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article number 226
article date 04-16-2013
copyright 2013 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Your Early American Life Without …then With the “Mother of Invention”
by Roger Burlingame

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

§ 1

FARQUHAR’S adage that Necessity is the Mother of Invention is likely to be misleading. First, it is not always true as in the case of Hero’s steam engine for which, when it was made, there was not only no need but no thinkable use. Nor was it true in the case of the numerous inventions of Leonardo which remained in his notebooks because they answered no social necessity. They were simply the products of imaginative, inventive, mechanical or scientific minds and, in the sense of the proverb, were motherless.

Secondly, the statement is inadequate. Who, for instance, is the father? And what is the nature and parentage of Necessity herself?

We might say, perhaps, that knowledge is the father although there have been illegitimacies as in the case of the numberless inventions which never would have been made had it been known that animal motion and mechanical motion are incompatible. Early steamboats and flying machines were examples of this. In these cases Knowledge was a child, not a parent of an invention.

It is safe to say, however, that when necessity is the Mother, a knowledge at least of her is essential—a consciousness, that is, that the necessity exists. The Pilgrims of Plymouth seem to us, for example, to have been in dire need of many things (to make them, that is, like us) but as they were not conscious of these exigencies, very few inventions were produced.*

* It is probable that Calvinist prohibitions were a factor in this non-production.

But what is the nature of this invention-breeding necessity and what is its cause? It is brought about, in civilized groups, primarily by the organization of society. We are amazed, on first consideration, at the failure of Hero’s engine to develop or, for that matter, of Newcomen’s, sixteen centuries later, which pumped water out of mines for sixty years without another use and very little improvement and, most of all, being Americans, we can scarcely believe that in this country there were so few machines until the nineteenth century. But if we look at the social organization in those periods we will see that the necessity had never, in fact, arrived.

Hero’s Reaction Steam Turbine.

In the ancient civilizations a large proportion of the population were slaves. These were a political entity in the state for they were the currency of war. The greatness of any state was measured by its military prowess; conquest brought in prisoners; the prisoners became slaves. Without successful war a state could not exist, for its people became the slaves of the victorious state. This slave population had to be kept at work. Thus labor-saving machinery would have created a social contradiction. There were, therefore, no machines for Hero’s engine to turn.

In 1712, the England that Newcomen knew was only just emerging from the artisan stage. Manufacturing had begun, especially in textiles, but the demand was not great enough to bring about a shortage of labor. Population was still so scattered that without effective transportation there could be few domestic markets for production. The local artisans still held sway.

On the other hand, coal mining was becoming an important industry in a country having little wood for fuel. Here, there was a shortage of labor. So Newcomen’s engine was sequestered for mine pumping in which, incidentally, it helped to develop the fuel which one day made steam power universal. But no other use for it occurred to anyone except theoretically interested engineers until factory machinery, invented to meet production demands and labor shortage, had reached a high development, by which time Newcomen was in his grave. Even then the steam engine as a prime mover did not come into general use until manufacturing machinery had spread beyond the reach of water power.

Soon after this, it was applied to means of transportation made necessary by the passing of the artisan and the growth of home markets for machine-made goods.

The Newcomen engine, 1732.

§ 2

In America, mechanical development was much slower. That was because, while England continued to move away from agriculture, the colonies were thrown back to it. For nearly two centuries, the colonists became increasingly absorbed by the soil. By 1810 hardly any one was engaged in any other business except as an avocation. From the start, agriculture became the one overpowering necessity. This is always true where soil is good and land is cheap.

People will not bargain for food when it is so easy to grow it. As the land expanded before the eyes of the colonists faster then they themselves multiplied, a shortage of labor for agriculture was evident. With primitive methods and no other food supply, they would have starved had not society organized itself around the farm.

At first, other occupations were tried. The Virginia Company, disappointed in gold, attempted to start iron mining, iron works, glass-making, silk production, lumber industries. They seem to have tried to establish industries there which would produce goods that could not be made in England but which Englishmen wanted. We find inducements in their circulars to foreign artisans to go to Virginia, become British subjects and use their special genius to supply England with duty-free goods. This was a natural impulse in colonization though it turned out to be a mistaken one in this case. When the tobacco flourished and the Virginians understood that this was the true gold of the country, they forgot about the iron, the glass, the silk and the lumber.

