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The Rise of American Industry

25c. Inventors and Inventions

Charles Goodyear
Charles Goodyear received a patent for developing a method of treating rubber, called vulcanization

A nation becomes great because of great people. Often the people that make the greatest impact on progress are not national leaders, but brilliant men and women of ideas. A handful of individuals developed inventions in the first half of the nineteenth century that, not only had a direct impact on everyone's lives, but also affected the destiny of the American nation.

In the second decade of the nineteenth century, roads were few and poor. Getting to the frontier and instituting trade with settlers was difficult. In 1807, Robert Fulton sailed the first commercially viable steamboat, the Clermont, from New York City to Albany. Within 4 years, regular steamboat service from Pittsburgh took passengers and cargo down the Ohio into the Mississippi. Within 20 years, over 200 steamboats were plying these routes.

While New England was moving to mechanize manufacturing, others were working to mechanize agriculture. Cyrus McCormick wanted to design equipment that would simplify farmers' work. In 1831, he invented a horse-drawn reaper to harvest grain and started selling it to others in 1840. It allowed the farmer to do five times the amount of harvesting in a day than they could by hand using a scythe. By 1851, his company was the largest producer of farm equipment in the world.

Cyrus McCormick and his reaper
Cyrus McCormick's reaper was five times more efficient than hand harvesting wheat, but at first farmers looked upon the invention as a novelty.

In 1837, John Deere made the first commercially successful riding plow. Deere's steel plow allowed farmers to turn heavy, gummy prairie sod easily, which stuck to the older wooden and iron plows. His inventions made farm much less physically demanding. During the Civil War, 25 years later, even women and young children of the South would use these devices allowing the men to be away at war.

Another notable American inventor was Samuel F.B. Morse, who invented the electric telegraph and Morse Code. Morse was an artist having a great deal of difficulty making enough money to make ends meet. He started pursuing a number of business opportunities which would allow him to continue his work as an artist. Out of these efforts came the telegraph. With the completion of the first telegraph line between Baltimore and Washington in 1844, almost instant communication between distant places in the country was possible. The man who was responsible for building this first telegraph line was Ezra Cornell, later the founder of Cornell University.

18th century pistol
Until Eli Whitney invented interchangeable parts, pistols like this one were handcrafted by gunsmiths, one at a time.

Charles Goodyear invented one of the most important chemical processes of the century. Natural rubber is brittle when cold and sticky when warm. In 1844, Goodyear received a patent for developing a method of treating rubber, called vulcanization, that made it strong and supple when hot or cold. Although, the process was instrumental in the development of tires used on bicycles and automobiles, the fruit of this technology came too late for Goodyear. He died a poor man.

Perhaps no one had as great an impact on the development of the industrial north as Eli Whitney. Whitney raised eyebrows when he walked into the US Patent office, took apart ten guns, and reassembled them mixing the parts of each gun. Whitney lived in an age where an artisan would handcraft each part of every gun. No two products were quite the same. Whitney's milling machine allowed workers to cut metal objects in an identical fashion, making interchangeable parts. It was the start of the concept of mass production. Over the course of time, the device and Whitney's techniques were used to make many others products. Elias Howe used it to make the first workable sewing machine in 1846. Clockmakers used it to make metal gears. In making the cotton gin, Eli Whitney had played a major part in expanding slavery. In making the milling machine to produce precision guns and rifles in a very efficient and effective way, he set the industrial forces of the North in motion.

On the Web
Morse's First Telegraph Message
This brief, but interesting account of Samuel Morse's invention is straight from the Library of Congress. This page includes a facsimile of the original outgoing telegraph message sent by Morse from the Supreme Court chamber in Washington, D.C., to Mount Clare railway station in Baltimore, Maryland. Take a look to see who chose the message, "What hath God wrought?"
Steam Engine Library
The Steam Engine Library website offers the text of historic books dealing with steam engines. Many are illustrated. Two of them (one written in 1913 and the other in 1891) are devoted to Robert Fulton, but many other steam engine inventors and inventions are covered in this very valuable website.
The Colt Firearms Collection
This website provides a brief introduction and description of the Colt's Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company Factory Collection. Prepared by the Museum of Connecticut History at Connecticut State University, it tells the story of one of America's most famous gun manufacturers.
19th Century Scientific American
Scientific American magazine has been published since 1845 and the University of Rochester has put several of the early issues online. You'll find articles about early inventions, lists of patent applications, and since it was written for the common man of the 1800s, you'll also find poems, amusing anecdotes, and a strong moral in nearly every story. Unfortunately, navigation is horrendous, so search for a general keyword (like "invention") or plan to browse this otherwise useful resource.
About Goodyear and the Strange Story of Rubber
Charles Goodyear was so crazy about rubber that he drove his family to the poorhouse. He even sold his family's dishes and had them begging for half-grown potatoes so that he could continue his experiments. But with a lot of hard work, effort, and luck, he succeeded in making a novelty item into one of the most useful substances in the world. Take a look at his efforts in this biography from Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company.
Eli Whitney Museum
The Eli Whitney Museum in Connecticut has a fantastic website that's not just about Whitney, but the influence of invention. Go to Whitney's biography, which details the invention of the cotton gin and its effect on slavery as well as his introduction of the concept of interchangeable parts. And don't forget to visit the Exhibits section of the website, which inspires the inventor in everyone.
Engines of Our Ingenuity : Sewing Machines
This entertaining text from the University of Houston's radio series "Engines of Our Ingenuity" touches on the development of the sewing machine and the changes it has brought to American life. The history of the machine is traced, as well at the impact the author's mom's old-fashioned, treadle-powered machine had on his childhood.
National Inventors Hall of Fame
The National Inventors Hall of Fame has put together a very handy website with short biographies on a few hundred inventors. Scan an alphabetical list of the inventors or search by keyword for the invention. This handy resource is a great introduction to the inventors of the United States.
Biography of Cyrus Hall McCormick
Inventor of the reaper that bears his name, Cyrus Hall McCormick was more than just a scientist, he was a businessman. Using the interchangeable parts developed by Eli Whitney, McCormick manufactured his reaper, which changed farming across the United States. Read to see how McCormick started, and what his invention did to make Americans the most productive farmers in the world at the time.
The Story of John Deere
Look at your lawnmower next time you're out doing yardwork and you might see John Deere's name on it. His company began in the 1800s when his steel plow revolutionized the farming industry. Read the story of John Deere, provided by the company he founded, which still serves farmers and homeowners today.
By 1855 John Deere was selling more than 13,000 new cast steel plows each year. What made them so popular?
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Worldwide, 3,000,000 workers harvest rubber, and nearly 300,000 Americans earn their livelihoods in its manufacture.
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What hath God wrought? was the first message transmitted by telegraph. How were these words chosen?
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