Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 181:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 181.

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 courses.
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;
Every body ran him down and laughed at his position;
They thought him all the world behind -- a goney, muff, or noodle.
Laugh on, good people -- never mind -- says quiet Yankee Doodle.
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.

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

(Theme music)

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. Lienhard.

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