Today, we accept the Shakers' simple gifts. 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 Shakers were surely the
oddest and most compelling of early American
religious movements. They were a late-18th-century
offshoot from the Quakers. They took root in
America during the Revolution. And they held some
God was both father and mother. The second coming
was imminent, and Christ would come as a woman. Out
of a belief in song and dance they created
wonderful music. They practiced a communal life.
Finally, they believed in total sexual abstinence.
Still, the Shakers had a fine creative cutting
edge. An 1859 book of doctrine begins with lines
from the Apocrypha: "O my soul, swallow down
understanding, and devour wisdom ..." They did just
that. They mixed simplicity and industry with
wonderful creative openness. Invention flowed from
For example, the buzz-saw
appears to have been a Shaker invention. Half the
motion of regular saw is wasted. You don't cut on
the backstroke. We're told about Sister Tabitha who
had a vision. She saw the action of a saw merge
with that of a spinning wheel. She realized she
could make the sawing motion continuous by forming
the saw into a rotating disc.
Maybe Tabitha's vision is myth -- maybe not. But
wonderful things certainly did flow from Shaker
vision. At first they avoided patents as a worldly
pursuit. But the outside world made good use of
their ingenuity. The familiar flat broom we all use
is a Shaker invention. So are the clothespin and
the apple corer.
The Shakers finally did join the patent process
with every kind of machine for weaving cloth,
shaping wood, and preparing food. Still, it's not
Shaker devices that take our breath away. It is
Their furniture and architecture have such elegance
and simple beauty. They have a cool, lean,
soul-settling grace that rises within a life where
there is no worldly future.
Yet that's why the Shakers perished. You might
think celibacy killed them off. But it didn't. The
Shakers lasted over a century by simply taking new
people in. Celibacy was one more simplification
that many people found attractive.
No, the modern world broke through in the Civil
War. Their towns lay in the way of plundering
armies. The War drew men off to fight, and they
didn't come back. The Shakers' static agrarian ways
stopped attracting people from mainstream America.
Only orphans and the old came to them.
So they faded away. But they left a lingering
legacy of design -- a simple gift of grace and
balance. And that gift still haunts us -- long
after they've gone.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
I'm indebted to Peter Bridges, Manager of Internal
Affairs at Shell Oil Co. He suggested that I look
into the Shakers in general and Tabitha's vision in
particular. He referred me to
Andrews, E.D., The Community Industries of
the Shakers. Philadelphia: Porcupine Press,
Mead, F., The Shakers and the World's
People. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co.,
Nourse, H.S., History of the Town of
Harvard. Massachusetts, 1984.
I've used the following additional sources:
Brewer, P.J., Shaker Communities, Shaker
Lives. Hanover: University Press of New
Evans, F.W., Shakers. Compendium of the
Origin, History, Principles, Rules and Regulations,
Government, and Doctrines of the United Society of
Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, . . .
etc.. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1859.
Neal, J., The Kentucky Shakers,
Lexington, Ky.: The University Press of Kentucky,
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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