The Machine Makers

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The Machine Makers

A period of rapid advances in technology started soon after the United States gained its independence in 1783 and continued through the mid-nineteenth century. It was driven by a remarkable group of inventors and innovators who created the machines that served industry. Most of these machine makers, who called themselves "mechanicians," received their training as apprentices (people who are bound to work for someone else for a specific term in order to learn a trade) in machine shops, where the tools of industry were made. In these shops, American machinists learned from each other by trading ideas and sharing their designs. Their goal was to reduce human labor by mechanizing (equipping with mechanical power) the work done in industries and on farms.

Though the nation repected its inventors, the systems by which they were rewarded, notably patents (government grants of exclusive authority to an inventor for making, using, and selling an invention), were poorly designed. Even the most famous inventors found it difficult or impossible to stop others from reproducing their creations for a profit. Part of the problem lay in the way most people conceived of invention—as the creation of an individual working alone. In truth, there were very few single inventors. The discovery and design of new machines were usually the result of the innovations of many people. In fact, most of the ideas for U.S. machines originated in England and were adapted by U.S. machinists to conform to American needs. Over time, these products went through a variety of changes to meet the diverse requirements of the nation and to accommodate new power sources.

The American system

Many manufactured items before the turn of the nineteenth century were painstakingly crafted by a highly skilled artisan, or craftsperson. Products such as guns, clocks, and tools were made one at a time by a single person. They were very expensive and no two finished products were alike. If a part broke, the product would either have to be replaced or sent back to the craftsperson for repair. Because of this, only the wealthy could afford most manufactured items.

By the turn of the nineteenth century, U.S. machinists and inventors had rejected these traditions of craftsmanship and were busy designing machines to perform simple tasks more efficiently. In factories they studied how to break down complex hand operations into a series of simple tasks that could then be performed by machinery operated by workers with little training.

Words to Know

Someone who is bound to work for someone else for a specific term in order to learn a trade.
A tube (or several connected tubes) in which water is heated to steam.
Great Plains:
An area of grassland that stretches across the central part of North America eastward from the Rocky Mountains, from Canada in the north down to Texas in the south.
interchangeable parts:
Standardized units of a machine that could be used in any machine of that model.
machine tool:
A machine that shapes solid materials.
mass production:
The manufacture of goods in quantity by using machines and standardized designs and parts.
To equip with mechanical power.
A legal document issued by a government granting exclusive authority to an inventor for making, using, and selling an invention.
Simple machine consisting of a wheel with a groove through which a rope passes. The pulley is used to move things up, down, or across, such as a flagpole or a curtain rod.

One of the great innovations of the age was the production of interchangeable parts. By using a machine tool, which shaped solid materials to make uniform (completely alike) parts for machines and other manufactured goods, a manufacturer could produce large quantities of each part. Rather than making one machine at a time, manufacturers were able to assemble many machines from the parts, which led to great savings in cost, labor, and quality. From the 1810s on, machinists and inventors introduced interchangeability of parts into several key American industries. Their labor-saving methods came to be called the "American system of manufactures" and were responsible for the techniques of mass production (manufacture of goods in quantity by using machines and standardized designs and parts) still being used worldwide at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Eli Whitney and the American system

Pioneering American industrial inventor Eli Whitney (1765–1825) was already renowned for his labor-saving cotton gin when he became interested in the principles of mass production. (For more information on the cotton gin, see later in this chapter.) In late 1798 Whitney made the bold proposal to the U.S. government that he would manufacture four thousand muskets (a type of gun) in less than two years. At that time guns were constructed one at a time, with each part made individually and fitted to the connecting part. No single craftsman would be able to make so many guns in a lifetime.

Whitney had invented a system of milling (cutting and shaping) uniform parts of a musket in quantity, then assembling muskets from the parts. In 1799 he built and equipped a water-powered factory on the Mill River in Connecticut, where he intended to use his gun manufacturing system to fulfill his contract. At first he hired men skilled at making guns to work in his factory, but he quickly learned that it was easier to train unskilled labor to work in easy repetitive steps in the new manufacturing methods he was devising than to argue with skilled workers who were set in their own ways. Whitney built housing near his factory for his workers, and the resulting village was called Whitneyville.

During his first years in the factory, Whitney made tremendous advances—but not in making guns. He first needed to make machines to do the work. He made drilling and boring (piercing) machines to make holes, a screw machine to screw parts, a filing jig to guide the filing of the metal, and stencils to guide the workmen to drill holes in the right places. As he developed new machines, Whitney established an entire manufacturing process staffed by workers who were, for the most part, trained to do only one step of the process. Overseen by the inventor himself, the machines and their operators could efficiently make all the parts necessary to assemble muskets in quantity.