In the North, there were appeals at first for craftsmen: house-wrights, carpenters, ship-wrights and so on, but as they arrived from England they were distributed haphazard in the villages, became absorbed in fisheries and farms and all the inland country soon resolved itself into self-sufficient units. The artisans often became farmers, lost their special talents and acquired others.

So, as we approach the eighteenth century, we find farmers living almost entirely on what the farms and home handicrafts produced. No one lived too far from the coast to get what few importations he needed by primitive overland transport. For his own goods, there were no outside markets. There were only a few exceptions to this where seaports engaged in fishing or shipping bought agricultural products from nearby farms.

In the South agriculture turned to “staple” crops for sale and not for use by the producer. England supplied a steady market for tobacco and later for rice and indigo. The cotton crop was, for a long time, negligible for a technical reason which we shall come to presently. The staples were produced in Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas, shipped to England and paid for with manufactured goods. This condition was highly inimical to industrial development in the colonies and highly favorable to it in England. So there was even less need for the invention of labor-saving machinery in the South than in the North except for the classic, special case of cotton in the late eighteenth century.

§ 3

There are, of course, other kinds of invention than that of labor-saving machines. Invention simply means the combination of certain known agencies for the performance of a new act. It differs from “discovery” which means the new understanding of something that has always existed like America, saltpeter, iron or the law of gravitation. When you have made an iron gun by which, with the aid of saltpeter, you can drop shells, via the law of gravitation, on America, you have an invention. Other discoveries may lead to the invention of a test for gold, a stock company, a method of building, a system of shorthand or bookkeeping, a new form of art, a plan of government or a device for telling time.

Then there are machines which are not labor saving but simply aid the strength of man. Such, for instance, are the turnbuckle, the crane or derrick, the crow bar, the wedge, the catapult and the cross-bow. The turnbuckle, a way to move a stone by looping a rope around it and rolling it, was an ancient device by which more, not less, labor could be used. By putting men on the rope, more men could exert effort than could be applied directly to the stone. The catapult was a machine by which several men could throw a projectile farther and harder than one man could throw it. All these machines were used by the ancients.


And there are machines or devices which do work that man is unable to do at all: automatic devices like the sun-dial, the hour glass, the clock, the magnetic compass, the weather vane, the thermometer; also tools of precision like the level and the instruments of measurement. So, here and there, in the colonial era, we shall find occasional inventions coming out of the handicrafts, though the time for labor-saving machines had not arrived.

We must go back, now, to our history and see how society in colonial America moved again from handicraft to the lost artisan craft and thence forward into industry and how the slow organization of men and women in the New World proceeded toward the greatest industrial development of all time.

§ 4

The occupation of farming necessitates two other occupations: first, keeping the farmer fed, clothed and sheltered and, second, disposing of the byproducts of the farm. These occupations overlapped in the colonies because the by-products were lumber, potash, leather, animal fat, and these were used for the maintenance of the farmer just as were the products: cereals, meat, wool, flax and hemp.

A large part of the farmer’s maintenance was managed, of course, by his wife, daughters and female servants while his sons worked with him in the fields or, if they were too young for this, herded his cattle. The women cooked, brewed, spun, weaved, dyed, sewed, made soap, candles and did the washing and cleaning. They also milked the cows, made the cream and butter and did some of the preserving.

Candle making. A. Tubular mould, wick fixed in centers. B. Melted tallow or wax being applied to hanging wicks, new coating added as previous one dried.

The men, in addition to farm work, did the carpentry, tanning, flax and hemp braking, salting, repairing, tool-making and shoemaking. They also made the potash, so called because it was made by leaching ashes in a pot. This was really lye and was used in soap and sometimes sold for the manufacture of glass. The men also did the butchering and some of the shearing. This seems like a great deal for men and boys to have to do in addition to raising crops and caring for livestock but one important fact must be kept in mind throughout the movement from agriculture into industry, for it is probably the most vital factor in the change.

Farming, in the temperate zone at least, is a seasonal occupation. Except for feeding the stock, it comes to an end in winter. Thus the men were able to carry on many of their avocations or adjunct handicrafts in the off season. It was then that they did their lumbering, lye-making, carpentry, repairing, certain processes in their tanning, shoemaking, milling and distilling. Yet even with all these “chores,” there was hardly enough to keep them busy.

