Combine Harvester

Background

Before the combine harvester farmers would need to hire groups of people to harvest crops before they rotted. Since there were only so many people available, the ability to harvest limited the volume of crops that could be grown. The harvester fixed that, doing the work of many people at once. This enabled the large farms, and relatively cheap food, we see today.

The reaper harvests wheat. There is a short amount of time that wheat can be harvested before it rots. Before the mechanical reaper men would use scythes, cutting from sunup to sundown. They could only plant what could be harvested in a two-week window, before the crop rotted, limiting the amount of grain and the amount of food. Reapers dramatically increased efficiency, allowing a reaper with a small number of helpers to do the work of many times the number of people.

Patrick Bell invented but did not patent a horse-drawn auto-reaper in Scotland. Obed Hussey patented the reaper a year before McCormick. They competed and fought but Hussey folded, selling his patent rights to McCormick in 1858. Historians suggest that Hussey’s early reapers were flawed technology, but that McCormick had higher quality standards. Hussey died in an 1860 train accident but his descendants argue, convincingly given the patent dates, that he is the true innovator of the modern reaper. Hiram Moore improved and patented a large-scale reaper, pulled by 20 horses.

International Harvester

Cyrus McCormick built an enormous harvester business that, later combined with others, eventually became International Harvester. Moore and McCormick did not like one another (Moore sued McCormick) and there are reports insinuating McCormick was somehow stealing Moore’s patents before they could be processed.

A hyper-litigious McCormick sued a railroad over an $8.75 overcharge then litigated the case for 20 years, including three visits to the US Supreme Court. He fired his little brother, the then foreman of his factory when McCormick was 62 years old.

Historians argue McCormick’s brother, Leander, preferred one-off production but McCormick wanted a factory that could mass produce using standardized parts. As McCormick’s company grew he consolidated competition via acquiring companies, patents, and (according to some historians) some amount of espionage.

Besides McCormick’s harvester, he also pioneered a new idea, easy credit for farmers to purchase the harvesters on affordable terms. Despite easy credit he lent money at 6%, the same rate he paid as a large and well-established manufacturer; he purposefully used self-financing to build sales volume, not as a profit center itself.

Sewing Machine

Background

In 1829 Thimonnier, a French tailor, innovated the sewing machine. Thimonnier found financiers to build a factory to help commercialize his new machine but workers – fearful the new machine would destroy their livelihood – burnt down the factory. He obtained further patents on better models of sewing machines and won prizes. However, he eventually failed to commercialize the technology and died in poverty. Historians later found a 1755 patent by English innovator Thomas Saint for a sewing machine but there is no record he ever attempted to commercialize his innovation. Walter Hunt also created a sewing machine he purposefully refused to patent, concerned about job loss.

Others tinkered with sewing machines until Isaac Singer, in 1850, took an interest and created his Singer sewing machine company.

“I don’t give a damn for the innovation, the dimes are what I am after.”

Isaac Singer. (Evans, They Made America)

Isaac Singer

Singer was a polygamist libertine, simultaneously married to four women (one legally, three illegally). His legal wife was named Catharine Maria and the other three named Mary. Altogether, he fathered at least 18 children out of wedlock and another four with his legal wife. “Singer loved women for their bodies,” writes biographer Ruth Brandon, “and not for anything as abstract and uninteresting as their minds.” Evans (p. 96). He fled to Europe after one Mary caught him with another. Eventually, he divorced his first and only legal wife to marry Isabella Boyer. She bore him another child 12 days after the marriage.

Singer bullied out his early partners, buying one out for $4,000. The funds came from selling machines the partner was arguably entitled to anyway. He formed a partnership with lawyer Edwin Clark, who provided financing and legal help. By all accounts, the two despised one another. Clark was a blue-blood prude and Singer a charismatic Jewish man who openly paraded his enormous brood of children borne by many different women. Still, the partnership ー where Clark owned one-third of the business ー ended up working well. Singer stole his first partner’s shares, for $6,000. He told the partner, Ziebler, that a doctor diagnosed Zieber with a terminal disease and offered a quick buyout. Ziebler had spent all his personal wealth backing the machine. Within half a year of the buyout the company had assets of about a half million dollars.

Patent Truce

Singer, Howe, and countless others fought a patent war ー just as McCormick had for his combine harvester ー but collectively decided to quit, pool their patents, pay a reasonable royalty (Howe collected $5 per machine), and compete on technology and business merit rather than patents. Eventually, Clark copied McCormick and offered sewing machine on credit, selling them into homes with the promise that women could earn a living sewing clothes at home.