It took Whitney ten years to deliver on his contract. Other inventors and industrial planners such as gunsmith John Hall (1781–1841) were more successful in putting Whitney's theories into practice. Though Whitney never achieved commercial success as a gun manufacturer, Whitneyville was a forerunner of modern American factories and mass production. Many historians consider Whitney's concept, the American system of manufactures, to be the greatest technological innovation in U.S. history.

Oliver Evans's automated flour mills

In 1780, after apprenticing in several other industries, machinist and inventor Oliver Evans (1755–1819) went into the flour-milling business with his brothers. At that time, water-powered flourmills required large amounts of human labor. Heavy bags of flour were carried into the mill and poured into a tub, which was hoisted up into a second floor granary, or storehouse, by strong men. Once the flour had been ground, it was cooled by being spread on the floor and raked by a person called a "hopper boy." When it had cooled, mill workers carried out the heavy loads of ground flour and loaded them onto wagons.

Evans began replacing human labor in the mill with machines, focusing in particular on the movement of grain through the mill. His grain elevator, a leather strap equipped with cups to hold the product, raised the flour vertically into the granary by means of pulleys (simple machines used to move things up, down, or across, made up of a wheel with a groove through which a rope passes). Evans built conveyor belts that moved horizontally through the mill transporting the flour from machine to machine. His descender transported the flour on a downward slope. Another machine, named after the "hopper boy," cooled and raked the hot flour. In the end, flour from his automated mill was finer, drier, and easier to store than flour milled by hand. His inventions mechanized the flour mill to the point that it could be run by one person.


A patent is a legal document issued by a government, granting exclusive authority to an inventor for making, using, and selling an invention. The U.S. patent system was developed as a way for the government to encourage innovation by helping the inventor to profit from his or her invention. The U.S. Constitution (1787; Article I, Section 8) vaguely provided for federal patents on inventions, stating "Congress shall have the Power … To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." In 1790 Congress passed the first patent law, written mainly by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), which granted to an inventor the exclusive right to make or sell his or her invention for a period of fourteen years. There were only three patents granted the first year after the patent system was established, but each following year the number of applications grew rapidly. Congress repeatedly revised its organization of the U.S. Patent Office as abuses of authority occurred frequently, usually at the expense of the inventor.

Despite the government's good intentions, a legal patent was often insufficient protection against having others duplicate and receive rewards for the patent holder's invention. Inventors John Fitch (1743–1798) and James Rumsey (1743–1792) both received patents on their steamboats in the same year (1791) and spent the rest of their lives unsuccessfully disputing each other's claims. Oliver Evans (1755–1819), who held several patents for his factory machines and his improvements on steam engine designs, was so discouraged by his long legal battle over royalties that he burned all the records of his inventions. Eli Whitney made no profit on his patent for the cotton gin.

Eli Terry's mass-produced clocks

Eli Terry (1772–1852) adapted mass production methods to clock making in the early 1800s, a period in which few people had clocks in their homes. Built individually by skilled clockmakers, they were very expensive. Terry opened a clock shop in 1793. He had heard about Eli Whitney's methods of using interchangeable parts and decided to try it in his own business. He hired several workmen to cut the individual clock parts and then assembled the parts to make finished clocks. Within three years Terry was producing ten to twenty clocks at a time. In 1807 he received an order to build four thousand clockworks (inner workings of clocks) in three years. No one thought it possible to fill this huge order, but Terry formed a partnership with two other clockmakers and, using his new system, finished the job on schedule. Later Terry invented the wooden shelf clock, or mantle clock. His innovative methods allowed him to build as many as twelve thousand of these clocks per year. A large group of peddlers sold them door-to-door all over the northeastern United States. Because they were inexpensive, it was soon common for even the most humble homes to be equipped with clocks.

Samuel Colt's firearms manufacturing

As a young man Samuel Colt (1814–1862) designed a firearm known as a revolver, a rapid-fire handgun with rotating cylinders. He opened a factory and began to manufacture his guns, but the endeavor failed financially and he eventually closed the business. Ten years later the U.S. Army gave Colt a $28,000 contract to supply them with a thousand of his firearms. He lost money on the first order, but Colt's weapons became standard in the army, and from that point on Colt had to continually increase his production to meet public and private demand.