Outside interests were few: religion occupied them more than now, especially in New England where there was much theological discussion; politics were simple, there were few amusements except in more liberal communities where cards and dancing were permitted, drinking was incidental to other pursuits, not a separate occupation as it often is now, and in the seaport towns there was shipbuilding, ship-fitting, merchant trading and so on—as avocations. Independent of farming, almost no trade existed.

So the inland farmer had time on his hands in the winter even after he had finished his essential work. In this time new handicrafts developed. Tools were designed and made; so were furniture, house furnishings and guns. In the evenings huddled close round the fireplace, neither men nor women, boys nor girls sat with idle hands. While the women spun, knitted or sewed the men whittled.

The picture is invariable; men and boys sat deep in their particular dreams, cutting, whittling, smoothing: occasionally holding their pieces up to the firelight for inspection, then going back to the private patterns in their minds, for each was at work on the distinct job to which his greatest skill inclined him. In the left corner, a little outside the circle, sat fourteen-year-old ‘Reliance,’ carving a gunstock; closer in, on the dye pot, was his ten-year-old brother, ‘Preserved,’ composing a sling shot (designed for game); further back in the room, big ‘Isaac’ (his father’s right-hand man at plowing) was finishing a chair with a rush-light to aid him, and the eldest, ‘Elihu,’ the difficult, sensitive boy of twenty—the despair of his robust sixteen-year-old, practical wife—was fitting together the carved, wooden wheels of a clock.

Out of this fireside work came the wooden bowls and dishes the family ate off and many farm implements—hoes, harrows, plows. The list included, according to one social historian, butter paddles, salt mortars, pig troughs, pokes, sled neaps, ax helves (sawn, whittled and scraped with glass), box traps and “figure 4” traps, flails, cheese hoops, stanchions.* Naturally, the men worked most through the daylight as, except near the fire, light in the houses was dim for rush lights and whale-oil lamps gave little illumination and housewives were thrifty with their candles. Exacting jobs like shoemaking were done in the daytime.

* From Alice Morse Earle’s, Colonial Dames and Good Wives, 1st ed., p. 7. Some of these things were eighteenth-century developments.

Among these jacks-of-all-trades, as every one must be, skill in various kinds of work developed rapidly. But certain people excelled in certain things. Young Reliance, for instance, made a better gunstock than his father or brothers and soon the whole community observed that no one could make gunstocks as rapidly as Reliance. So he presently took up work on barrels, too, and one winter, he made half a dozen fowling pieces, so that other men, seeing them and realizing how much more proficient he was than they, abandoned their own efforts and bought Reliance’s guns. Soon, also, Eli was getting orders for clocks and Isaac provided the village with chairs. Thus, out of their handicrafts, these people developed into artisans.

The shoemakers seem to have been the first artisans to have gained special recognition. Shoemaking was a difficult job requiring great skill; for shoes were put to hard work on the farms. Because their tools were small and easily carried, the shoemakers became travelling artisans, going from house to house and finally from village to village, and people would look forward eagerly to their visits. They received bed and board for as long as necessary to give the family a year’s equipment of boots and shoes. They were, incidentally, carriers of news and gossip. But when spring came, the shoemaker went back to his real job, planting and plowing his land. The blacksmith, on the other hand, set up his shop on his land and the work was brought to him.

The shoemaker, the first of the travelling artisans.

§ 5

The next stage was the coming of the industries. Only a few of these appeared in the seventeenth century. We distinguish the industries from the artisans because, by means of power they performed certain unskilled labor for the community. Or, if they did not use power, they developed a certain industrial color from the size of their establishments and the wholesale nature of their work.

The first industry was started by a man who lived near a swiftly running stream. He designed a water wheel—if he had never seen one, we may rightly say he invented it.* He did not patent it for there was no possibility of its being manufactured in quantity. He then invented certain machinery such as another wheel geared or belted to the water wheel and a connecting rod eccentrically attached to this second wheel which drove a saw up and down. He also invented a gearing to grind grain and a more elaborate device called a fulling mill for softening woolen cloth.

* This was unlikely, as water wheels were in wide use in Europe.

