Today, let's make pins. 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.
Do you know the old nursery
Needles and pins, needles and pins,
When a man marries his trouble begins.
The reason for that bit of doggerel is that the
lowly dressmaker's pin was once a metaphor for the
commonplace household necessities. Most people made
their clothes at home in the early 19th century;
and dressmakers absolutely have to have pins.
But a pin is not easy to make. People made them by
hand in production lines, with each person doing
one operation. The popular 18th-century poet,
described a seven-man pin-production line in a poem
One fuses metal o'er the fire;
A second draws it into wire; ...
The poem continued through to the finished pin. And
pin-making was actually a lot more complex than
Cowper made it out to be.
Eighteenth-century economist Adam Smith described eighteen
separate steps in producing a pin. Small wonder,
then, that pin-making was one of the first
industries to which the early-19th-century idea of
mass production was applied.
Steven Lubar identifies the first three patents for
automatic pin-making. They came out in 1814, 1824,
and 1832. The last of these, and the first really
successful one, was filed by an American physician
named John Howe.
Howe's machine was fully operational by 1841, and
Lubar justly calls it "a marvel of mechanical
ingenuity." It took in wire, moved it through many
different processes, and spit out pins. Howe had
created an enormously complex, and completely
automated, robot. It was made of a dazzlingly
complex array of gears and cams.
When Howe went into production, the most vexing
part of his operation wasn't making pins; it was
packaging them. You may have heard another old
I'll buy you a paper of pins,
and that's the way our love begins.
Finished pins had to be pushed through ridges in
paper holders, so both the heads and points would
be visible to buyers. People had to know that the
heads were really round and the points sharp. It
took Howe a long time to mechanize this part of his
operation. Until he did, the pins were sent out to
pin-packers who operated a slow-moving cottage
industry, quite beyond Howe's control.
So we glory in jet planes and spaceships -- in
gene-splicing and fiber-optics. But where we
ultimately feel technology is at the level of our
nagging commonplace needs. For you and me, there's
little differentiation between a working TV and a
working doorknob. We want neither much more than
the other. In the end, making the lowly
dress-maker's pin easily available contributed as
much to 19th-century life and well-being as the
invention of the telephone or the steamboat did.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds