Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2045:

by John H. Lienhard

Today, a great inventor flies under our radar. 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 famous nineteenth-century American inventors skew our view of invention. Names like Eli Whitney and Elias Howe eclipse people like Thomas Blanchard. Yet the little-known Blanchard was at least their equal. Like Whitney and Howe, he came from Worcester County, Massachusetts. Born on a farm, he lived from 1788 'til 1864.

Blanchard was a shy child with a bad stammer -- ridiculed at school. But he had fine mechanical talent. His Eureka moment came when his father took him to a blacksmith's shop. Forming red-hot iron into horseshoes looked like magic. He tried to replicate the feat at home and failed. So he made more trips to the smithy, where his real education began. One day he announced to his father that he meant to be a mechanic, instead of a farmer.

He started inventing: At thirteen he heard about a mechanical apple parer, and decided he could make one without ever seeing an original. He realized that when we pare an apple, we let our thumb ride just ahead of the blade, gauging its depth. He invented a wire gage that rode ahead of the blade of his machine.

That was to be Blanchard's lifetime scenario -- identifying the wisdom that rides in our fingers, and building that wisdom into mechanical replacements for our daily labors.

When he was eighteen he set out to replicate another hand task -- making carpet tacks. He worked six years on his tack-making machine. When he could produce two-hundred tacks a minute, he sold his patent for five thousand dollars. That seemed a huge sum in 1812, but it paled against having revolutionized the tack industry.

One of his very important inventions was a machine that bent wood without breaking it. It served to form ship planks, plow handles, wheel rims, furniture -- anything made of bent wood.

Blanchard is most famous for an invention that finally brought him before Henry Clay, John Calhoun, and Daniel Webster (in 1840). They, and the rest of congress, gathered under the Capital Rotunda to see busts of themselves, that'd been carved from wood.

But there was a catch: Blanchard's copying lathe had replicated the busts from sculpted originals. By now, he'd used the lathe to make gun stocks, tool handles, shoe lasts, and more. But now he was weary of seeing pirated versions of his lathe. By then he'd used this congressional venture into statuary to dramatize his appeal for a patent renewal. And, with Daniel Webster's help, he got it.

For Blanchard had by now been a key player in industrializing America. No one-trick pony, he'd touched every aspect of that growth. He'd built a steam car and helped to develop railways. He'd built steamboats. His impact on the standard of living of ordinary Americans was huge. Looking at the life of little-known Thomas Blanchard, we gain an inkling as to just how an industrial America emerged so rapidly out of Colonial outposts -- situated in the primeval forests of a new world.

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

(Theme music)

G. Iles, Leading American Inventors. (Toronto: McClelland and Goodchild, 1912): pp. 104-118. The three images below are from this source.

For more on Blanchard, see: this online article.

Thomas Blanchard

Copying Lathe

Tack-making machine

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