In 1852 Colt opened a giant factory in Connecticut where he combined arms manufacturing with advanced mass-production techniques. He was able to produce truly interchangeable weapons parts mainly because specialized machines, which had the precision to cut and form perfectly uniform parts, were being designed by the mechanics in his factory. Machine tools were in high demand, and Colt ended up selling both the weapons and the machines needed to make them.

Elisha K. Root

Colt employed Elisha K. Root (1808–1865), one of the best mechanics of the age, to design tools and machines for his plant. Root had begun his career as an apprentice in a textile mill, but at age fifteen he became an apprentice in a machine shop and soon earned a reputation for his innovations. In 1849 Root was building machines to produce a renowned line of axes when Samuel Colt turned to him to run his firearms factory. Root transformed the factory, building nearly four hundred machines. These precise machines produced the interchangeable parts that made the Colt factory a model of industrial efficiency. Historians credit Root's mechanical genius for making the Colt firearms company a success. Among Root's most successful machine tools was the "Lincoln miller," a tool that performed a great variety of metal-cutting operations, each of which previously required a separate machine. More than 150,000 Lincoln millers were sold, making it the most commonly used machine tool in America. Root also designed the advanced drop hammers (powered hammers that are raised and then released to drop), boring machines, gauges (measuring implements), jigs (tools that keep work materials and tools at a precise distance from each other), and other machine tools that made the Colt revolver the first handgun in the world to be produced with truly interchangeable parts. Root mentored many other U.S. inventor-mechanics of the nineteenth century, spreading the concepts of the American system nationwide.

Commercial and mechanized farming

In the beginning of the nineteenth century the vast majority of Americans were farmers. For the nation to become industrialized it was essential that most farmers run commercial farms—farms that produced large crops to be sold—rather than subsistence farms, which only provided food for the use of the farmer and his family. The nation's crops, particularly wheat and cotton, were needed to feed the working people in the cities and to provide the factories with materials for manufactured goods. As the cities grew, so did the demand for the farmers' products. Although the farmers had more than enough land to farm, they did not have the necessary supplies of labor. Starting in the early nineteenth century, American machinists sought to solve this problem by mechanizing farm labor.

Eli Whitney's cotton gin

In 1792, after his graduation from Yale University, Eli Whitney moved to Savannah, Georgia. There he watched slaves as they carried out the time-consuming task of cleaning cottonseeds from cotton fibers by hand. Whitney began experimenting with building a machine designed to accomplish the job more efficiently. By 1793 he had built his cotton gin, which worked by turning a crank that caused a cylinder covered with wire teeth to revolve. The teeth pulled the cotton fiber, carrying it through slots in the cylinder as it revolved. The slots were too small for the seeds to pass through, and they were left behind. A roller with brushes then removed the fibers from the wire teeth.

With the use of the cotton gin, the increase in the production of processed cotton was remarkable: one large gin could process fifty times the amount of cotton that a laborer could process in a day. Soon southern plantations and farms were supplying huge amounts of cotton to the new textile mills in the Northeast and to Europe. Cotton production underwent a massive increase with the arrival of the cotton gin. In 1790 the United States produced 4,000 bales of cotton. By 1820 production was 73,222 bales, and by 1840 the figure had risen to 1,347,640 bales. Whitney had hoped that by making the task of cleaning cotton so inexpensive he might help eliminate slavery. But with the growing demand for southern cotton, southern slaveholders pushed westward to acquire more land for growing cotton and purchased many more slaves to keep up with the demand.

Cyrus McCormick's reaper

As the population of the United States grew, the demand for wheat from western farms increased greatly. Wheat farmers of the fertile lands in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin had trouble keeping up with the great demand for their wheat. They could easily expand their acreage, but they did not have enough farm labor to harvest all the wheat they could grow. Harvesting was time-consuming work and resulted in much waste. It was estimated that prior to mechanization, one farm worker could cut only about two acres a day. To solve this problem, inventors and mechanics of the early nineteenth century began to experiment with building reapers, machines that helped farmers harvest their grain.

