Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2005:
ABRAM S. HEWITT

by John H. Lienhard

Today, the other side of genius. 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.

Abram Hewitt was born in New York in 1822, the fifth son of a cabinetmaker. Hewitt went on to become a steel magnate to rival Carnegie, a five term US congressman, a craftsman and inventor, Mayor of New York City, and co-founder of Cooper Union College!

Yet his biographer, Allan Nevins, begins by saying, "This book is concerned less with a single individual than with a family [of two branches] ... the Coopers and the Hewitts: a family which spans American life from 1791 when Peter Cooper was born, until 1903, when Abram S. Hewitt died."

Hewitt's life and that of his father-in-law, Peter Cooper, were warp and woof of a single fabric. Cooper was the wild and uneducated son of an idealistic Methodist minister -- gifted with astonishing mechanical skill, as well as with daring and vision.

Hewitt was also gifted mechanically. But he managed to gain a school education, then college and law school at Columbia. Hewitt would ultimately become Cooper's brilliant, but methodical, counterbalance.

One of Hewitt's many jobs as he worked his way through college was tutoring Cooper's son Edward at Columbia. Cooper took a huge liking to the young man -- practically made a second son of him, as well as a business partner. By the time Hewitt and Cooper's daughter Amelia married, Hewitt was the 33-year-old executive of Cooper's immense steel business.

Cooper had begun by creating a glue-making industry. Then he'd gone into steel. In the course of that he almost off-handedly designed and built America's first steam locomotive, the Tom Thumb.

Hewitt, on the other hand, focused on developments in metallurgy. He was the first American to try the Bessemer process, then first to adopt the open-hearth converter. When Cyrus Field began work on the Atlantic Cable, Cooper was his prime backer, but Hewitt provided lobbying support in Washington, as well as telegraph wire.

Looking at Cooper and Hewitt, one is tempted to ask which should get the prize for the life best lived. Of course, the question itself if wrong! Hewitt weighs in on the matter just fifty-seven days after his father-in-law's death in 1883. He's been asked to give the address for the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Nevins tells how Hewitt used the speech to describe engineers of two kinds, the creative and the constructive. The creative engineer, like the poet, is born, not made. Then he adds: "If to the power to conceive is added the ability to execute, then we have [a rare genius who adds] new glory to humanity."

He was talking about John Roebling, who'd designed the Bridge; but he might as well have been describing his own symbiosis with Cooper. For here were two people who each knew, on a gut level, that the other was his perfect complement. Two people who, together, had surpassed even Roebling in the reach of their accomplishments.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


For Cooper's story, see: E. C. Mack, Peter Cooper: Citizen of New York. (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1949), or M. Gurko, The Lives and Times of Peter Cooper. (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1959).

To learn about Hewitt, and read more on Cooper, see: Abram Hewitt: A. Nevins, Abram S. Hewitt, With Some Account of Peter Cooper. (New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1935)

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Abram S. HewittPeter Cooper
Abram S. Hewitt (left) and Peter Cooper (right)  (1897 Encyclopaedia Britannica)


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2005 by John H. Lienhard.