American need.


Then, one day, came an invention. It was a military invention and not highly important in itself. But its incidental effect upon the iron industry and the new industrial cadence its making introduced give it a milestone value in this history.

Here, too, we have a glimpse of something new in America—a power which had grown silently through the century and a half of conflict with the wilderness, and was now suddenly and brightly visible.

To understand the invention, we must look, for a moment, at the military situation as it appeared to those tacticians who could see beyond the next day’s engagement.

From the start of war one strategic focus was obvious to all the military experts. This was the Hudson River.

With the British in control of Lake Champlain to the north and their ships dominant in the harbor of New York to the south, it would be easy for England to gain a mastery of the entire river. This would split the territory of the Northern colonies, establish bases of enemy operation on both banks and leave open an easy avenue of supply up and down from the bases in Canada and Long Island.

So an expedition was sent at once to Ticonderoga. It was successful and the enemy was cut off at the north. Still something must be devised to keep the British ships from coming up.

The secret committee in charge of this strategy worked for two years on obstacles. They designed various “chevaux de frises”—under-water barricades—but they were inadequate.

At last the committee came to a gigantic conception. It was the sort of thing that delights the readers of Swift and Rahelais—a flight of Gargantuan fancy. The committee seriously proposed to string a chain of iron across the Hudson River.

They took their proposal to Peter Townsend, master of the Sterling Iron Works. At this point we have a glimpse of something we recognize as profoundly American. It is suggested in the very name of the works. “Sterling” was not the name of a man or place but a boast of the quality of the iron. Already Yankees were thinking in the grand terms that have made their barbershops Emporiums and their restaurants Palaces.

But beneath the boasts was the peculiar quality of actually seeing the future in splendid macrocosm, of comprehending colossal projects with no equipment except an unlimited vision.

The American does not admit impossibilities until they are forced upon him. This habit of mind has led him into trouble often enough. But it won him a Continent, for better or worse, with its wealth and its power.

Perhaps he learned this from the vastness of space beyond his doorstep. He came from crowds and found himself alone; his thought was translated from inches into miles, from little hounded squares into acres with vague lines. At the edge of the wilderness, myopia left him forever.

Peter Townsend heard the committee and nodded. Probably his face hardly changed. He went at once into the specifications. Length of the chain, 500 yards. Weight, 180 tons. 750 links.

Each link 2 feet long, made of iron bars 2¼ inches square. Each link to weigh about 140 pounds. Every 100 feet, a swivel. Some 12 tons of anchors . . . Peter Townsend signed the contract. The chain was finished in six weeks.

Section of the great chain (compared in size with man) that was stretched across the Hudson River at West Point during the Revolution, with a map showing location of the chain and fortifications.

A new kind of industrial discipline must have come, as the contract was signed, into America. In the Sterling Works, from that moment, the old tradition of work-when-you-please, home-for-the-harvest must have ended.

The seventeen fires never went out. The men worked in relays day and night. Welsh miners were brought from Pennsylvania. Soldiers were given furloughs to work on the chain.

As ten links were finished, they were drawn by ox-teams over the mountains, making roads as they went, twenty-five miles to New Windsor on the river. There they were attached to logs and floated down to West Point.

There the chain was assembled, attached to booms and held in place by anchors. It stayed there as long as it was needed; no link ever broke.

§ 5

Another sporadic invention which reflects the Yankee’s calm acceptance of the impossible was also a war machine. David Bushnell’s submarine loses none of its significance by its comic finish. There is still a blaze of glory about it. It seems to be the first war submarine in history, though the inescapable Leonardo had designed a boat that would submerge.

Bushnell’s boat was built, not only to submerge, but to attach, while submerged, an infernal machine to the bottom of a sleeping enemy warship.

Bushnell was a Yale man and the story of his life is part of Yale literature. But the episode of the submarine is a gay one and we incline toward the gay account of its first and last appearance by Rodman Gilder in his book about the New York Battery.

“One morning, sentries at the Battery saw groups of red-coated British soldiers and blue-clad Hessians on the parapets at Governor’s Island gazing at a curious knob-like, metal object, supplied with small window-panes zigzagging toward the City. Presently a barge put off from the Island to investigate. As it drew near, a large, iron-bound wooden egg bobbed to the surface and floated with the tide toward the East River.

"The soldiers in the barge cautiously returned to the Island, for they felt, as the British Commodore Seymour wrote in an official report on a later exploit of the American who planned this one, that ‘the ingenuity of these people is singular in their secret modes of mischief.’

"The strange craft, abandoning the egg it had laid, contrived to reach the Battery. Its young inventor and designer . . . helped ashore a weary first sergeant, Ezra Lee, the first man in the history of warfare to operate a submarine. Lee and Bushnell were congratulated by the Commander-in-Chief, who, with a small group of officers, had seen Lee embark at midnight at Whitehall Stairs and were there when he returned.”

There is no record that Washington laughed. He was intensely interested in the whole performance and had, indeed, helped to finance it.

Cross section of the Turtle, a submarine in which Sergeant Ezra Lee attempted to destroy the British fleet in New York harbor in 1776. From ’U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings.’

The egg was a timed bomb. In the dark, Lee had dived the "Turtle," as the submarine was called, under the Eagle, the majestic flagship of Admiral Howe, and tried to attach the egg-bomb to its hull. He had failed, the dawn had come, the submarine had to escape.

"It was then that the British had seen the conning tower and their barge had gone to look. Lee had let loose the towed bomb, hoping to blow up the barge. But the barge did not wait for the slow timing.

"From the Battery, Bushnell and the American officers watched the egg finally explode in the East River. The bursting was impressive: the bomb had contained 130 pounds of black powder.

The Turtle was driven by a crank which turned a screw propeller at the bow. The crank was turned by hand. Another propeller at the bottom was used for submerging. The propellers are interesting inasmuch as John Ericsson, who took out a patent for a screw propeller in 1836, is often given credit for the invention.

The only light in the vessel was provided by foxwood and by its glow the unhappy navigator was expected to read his compass. This light must have also complicated his breathing under water.

The invention was bold and far ahead of the science necessary to its equipment and control. It was twenty-five years before another submarine was attempted. But Bushnell was a typical Yankee boy of the period.

Generations of winter whittlers had bred the mechanical mind. At the very moment of the Turtle’s debacle, another Yankee child was working with difficult tools in a shop in Westborough, Massachusetts. We shall come to him presently, watch him change the face of the country, see him evolve a philosophy which will control the production of machines as long as industry endures.

His name was Eli Whitney.

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