Cyrus McCormick (1809–1884) is generally credited with inventing the first workable reaper, though his first machine, made in the summer of 1831, was not very useful. He would spend the next decade improving it, and during that time other inventors were also making advances on reapers. (McCormick also incorporated the design improvements of other inventors on his own new models.) The McCormick reaper was pulled by horse. It was equipped with a straight blade protected by guards linked to a drive wheel (the wheel that moves the machine). As the drive wheel turned, the blade moved back and forth in a sawing motion, cutting through the stalks of grain, which were held straight by rods. The cut grain stalks then fell onto a platform and were collected with a rake by a worker. The McCormick reaper could handle from twelve to fifteen acres a day, and required fewer workers than harvesting by hand. It more than tripled the acreage harvested. In 1830 the total wheat crop in the United States amounted to approximately 40 million bushels. Within nine years this figure had doubled, and in 1860 it exceeded 170 million bushels, becoming the most important cash crop (a crop produced to be sold) in the United States. McCormick's reaper profoundly changed the nature of farming in the United States, and his business quickly became the largest farm implement factory in the world.

John Deere's steel plow

The first farmers in the American colonies made their own plows out of wood. Plows are tools used to cut, lift, and turn over soil for farming. Wooden plows had many disadvantages: they did not cut well, they broke easily, and mud stuck to them. By the end of the eighteenth century, cast iron (an iron mix that is formed in a mold) plows were available, but these also broke easily. In 1836 John Deere (1804–1886) opened a blacksmith's shop in Illinois, a shop where iron was forged, or molded. Customers complained to him about their wood and iron plows. Using the steel from an old circular saw, Deere began tinkering with a plow with a smooth surface, and in 1837 he invented the steel plow. By the mid-1840s Deere and a business partner were manufacturing one thousand steel plows each year. Deere's invention played a major role in opening up the Great Plains (an area of grassland that stretches across the central part of North America eastward from the Rocky mountains, from Canada in the north down to Texas in the south) to farming. Though iron and wood plows were no match for the rich, heavy soil of the Great Plains, Deere's steel plow could cut through the earth with speed and efficiency.

U.S. Iron and Steel Production Prior to 1865

Iron production had its roots in England, and even at the end of the eighteenth century, British ironmakers had little competition from their American colonies. Then, in the early part of the nineteenth century, the arrival of the steam age created a huge demand for iron in the United States. The use of steam to power machines and for transportation created a demand for iron boilers (tubes, or several connected tubes, in which water is heated to steam). In addition, more than thirty thousand miles of railroad track with iron rails were laid in the United States between 1830 and the beginning of the American Civil War (1861–65; a war between the Union [the North], who were opposed to slavery, and the Confederacy [the South], who were in favor of slavery). Iron was not the ideal material for either enterprise. Using iron boilers, as the railroads and paddlewheel riverboats of the time did, was dangerous; the iron was not strong enough to contain the steam pressure and iron boilers often blew up, frequently causing destruction and death. Iron rails frequently warped, resulting in train derailments.

Steel is an alloy (a substance created by fusing a metal and another substance together) of carbon and iron that is harder and stronger than iron. Though steel was being made in England prior to the 1860s, the U.S. steel industry did not develop on its own until after the Civil War. Up until that time steel was too expensive to manufacture by the methods available, so the United States imported nearly all of its steel. The conversion process invented by Henry Bessemer in 1856 would finally make American-made steel affordable.

The Crystal Palace Exhibition of London, 1851

In 1851 the first world's fair, the Crystal Palace Exhibition, took place in London, England. More than six million people from all over the world visited the fair that year. Everyone expected the technologically advanced England to display noteworthy machines, but the observers were amazed at the more than five hundred exhibits entered by the United States. Many U.S. exhibits won prizes, among them McCormick's reaper and Samuel Colt's revolver. England was so intrigued with the U.S. products on exhibition that it sent a commission to the United States to investigate American industry. After the Crystal Palace Exhibition, England and other European countries began to regularly order machines from the United States. The United States was on its way to becoming the world's leading industrial nation, largely due to the group of "mechanicians" who had shaped the American system.

For More Information


Cochran, Thomas C. "An Innovative Business System." In The Industrial Revolution in America. Edited by Gary J. Kornblith. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1998, pp. 12-23.

Hindle, Brooke, and Steven Lubar. Engines of Change: The American Industrial Revolution, 1790–1860. Washington, DC and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1986.

McCormick, Anita Louise. The Industrial Revolution in American History. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1998.

Wallace, Anthony F. C. "The Fraternity of Mechanicians." In The Industrial Revolution in America. Edited by Gary J. Kornblith. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Web Sites

Hoke, Donald. "Ingenious Yankees: The Rise of the American System of Manufactures in the Private Sector." (accessed on June 30, 2005).

"The National Inventors Hall of Fame." Infoplease. (accessed on June 30, 2005).