His industry was not what we should call an industry today except when he supplied the grain, the cloth or the timber; he simply performed an operation in the manufacture of flour, finished cloth and lumber. It was, however, something different from the work of the artisan; it speeded production, centralized manufacture and thus released labor for other purposes.

Another industry was the tannery. It was found more convenient to tan a number of skins at once than to do them separately. This involved certain vats and primitive machines. But the chief advantage of the tannery was in removing from the home a process which required considerable space and gave forth a sickening odor.

Tanning leather: A primitive hand method.

When iron ore was mined, forges, furnaces and bloomeries grew up near the mines. These were more like a modern industry as they controlled both the raw material and the finished product, though the product was merely bar iron. This had, however, a market among farmers who took it to the blacksmith or made it, themselves, into tools or utensils.

These were typical early industries. As early as 1634 there was a Carolina court order providing “That Stephen Deane haue a sufficient water wheele set up at the charge of the colony, consisting of one foot more depth than he now useth … the said Stephen finding the yron worke thereunto belonging.” We see here that Stephen had already built one wheel and that iron work was necessary to it. Soon after this we find court orders in all the colonies requiring tanneries to remove their establishments out of smelling distance of the inhabitants—one of the first approaches to health laws.

There are some interesting seventeenth-century attempts by colonial governments to divert people from agricultural concentration into these industries. One law was passed, for instance, in Virginia forbidding mechanics to plant tobacco or corn. Virginia tried to institute public manufacturing by counties. In 1661, an act was passed ordering each county to establish one or more public tanneries and to provide tanners, curriers and shoemakers. In 1666, Virginia required every county to set up, within two years, a county loom with a weaver. Most of these efforts failed; agriculture and the handicrafts persisted.

Here and there iron works grew up. There were eight centers of mining in the seventeenth century, each of which had from one to five forges, bloomeries or furnaces. These were all in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey and Virginia. Those in Connecticut, New Jersey and Virginia had short lives. But we shall go more extensively into iron production and the inventions which came out of it in a later chapter. Our effort here is to emphasize the high mortality of the early infant industries. When they did begin to survive, the British government grew jealous of them as we shall see. It was this kind of jealousy and its results in unbearable laws, which tried to cripple American invention at its birth and thus helped to bring about that terrific upheaval which left us free to invent forever.

United States iron works, 1620 to 1675.

§ 6

But were there, in all this period, no inventions at all? Readers of a history of invention must be already impatient with a social history which seems to have strangled invention so long.

The records, unfortunately, are scant. There was no regular patent system. Patents were granted by special acts indicating surprise on the part of provincial governments that any one should want such a thing. Monopolies on processes were given here and there and throughout the colonial period processes were more recognized than machinery.

In 1646, a patent was given in Massachusetts to Joseph Jenks for improved sawmills and scythes. The sawmill improvements seem to have been unimportant but his scythe was the first step away from the short sickle-like instrument used before and out of it came the modern scythe with a long, narrow, thick-backed blade.

Jenks was given the exclusive privilege of manufacturing these things for fourteen years provided, however, that “power is still left to restrain ye exportation of such manufactures, and to moderate ye prizes thereof if occasion so require.” In his exhaustive book, Clark, in his ‘History of Manufacturers’ says “with the exception of a theodolite, patented in 1735 for seven years, by Roland Houghton, of Boston, there appears not to have been a single mechanical device so protected in New England, from the time of Jenks to the Revolution.”

In 1691, South Carolina took a great step forward by passing what was probably the first American patent law “for the better encouragement of the making of engines for the propagating the staples of this colony.” From this time on through the eighteenth century we have a series of Carolina patents almost all for agricultural implements or machines.

This does not mean that no inventions were made. There were certainly innovations in the handicrafts, in vehicles, in shipbuilding, in iron forges and in methods of brewing. They are unrecorded which has much to do with laws, absence of mass production and scarcity of printed matter, and their inventors have gone to their graves with little pride in their achievement. “Invention-consciousness,” as a modern American would phrase it, was low.

Preparing lax for spinning. Breaking flax, the other objects (hatchel, ripple comb and swingle knives) are used in various stages of the work.

§ 7

The important invention of the century, and one which had much bearing on the growth of population in the country as well as upon democracy, was a social one. It was an English invention but it developed largely as a result of emigration to America.

