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Technology and Culture 42.2 (2001) 349-350
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Connecticut's Ames Iron Works: Family, Community, Nature, and Innovation in an Enterprise of the Early American Republic
Connecticut's Ames Iron Works: Family, Community, Nature, and Innovation in an Enterprise of the Early American Republic. By Gregory Galer, Robert Gordon, and Frances Kemmish. New Haven: Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1998. Pp. 111. $15.
In this book we are presented with the story of the Ames Iron Works and its manager-owner Horatio Ames from the early 1830s until the early 1870s. One can distinguish three phases in the history of the Ames Works. Its first decade was marked by many problems with technology, labor, and markets. The technology chosen was puddling, but, lacking coal, the furnaces were fired with wood. Skilled artisans had to be recruited, and the authors write that managing the workforce "was a particular trying task . . . exacerbated by the demands of untried techniques" (p. 109). The works gradually shifted away from the production of common iron to concentrate on railway equipment, especially locomotive tires after 1844.
The second phase was a prosperous one for the Ames Works. Production peaked in 1856, when two thousand tons of iron were produced, the makings of about five thousand tires. A new large forge was built and the workforce reached two hundred.
The third phase in the firm's history began in 1857 with the onset of economic depression, an era that saw especially hard times for railway companies and banks. Many ironworks in the region closed down, and Ames--tied as it was to the railways--barely survived. The outbreak of the Civil War gave Horatio Ames an opportunity to try and save his works by making wrought iron cannon using a new technique. A few were sold, but the venture failed and Ames was forced into bankruptcy in 1862. The ironworks lasted until 1871, when Ames died and the site was sold.
Behind this general narrative of the Ames Works lies the story of the entrepreneurial strategies and skills of Horatio Ames, who "introduced new techniques, organization of tasks, and attitudes towards work" (p. 166). Although the link between entrepreneurship and the economic performance of firms is essential in business and economic history, in this book it [End Page 349] is the crucial problem for two related reasons. On the one hand, we are not presented with any general discussion of this link; the only statement pointing in that direction (the only statement of intent in the whole study) is that the authors "will demonstrate" (p. 96) that technology transfer was a more complicated matter than simply recruiting skilled labor. What we are given is a narrative of one entrepreneur and his firm, nothing more.
The other, related, point concerns the way Horatio Ames is treated in this study, as a tragic character who deserved more success that he got. One senses that the authors have analyzed Ames from too close and subjective a viewpoint. He is, for instance, characterized as "better than other local managers" (p. 123), and it is termed "unfortunate" that he failed to gain insight from a visit to another ironworks (p. 124). The problem for the authors (and of course for Horatio Ames himself) was that Ames "could not manage to turn a profit" (p. 143). "Horatio reaped few of the financial or social rewards that other Salisbury ironmasters got even though he worked harder at his job than they did" (p. 169).
This study brings forth much new information about iron making during the early period of industrialization in the United States. It deals with an often forgotten aspect of technology, wood-fired puddling. It describes how new technology was brought to the market, and--not the least of its achievements--it considers how decisions made by entrepreneurs were transmitted into economic performance. It is therefore unfortunate that the results are presented as a very traditional narrative of an ironmaster and his ironworks, without suggesting any general considerations, and also...