Click here for audio of Episode 159.
Today, we'll visit America's first industrial city.
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.
James Watt's colleague,
Matthew Boulton, said to James Boswell, in the late
18th century, "I sell here, Sir, what all the world
desires to have, power." Boulton's remark was a
fine double entendre. England's political power was
riding high, but it was being propelled by
increased steam and water power. The English
textile industry, in particular, was powered by
these new engines.
We lagged England in making steam engines, but we
had higher hills and more rivers -- we could do
wonderful things with water power. So in 1810 the
New England trader Francis Cabot Lowell decided to
create an American textile industry. Historian
Harry Lankton tells us how he went to England to
spy on their equipment -- how he came back here to
recreate the English textile technology on the
Charles River in Waltham, Massachusetts.
The Waltham mills soon wanted more power than they
could get from the Charles. So the mill owners
moved north of Boston to the Pawtucket Falls on the
Merrimack River. There they cut a Martian landscape
of canals and mill-races to supply the largest
array of water-powered textile mills the world had
ever seen. They built the new industrial city of
By 1836 twenty textile mills in Lowell were
producing fifty million yards of cloth a year. They
employed 8000 people. The mills were driven by huge
batteries of water wheels. In the 1840s they began
replacing these water wheels with the new Francis
water turbines, and the factories kept on
expanding. The site was soon generating nine
thousand horsepower -- modest by today's standards,
but a huge enterprise in those days.
The workers were largely poor young rural women.
They lived in tightly controlled boarding houses --
no drinking or debauchery. The company regulated
their lives. It ran churches and sponsored cultural
events. It boasted that these were Utopian
communities and compared them with English
sweatshops. A totalitarian air hovered over their
Utopia, of course; but what nineteenth-century
factory was democratic? They called Lowell the
"Venice of America."
As time passed, later generations of mill owners
forgot about building workers' Utopias. By the late
nineteenth century, Lowell had become just one more
big ugly industrial town.
Yet Lowell had been a first step toward American
industrialization. Historical preservationists are
now rebuilding the old mill-races and water-supply
canals. Sunday visitors will be able to stroll
through the old mill-works and experience something
of the Venice of America. They'll be able to look,
firsthand, at the ingenuity and foresight that got
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Dublin, T., Lowell: The Story of an Industrial
City. Official National Park Handbook,
Washington, D.C.: Division of Publications, National
Park Service, (no date.)
See the following website about the Lowell Mills:
David Donnelly, UH School of Communication, has
made a fully illustrated version of this episode at
Appleton's Cyclopaedia of Applied
Mule-Jenny Spinning Machine.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2018 by John H.
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