Today, America becomes an industrial power. 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.
The full force of the
English Industrial Revolution was felt by the
1780s. It was the means by which the English middle
class claimed independence at the same time
Americans fought for their freedom. As the century
ended, England's bloodless revolution brought her
enormous economic strength. We may have gained
independence, but we still needed an economic basis
for the good life.
We eventually found it by mounting our own
industrial revolution after the War. Steven Lubar's
catalog of a Smithsonian exhibit called the Engines
of Change tells about that revolution.
We didn't copy English machines for very long. Too
much was different in our vast continent. We had
resources England didn't have. We had far greater
potential for water power. We still had abundant
wood, while England had long since eaten up her
forests. Water and wood rapidly got us started in a
power technology based on wooden water-wheels
instead of English steam engines.
Our use of wood, coupled with our sense of freedom,
had another side effect. We embraced a kind of
technology that was less permanent, more subject to
change and adaptation, and smaller in scale than
England's iron-built, steam-powered juggernaut.
Thomas Jefferson opposed large-scale industry.
"Manufacturing," he said "breeds lords and
Aristocrats, poor men and slaves." [Correction here.
See Note below.] He fostered
transportation systems, and he envisioned a
widespread, diversified technology. The early
American steam engine builder Oliver Evans
characterized the millwright -- the typical
American engineer of the time -- as a true
generalist. He wrote:
[He] could handle the axe, hammer, and plane
with equal skill and precision; he could turn,
bore, or forge ... He could calculate the
velocities, strength, and power of machines; he
could ... construct buildings, conduits and water
Our circumstances took us where England
couldn't go. We were less specialized. We had better
natural resources. We had a sense of freedom of ideas
and freedom of movement. We also had to make better
use of a smaller labor pool. In 1851, we displayed
our wares at the Crystal Palace Exhibit in London.
Suddenly, a self-satisfied Europe was jolted to see
how far we'd come. Punch magazine gave
backhanded praise in a parody of Yankee Doodle.
Yankee Doodle sent to town, his
Goods for exhibition;The Smithsonian catalog shows an
astonishing range and fluidity of free minds at work:
it shows the diversity of forms our industry took;
the wild variety of goods; the sense of pleasure in
making a new world. By the mid 18th century it had
become England's turn to listen to the Engines of
Change in America.
Every body ran him down and laughed at his
They thought him all the world behind -- a goney,
muff, or noodle.
Laugh on, good people -- never mind -- says quiet
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Lubar, S. Engines of Change. Washington,
D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1986.
I did this episode in 1988, the first year of the program. I am embarrassed to report that I have
since learned that the author of the remark, Manufacturing breeds lords and Aristocrats, Poor men and slaves"
was not Thomas Jefferson but one Joseph Hollingworth in a letter to William Rawcliff, Nov. 8, 1830.
See details here.
My thanks to Michael Hornsby for pointing this out.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2018 by John H.
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