“His paradigm was do your own financing, invest in quality, go where the people are of whatever nationality and sell, sell, sell—sell not just a machine but a way of life.” (Evans, They Made America)

Clark eventually changed the partnership to a stock corporation and Singer retired in Europe, rich though no longer in control of his company.

Circular Saw

1813

Tabitha Babbit

In 1777, Samuel Miller patented the first circular saw. However, the wind-powered saw did not have enough power to be of practical use.

In 1813, Tabitha Babbit, a Shaker, invented the circular.

Her insight was that sawing back and forth wasted half the motion of a saw. In response, she created a circular saw. To power the circular saw, she attached a blade to a water wheel. Today’s circular saws are typically smaller, and powered by electricity, but not altogether different.

Due to her Shaker religion, she did not believe in patents, believing her innovations to be for the good of everybody.

Men far outnumber women as noted innovators, especially during this timeframe. Babbit’s background as a Shaker, a religious community that often put women in leadership, likely contributed to her idea being adopted.

Shakers are a group that split off from Quakers to form a similar religion. During worship, they do a dance, the Shaker Dance.

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The Shaker Dance

Among other things, Shakers believed that sex was the original sin and did away with it. To prevent temptation, men and women lived separately. Marriage and sex were forbidden. Besides leadership roles, which typically went to women, jobs were assigned based on traditional sex roles. This makes it all the more amazing that Babbit would watch men sawing wood and notice the wasted energy or a straight-edge blade.

Predictably, the prohibition on sex and marriage became a long-term problem. No sex meant no offspring. Since children typically take their parent’s religion, there are very few Shakers today. As of 2019, there are only two living Shakers left in the world.

Babbit didn’t stop inventing with the saw. She also created an improvement on the spinning wheel, an improved method to manufacture wooden teeth, and — along with others — a type of nail called a “cut nail.”

Shaker Dance

Programmable Machine (Jacquard Loom)

The Jacquard Loom is a seminal invention in the history of modern computers. Automation technology existed long before the loom but the automation was simple repetition. For example, pull the loom up, push a thread through, pull the loom down, and push another thread through then repeat. Different color threads might be used on different spools to create basic stripes but the looms were limited in their inability to actively change.

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Jacquard Loom with punch cards

The Jacquard Loom is inherently different. It used a series of punchcards to control the threads. Each card pushed through a different pattern. When combined, the output fabric left elaborate patterns.

The Jacquard Loom established that the steps an automation machine took need not be a simple repetition but might, instead, but a long and complex series of instructions.

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Jacquard Loom doing its thing

Jacquard’s programmable loom wove different patterns, just like modern computer chips run different instructions in a program. A quick clarification: even though you do not see it, your computer has a central brain that performs instructions depending upon the data set to it. It is like an electronic loom except it outputs electrical signals rather than controlling the threads of a loom. Where a loom might have a few hundred threads, most computer chips have the electronic equivalent of hundreds of millions or even billions.

However, the loom was not simply an interesting science experiment. It vastly decreased the price of patterned fabrics.

Napoleon granted a patent to the city of Lyon, where he lived, and awarded Jacquard a lifelong pension of 3,000 francs plus a 50 franc royalty for each loom purchased and used between 1805 and 1811. Jacquard did well but the government seems to have done better.

Early computers used punched-out cards that looked eerily similar to that used by Jacquard. Where his loom used the punched-out patterns to control a loom, the computer punch-cards controlled the flow of electricity through a computer, feeding it both programs and data to process.

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Jacquard Loom control card
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Computer punch card

Lithography

Lithography allows highly detailed drawings to be inexpensively reproduced at high volumes.

Before lithography, printing remained similar from Gutenberg until Senefelder’s lithographic process.

Senefelder worked as an actor and playwright. Unable to earn a living, he turned to printing as a trade but could not afford the typographic fonts and materials. Frustrated, he started experimenting with cheaper ways to print music.

According to legend, he wrote a shopping list on stone with a crayon then realized he could press the paper to the stone and the crayon would transfer. From there, he experimented with chipping away from the stone all portions except that he wished to retain ink, inventing a crude version of the modern printing plate.

Senefelder patented and expanded the use of his lithographic process. Soon, he realized that highly detailed drawings could be used for printing rather than simply letters. He used multiple stones to print different colors that could be blended together for color printing, chromolithography. Lithography quickly spread throughout Europe.

Interchangeable Standardized Parts: the “American Manufacturing Method”

Standardized parts allow parts of a machine to be swapped out, enabling factories to manufacture parts without worrying about the larger machine. Interchangeable parts vastly lowered manufacturing costs.

Check out the video we created about interchangeable standardized parts:

Today, everything from cars to computers, software and even food, is interchangeable. We’re annoyed that a USB plug only works in one direction but the idea that such a plug works at all — that it fits into countless computers and makes enormous data stores accessible — is a big yawn.

Today, we take it for granted that parts can be replaced and that every part is the same. But, at the time, this was an enormous breakthrough.

Le Blanc

Messrs. Le Blanc is a Frenchman gunsmith who devised a musket with interchangeable parts and the idea in general. Gaspard Cotty describes the innovation in a multi-page footnote in his 1806 book, Memoire sur la Fabrication des armes portatives de guerre.

On a table is place a collection of random parts to create about 50 muskets. An observer picks random pieces then fits them together into a fully functioning musket. Muskets were individually handcrafted, at enormous cost, before Le Blanc’s innovation.

Interchangeable parts vastly lowering the cost of maintaining an army.

Then US Ambassador to France Thomas Jefferson witnessed Le Blanc’s demonstration and invited him to bring it to the US. Le Blanc declined, wishing to remain in France. France, concerned about job loss, declined to embrace Le Blanc’s method.

There is some speculation that the idea of standardized parts predates Le Blanc, though Cotty’s 1806 book — written in a pre-Napoleanic french dialect — shows that to be unlikely.

Specifically, Cotty notes that Le Blanc:

  • Is the first to use “hardened steel” (a process apparently in use for some time in the steel industry) to produce the lock of a firearm; Le Blanc created this technique in 1777.
  • Highlights the pros and cons of interchangeable standardized parts for muskets.
  • Specifically details Le Blank presenting 50 or 60 rifles to Mr. de Gribeauval, “inspecteur general de l’artillerie,” the inspector general of the French artillery, in 1789 before the French Revolution.
  • Le Blanc then had his men take the rifles apart, mix up the parts, and put them back together. However, there were enough defects that de Gribeauval decided to rely on “old” (their word) manufacturing methods.
  • de Gribeauval was also concerned with complaints from soldiers about the standardized parts muskets and with the effect on jobs.

There was some speculation that Jefferson’s recounting of the French demonstration was an urban legend. Jefferson mentions the demonstration in a 1789 letter to Henry Knox but there is no other mention despite the enormity of the innovation. However, Cotty’s account makes the idea that Jefferson fabricated the idea to gain traction extremely unlikely.

Eli Whitney

Jefferson eventually returned to the US and brought the idea of standardized parts to Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin. Jefferson, in his earlier role as Secretary of State, failed to process Whitney’s cotton gin patent in a timely manner. In all fairness, Jefferson openly did not like patents and was slow to process virtually all patent applications, not just Whitney’s. For example, he eventually granted four separate people a shared patent for the steamboat despite that two of the applicants didn’t have working boats. Jefferson was openly hostile to patents.

Due in part to the lack of patent protection knockoff cotton gin’s thrived and Whitney made no profit. Feeling a sense of guilt, Jefferson brought Whitney the idea for a musket based on interchangeable parts.

Jefferson worked with Whitney to repeat the same demonstration as Le Blanc, mixing up a bunch of parts then assembling a musket. However, Whitney’s parts all fit together perfectly, probably because historians agree they cheated and marked parts Whitney knew were pre-fitted.

Whitney, with his well-known name and Jefferson’s help, secured a contract to build an interchangeable part musket. His factory never quite worked — he could not build the parts to tight enough tolerances — but his children, who took over the factory, eventually succeeded.

Despite that Le Blanc of France created the concept, interchangeable standardized parts became known as the American Manufacturing Method.

Epilogue

Later, Sam Colt thrived on interchangeable parts. Ford was also an interchangeable parts fanatic, to the point he insisted that shipping crates use the same size planks for reusability.

Hydraulic Ram (Pump)

Allows farmers to raise water from creeks upward, to fields, where it can be used for irrigation without a power source. In the early part of the Industrial Revolution, using a steam engine for farm water would have been prohibitively expensive and pumped far more water than is necessary.

The hydraulic ram allows pumping water from a low place to a higher place without the use of external energy, neither steam nor (though not discovered at that time) electricity.

Whitehurst apparently invented an early hydraulic pump in 1772 but failed to patent or commercialize the technology.

Later, in 1796, Montgolfier perfected the hydraulic pump and worked with Boulton to commercialize it.

Montgolfier was the co-inventor of the hot air balloon, along with his brother. Boulton is the partner in Boulton & Watt which, at this time, has a thriving business in steam pumps. Montgolfier worked on engineering and Boulton on legal and business matters.

