Today, a woman claims a job market for other women.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Madeleine Stern tells about
Sarah Bagley, who went to Lowell, Massachusetts, in
1836, to work in the new spinning mills and in the
Hamilton watch factory.
Lowell was just hitting its full stride as a model
industrial city. Those industries had organized
boarding houses for young women like Sarah Bagley
-- houses that managed the women's lives and looked
after their morals and education on the side.
Lowell's model system was both ahead of its time
and very paternalistic.
After nine years of that, Bagley was turing into an
early member of the American labor movement. She
studied writing at a local Universalist church. She
began submitting articles to The Lowell
Offering, a magazine tightly controlled by
Then, on the 4th of July, 1845, she spoke at a
workers' meeting in Woburn, Massachusetts. She
objected to a plan for increasing the workday from
ten to twelve hours, and she got in several licks
against control over The Offering. She
warned "the mushroom aristocracy of New England"
that "our rights cannot be trampled upon with
impunity." In 1846 she took over as editor of a new
magazine, The Voice of Industry, and
began pushing radical reform in earnest.
The labor movement was still embryonic. Factories
weren't yet hiring Pinkerton guards to go about
cracking skulls. What actually did happen was good
news. The same year she began her new magazine,
Morse's new telegraph system came through Lowell on
the way from New York to Boston. Morse's
representative was a man named Francis "Fog" Smith,
a risk-taker in an unstable new technology.
Fog Smith recognized a kindred spirit in Bagley. He
hired her out of the mills to run the Lowell
telegraph office. Bagely spent a few weeks studying
the electro-mechanical system and then went to
work. Years before, she'd written an article for
The Offering in which she told how the
"complicated, curious [factory] machinery" opened
up one's mind. She was more than just comfortable
with new technology, she found it stimulating.
The local press treated Lowell's new telegraph line
as a joke. One paper wrote, "The maximum of the
magnetic attraction [of humbug] is always at the
center [of humbug]." Another, skeptical about women
in the telegraph office, asked, "Can a woman keep a
secret?" And so for a salary of around $400 a year,
the first woman telegrapher set about to make this
new workplace a plausible one for women -- cleaning
the batteries every night, acting as information
headquarters for Lowell. A vocation, which might
well have turned all-male, went to both men and
women just because of Bagley.
After 1846, Sarah Bagley vanished from history's
records. Did she marry and change her name? Did she
die young? We don't know. For us, she lingers only
as a brief, bright, and terribly influential stitch
in our complex national tapestry.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds