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Structures of Change in the Mechanical Age

Technological Innovation in the United States, 1790–1865

Ross Thomson

Publication Year: 2009

The United States registered phenomenal economic growth between the establishment of the new republic and the end of the Civil War. Ross Thomson's fresh study accounts for the unprecedented technological innovations that helped propel antebellum growth. Thomson argues that the transition of the United States from an agrarian economy in 1790 to an industrial leader in 1865 relied fundamentally on the spread of technological knowledge within and across industries. Essential to this spread was a dense web of knowledge-diffusing institutions—new occupations and industries, the patent office, machine shops, mechanics’ associations, scientific societies, public colleges, and the civil engineering profession. Together they composed an integrated innovation system that generated, disseminated, and employed new technical knowledge across ever-widening ranges of the economy. To trace technological change in fourteen major industries and the economy as a whole, Thomson analyzes 14,000 patents, the records of two dozen machinery firms, census data for 1,800 companies, and hundreds of business directories. This exhaustive research leads to his interesting interpretation of technological diffusion and development. Thomson's impressive study of the infrastructure that fueled and supported the young country’s economic and industrial successes will interest students of economic, technological, and business history.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Series: Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology


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pp. v

List of Figures

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pp. vii-viii

List of Tables

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pp. ix-xii


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pp. xiii-xiv

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1 Structure and Change

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pp. 1-12

In the Paris Universal Exposition of 1867 U.S. technology came in for high praise. Americans received grand prizes and gold medals for reaping and mowing machines, sewing machines, firearms, machine tools, steam engines, telegraphs, locomotives, and woodworking machines. Locks, scales, looms, machine-sewed shoes, and petroleum garnered silver medals. Such awards were unanticipated...


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2 Paths of Initial Mechanization, 1790–1835

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pp. 15-65

In the half-century after the United States gained independence, mechanical technologies transformed important industries and services. Textile machines, steam engines, and steamboats held the attention of contemporaries. Less-heralded changes reshaped printing, woodworking, clock making, and firearms. Such innovations helped bring industrial capitalism...

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3 Ongoing Mechanization, 1836–1865

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pp. 66-99

Processes of technological change, once begun, need not continue. Changes could level off, maintaining gains but not extending them, much as the printing press retained the form Johannes Gutenberg gave it through the eighteenth century. Before the Industrial Revolution such episodic change had been the norm. In the United States as well as Britain the Industrial Revolution broke the pattern...

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4 Contours of Innovation

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pp. 100-125

After touring American factories and shops in 1853, Joseph Whitworth was impressed above all with the pace and generality of U.S. innovation. American development, he wrote, “instead of being, as in former cases, gradual and protracted through ages, is by the universal application of machinery effected with a rapidity that is altogether unprecedented.”...


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5 Machinists as a Technological Center

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pp. 129-159

As the most widely distributed mechanics’ journal in the world with the world’s largest patent agency, the Scientific American understood the centrality of mechanics in inventing, developing, and producing new techniques. An 1869 article in the journal stated: “It is the mechanic who elaborates the idea of the inventor. He it is who clothes it with a practical form, furnishes it with nerves of steel...

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6 Science, Mechanicians, and Invention

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pp. 160-189

Even before independence, Americans recognized the promise of scientific knowledge for useful purposes. They understood that craft knowledge was basically different from knowledge of mechanized industry and that the crafts were unlikely to generate such knowledge by themselves. Like their Enlightenment counterparts in Europe, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson...

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7 The Patent System and the Inventive Community

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pp. 190-228

American support for invention was so strong that little debate was needed to include a patent provision in the Constitution. Shortly after ratification, the Patent Act of 1790 formed rights to intellectual property in inventions and copyrights. The act and its successors aimed to spur invention by strengthening incentives and by spreading new technological knowledge...


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8 The Social Basis of Innovation

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pp. 231-258

In 1866 the Scientific American proclaimed “the last quarter of a century unparalleled in the world’s history” for its advances in science, invention, and wealth. As evidence, it listed the railroad, steamship, telegraph, reaper, and sewing machine, innovations that reshaped American transportation, communication...

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9 Technological Leadership

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pp. 259-285

To discover the truth behind the stories of American steamboats, the French minister of maritime affairs sent a naval engineer and graduate of the French Polytechnic, Jean Baptiste Marestier, to assess American accomplishments. Studying dozens of boats in 1819 and 1820, Marestier issued a precise, circumspect, but obviously positive report. Reflecting on the report, the Royal Academy of Sciences...

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10 Fruition

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pp. 286-309

One attribute of an innovation system is the capacity to sustain innovation processes and begin new ones. By 1855 tens of thousands of U.S. practitioners could apply a wide variety of technological knowledge to many major innovations at the same time. The breadth of knowledge and the number of practitioners had advanced greatly from two decades earlier...

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11 The First Innovation System

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pp. 310-328

Perhaps the distinguishing characteristic of modern technological development— and indeed modern economic life—is that it builds on itself. Markets may tend toward equilibrium, but internally generated innovations always will disrupt such tendencies. In antebellum America knowledge-spreading institutions, technological innovations, and the economic effects...

Appendix: Selected Primary Sources and Data Sets

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pp. 329-338


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pp. 339-402

Works Cited

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pp. 403-422


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pp. 423-432

E-ISBN-13: 9780801896620
E-ISBN-10: 0801896622
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801891410
Print-ISBN-10: 0801891418

Page Count: 448
Illustrations: 6 line drawings
Publication Year: 2009

Series Title: Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology