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The Inventor’s Dilemma—The Confederate Version

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 41, Number 2, June 2013
pp. 251-257 | 10.1353/rah.2013.0054

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

In July 1860, John D. Imboden, a thirty-seven-year-old lawyer in Augusta County, Virginia, imagined a bright future for himself, his county, and his state. With over $10,000 in real estate and over $12,000 in personal property, including slaves, Imboden was a wealthy man and a figure of some standing in his community. Captain of one of the local militia companies, a delegate to the state Whig Party Convention, and a delegate to the Virginia General Assembly, Imboden was active in county and city politics, helping to organize a new railroad line that spring. In the summer, the local Whig newspaper reported that Imboden had purchased a five-year exclusive interest in a railroad-car–coupling device recently invented by L. and W. H. H. Waddell of Staunton, Virginia. The invention allowed “for self-coupling of cars and for uncoupling at the flip of a lever” and had been tested successfully on the Virginia Central Railroad.1

With considerable excitement, Imboden wrote his fellow Whig and neighboring attorney John McCue to see if he wanted a share of the opportunity. He offered McCue a cut of the profits from his exclusive license to sell the car-coupler if McCue would take on marketing it to the rest of the South beyond Maryland and Virginia. Imboden had already contracted with a printer to produce a lithograph “so that a circular may be sent to every RR office in the U.States.” Moreover, he was confident that the Baltimore and Ohio would buy the device and, privately, he told McCue that he had “no doubt of its entire success.” When McCue suggested that a rival had produced a better device in Alexandria, Virginia, Imboden was quick to respond. “I have examined it,” he wrote, “It will couple pretty well, but there is no provision made for uncoupling the cars. It wont answer at all.”2

But as fall came and the national election unfolded, Imboden’s life took a different course. After Lincoln’s election, he ran as a conditional Unionist, albeit unsuccessfully, for a seat in the Virginia state convention, which was to consider secession. Meanwhile, Imboden was busy in another enterprise: lumbering 750 acres in Kentucky and manufacturing staves for wine pipes and barrels in France and timber for steamboat construction. He expected to make “a fortune in three or four years” unless the “political dangers ahead” ruined the business.3

The inventor’s dilemma, in these circumstances, was whether to stay and fight for the fledgling nation that was promising to extend the modernizing slavery economy and all that it benefitted, or whether to remove oneself to safer, more stable terrain. The former meant probably foregoing one’s invention, at least in the near term. The latter meant probably severing the very connections that had sustained one’s inventiveness. As for Imboden, he wanted to delay the war and engineer a unified South, laying the groundwork for a peaceable separation from the North over time. He wanted, in short, to have his cake and eat it too. But two months later, as the Confederate States of America formed in Montgomery, Alabama, Imboden turned secessionist; and on April 17, 1861, he led his artillery battery into the Confederate army to defend his new nation. His exclusive five-year agreement to sell the car-coupling device, it appears, was set aside.

H. Jackson Knight’s Confederate Invention: The Story of the Confederate States Patent Office and Its Inventors reveals an important story and argues, first and foremost, that the Confederacy did indeed possess inventors. But neither the Waddells nor Imboden appears in Knight’s complete list of Confederate patent holders. Their absence suggests the problem the Confederacy had in the Civil War and the importance of Knight’s thorough investigation. Why did the Waddells and Imboden fail to file for a patent or to convert their U.S. patent, if they had one, into a Confederate patent? What happened to their car-coupling device? What did other inventors in the South do?

Knight argues that the South had plenty of capacity, talent, and opportunity for inventiveness, and that the low number of Confederate patents in the war...

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