Hydraulic rams were never a potential disruptor to steam (and eventually electrical) pumps. They were far less reliable and pumped far less water. However, though not especially useful in mining or industry, they were useful for farming. Their ability to pump a reasonable amount of water without any external power source led to higher yield crops and an ability to grow crops in areas that were previously too dry. Electric pumps largely displace hydraulic pumps for farm water though, in especially remote areas where there is no power source or in areas where power is expensive, they remain in use.

Cotton Gin

Whitney’s innovation vastly lowered the price of cotton. Before Whitney’s cotton gin, producing cotton was economically inefficient because of the enormous cost to separate cotton from seeds. After the innovation, cotton became a profitable crop.

Background

Coming of age during the Revolutionary War, Whitney made a nail company, at the age of 15. Later, he made hatpins. In May 1789, at age of 23 (unusually old for the time), Whitney attended to Yale, graduating in 1792. Being neither wealthy nor well-connected Whitney couldn’t find work and another Yale student, Phineas Miller, found him a job as a tutor in South Carolina. During his journey, he met Catharine Greene, widowed wife of Revolutionary War General Nathanael Green. All revolutionary leaders knew and respected General Green.

While living with Greene, Whitney invented the cotton gin to automatically separate cotton fibers from seed. Before the cotton gin, the separation process was labor intensive. Cotton was not economically viable crop, even using slave labor.

Patent Fail

Farmers ignored Whitney’s patents and copied his cotton gin despite patent protection. The cotton gin vastly reduced the price of cotton which increased the value of slaves in the southern US on cotton plantations. Before the cotton gin, slavery was trending towards being economically unviable and the number of slaves was dwindling because farmers did not have enough work to justify owning slaves. After the cotton gin, slavery vastly increased.

Besides patent fail, the gin failed due to Whitney’s business model. Rather than sell gins or licenses, Whitney created central factories and demanded one-third of the cotton cleaned, a price set by his law school fiend Miller (note a pattern where lawyers think the law can protect against the market). Instead of paying, farmers made knockoffs and risked lawsuits rather than paying the steep price.

Whitney’s lawsuits (over 60 at one point) went nowhere. “I had great difficulty to prove that the machine had been used in Georgia and at the same moment there were three separate sets of this machinery in motion within fifty yards of the building in which the court sat and all so near that the rattling was distinctly heard on the steps of the courthouse,” Whitney wrote to Fulton. (Evans, Harold. They Made America: From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine: Two Centuries of Innovators).

By 1797, Whitney and Greene were effectively bankrupt. Whitney did collect some money in 1807 but by then was off to his standardized parts project.

Automated Flour Mill

Oliver Evans’ mill vastly lowered the cost while increasing the quality of flour. These mills automated the milling of flour much like Arkwright automated the creation of fabric. The automatic mills were popular with farmers.

Evans automated mill reduced the time and increased the quality and consistency of flour. George Washington purchased one that is still in use, for demonstration purposes, today.

Evans was a prolific innovator and also created a high power steam engine (concurrently with Trevithick) and also designed the core concepts of refrigeration.

Evans had trouble enforcing his patents but, eventually, did make a living from automated mills.

Evans is also, arguably, the innovator of the grain elevator. In an odd twist ー opposite of what usually happens (where people steal and patent the ideas of others) ー Joseph Dart created a grain elevator in 1842 but credits the innovation to Evans.        

Washington’s automated Evans Mill is still operational.

Water Frame Spinner / Modern Factory

Richard Arkwright’s Water Frame Spinner created factories that did not require highly skilled labor. Women and children, with no training, worked in factories that churned out low-cost good enough quality fabric at high volumes. This vastly lowered the cost of fabric.

Arkwright was from a poor family: his father was a tailor. He improved on prior technology and built a better water-powered carding engine that he patented in 1775.

Combining the engine with other innovations he created a new business model, a factory that required little skill. To lower labor costs, he exclusively employed women and children as laborers. This innovation ー building a factory that runs on unskilled labor ー is Arkwright’s most important contribution.

Arkwright rapidly expanded, adding more mills, and acquiring more patents. However, his most important innovation remained factories run by water (and, starting in 1777, Watt steam engines) staffed by unskilled labor.

Six-year-olds were eligible for employment at Arkwright mills. This rule was flexible and some workers were younger. Arkwright’s insatiable appetite for unskilled labor employed entire villages. Large families moved to the mills, encouraged by Arkwright’s need for laborers. This created the “company town” where Arkwright owned everything.

In 1785, Arkwright’s patents were invalidated because they were ruled to be copies of existing technology. Despite that, he was knighted in 1786 and died in 1792 at age 59 with £500,000, a fortune.

Technology exports to the US were prohibited due to the revolution. Nevertheless, Samuel Slater smuggled Arkwright’s technology to America in 1789 and launched US textile mills. The first was in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in 1790.