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What is now a book in a history of technology series edited by Merritt Roe Smith was once a dissertation written under Professor Smith's direction at MIT. The author summarized some of his argument in an article that appeared in the Journal of the Early Republic eleven years ago. "What looked like an interesting new view of Paul Revere's life proved to be a lens for examining a much larger picture," Martello observed of his perspective as it unfolded, "one that encompassed early American artisan and social communities, entrepreneurship and enterprise formation, and proto-industrialization" (p. 345). He researched deeply in Revere's letterbooks and ledgers, linked himself to the Paul Revere Memorial Association, and carried his enthusiasm for the subject into his writing, which never drags. His article was concise and to the point; his book does not work quite as well, but then it is trying to tell a more ambitious story.
Martello reviews Revere's life from beginning to end, explaining how Revere started with silver work, expanded to iron, then to bronze and copper over his long career. To Martello, Revere stands out as "a prominent participant in the older labor system who nevertheless pioneered the transition to the new industrial mindset" (p. 248). Over the years, Revere shifted away from the custom handwork [End Page 211] of a shop toward machine-based production, as exemplified by his copper-rolling techniques to provide sheathing for the USS Constitution. Revere would be the first American to successfully work copper in that fashion and the hull was encased in just two weeks.
Ultimately, Martello's Revere is an archetype, part of an emerging "proto-industrial" world (p. 7) that lay somewhere between the shop and the factory—or, as Martello put it, Revere became "one of the first Americans to shift from the role of a skilled artisan-laborer into the new one of a manufactory owner-manager" (p. 6). Martello well understands that the notion of "proto-industrial" is problematical, but he makes a good case for it as a way to track changes that were incremental, with one world of labor and management not being neatly divided from another. He provides a deft discussion of technological transfer and shows how imitation and innovation were inextricably connected. Along the way he also explains why it made sense for Revere not to concern himself with obtaining patents, given the complex, sometimes vexing, relationship between patents and the inventive process.
Although Martello does not resurrect the heroic-inventor approach that once typified the field, he does come close to replacing it with Revere the heroic entrepreneur. But Revere, for all his accomplishments, did not play the same decisive role in American metallurgy as Samuel Slater did in textiles, nor could his copper-rolling operation in Canton match the significance of Oliver Evans's Mars Works in Philadelphia. Even within the history of technology, Revere will probably remain stuck in a crowd, Martello's efforts notwithstanding. The larger historiographical problem is to get readers to appreciate how Revere's efforts in his shop are every bit as important as what he did on horseback. Martello rightly wants to free Revere from the narrow line drawn for him by Longfellow's pen and give him a more multifaceted look than that offered by Esther Forbes, his primary biographer. "Paul Revere's lifetime of technical and managerial enterprise made him a midnight rider once again," contends Martello in a metaphor that strains too hard, with Revere "emerging from the sunset of the craft system" and thus "his example and efforts [End Page 212] heralded the dawn of industrialism" (p. 8). Perhaps, but if Martello's Revere takes his place beside Forbes's on library shelves, it will only be because Longfellow put them both there. Sadly, historians of technology still write in the shadow of others whose claims for our attention are more successful, even if they should not be.