This was the device of the “indentured servant” or temporary white slave. It began when emigrants engaged to pay for their passage by a voluntary period of bondage. Before they embarked, they signed a contract with the merchant company or owner of the vessel. On landing, this contract was sold to a buyer for the price of the emigrant’s passage. The operator of the ship thus received cash at once at the expiration of the voyage. The buyer of the contract then virtually owned the emigrant until he had earned enough to pay back the price paid.

This practice brought many people to America but it soon bristled with abuses. There was profit all along the line. The ship owner, the captain and the contract buyer all got a share of it at the expense of the unhappy passenger. But it developed into what we should today call a racket when ship owners and sea-captains began to employ agents to induce people to bond themselves.

Indentured servants working tobacco fields.

The process of inducing presently became a process of kidnapping. Persons of all ages and stations but principally young boys and girls were cajoled, seduced, black-jacked, gagged and bound and found themselves on a ship far from land. Often they were children of noble parentage caught when their families were off guard or even stolen from their houses much as American children are stolen today to be murdered or held for ransom. This practice was known as “trapanning” and it grew into a profitable trade.

On arrival, the homesick children would be sold into slavery knowing that they would never again see their homes or their parents. There must have been many tragedies, yet, on the whole, once the horror of the voyage was over, the destinies of the indentured servants were likely to improve. Often they were bought by kindly people who, when their time was up, gave them a sound start in free lives. There are records of their becoming beloved members of a household, or, sometimes, adopted children. If they came from overpopulated English cities they may have found farming in the new, wide lands a happy change.

Indentured servants were still coming to America in the nineteenth century.’* Most of us will find them somewhere in our family trees. So, in spite of the abuses of the invention it played an important part in the making of the American people.

* Walter D. Edmnonds, in his novel Erie Water, tells an authentic story of a girl who emigrated from England in this way.

§ 8

In the seaports, all this time, special trades and industries developed. Fishing had always been one. Whaling received an immense impetus from the universal demand for oil for lighting. The whalers developed such extraordinary skill that many true stories about them seem fantastic to us. Rope-making and the manufacture of pitch and tar became important from the first.

Serious shipbuilding began in New England in 1640. This was greatly increased when markets for New England products developed in the West Indies and West Indian molasses went into Massachusetts rum.

Yet the most startling seaport invention of the century, a tide-mill in Boston in 1643, was devoted to the grinding of corn. And throughout the colonies we find the same thing; the constant, close relation of agriculture and industry.

During the century, American colonists continued to be and to think of themselves as farmers. Perhaps cosmopolitan New York, already polyglot to the point of eighteen different languages, had other thoughts but they were not persistent. The Dutch had started windmills, bakeries and a prosperous trade in furs via the Hudson and the Mohawk trail. Yet most of Manhattan Island and all of Long Island remained agricultural. Boston and Philadelphia and New York all imported printing presses of which we shall have something to say in the next chapter. A university had begun at Cambridge whose main function was turning out ministers, the only profession independent of farming. But the Harvard Yard still smelt of cows.

§ 9

Up to this point, there was no consciousness among the colonists of being Americans. Different as they were becoming from the people of the mother countries, there was no such sense, as there is, for instance, in Canada today, of the separation. They were all British subjects and proud of it. When New Netherlands gave up to the English, the Dutch, too, became Englishmen willingly enough.

It was only when England, in the eighteenth century, became intensely aware of the separation, and began treating her New World subjects as despised colonials that they woke to consciousness of it themselves. By that time they had become free men without knowing it but when the inhibiting laws descended upon them, they knew it with a vengeance and expressed it, as we shall see, with an invention called the Pennsylvania rifle.

But at the beginning of that century, there arrived a man whom we may call, looking back upon him, the first American. His life covered most of the century. He was the son of a small New England industrialist, he was self-educated, and Americans ever since have envied him his education. He was as much at home in England and in France as in his native colony and he brought to Englishmen and to Frenchmen the knowledge of the new America; the certainty that a powerful state, independent in all but name, had sprung up overseas. For our final freedom and our political entity we owe as much to him as to any single person.

He was, incidentally, the first American inventor. His name was Benjamin Franklin.

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