Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1295:
  PINS

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1295.

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 rhyme,

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, William Cowper, described a seven-man pin-production line in a poem that began:

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 song:

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 work.

(Theme music)


Lubar, S., Culture and Technological Design in the 19th-Century Pin Industry: John Howe and the Howe Manufacturing Company, Technology and Culture, Vol. 28, No. 2, 1987, pp. 253-282.

This is a revised version of Episode 48.





The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1998 by John H. Lienhard.

Previous Episode | Search Episodes | Index | Home | Next Episode