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Despite the vivid association of steam power with the United States' manufacturing preeminence, it is waterpower that provided the foundation for the nation's industrial successes. New England's abundant waterpower sites—combined with an increasingly sophisticated understanding of how to apportion and capitalize on the power at those sites—enabled the young nation to evolve into an emerging industrial giant.

colonial beginnings

The image of the lazily turning waterwheel—a favorite image in eighteenth-century depictions of country life—belies the convergence of sophisticated technology and natural forces embodied in the watermill. The use of shafts and gearing to transmit power, the choice of site (close to a suitable drop in stream or river level, and near enough to woodland that rainwater runoff is gradually dispensed into the watercourse), and the building of other structures such as flumes, dams, and storage ponds (to sustain operability at times of lower water)—all speak to the miller's understanding of how technological elements and natural processes could interact to perform useful work. This is not to say that the integration of mills into the environment was seamless: the building of dams caused disruption of fish migrations and often caused flooding of upstream farmlands.

Waterpower technology was also enmeshed in community development. Mills were among the first structures built in a community; in fact, it was a potential mill site that often prompted the establishment of a settlement. The building of watermills was driven by fundamental issues of food and shelter—the grinding of grain and the preparation of wood for construction. The colonial gristmill, whether wind or water-powered, was a natural continuation of English mill practice; the colonial sawmill owed more to practice in continental Europe. Waterpower was also employed to drive fulling and carding machines as well as bellows and trip hammers in the metal trades.

scale and refinement

By the close of the eighteenth century, the self-sufficient rural community was appreciated as a kind of American ideal—sharply contrasted to the blighted industrial towns of northern England. This ideal was seductive but barely tenable given the former colonies' continued reliance on many imported materials; it became an impossibility following the 1807–1809 trade embargo with France and England. The mill equipped by Samuel Slater (1768–1835) in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, in 1790 was the first sizable application of modern English textile manufacturing machinery in the New World. Slater's mill was a centrally powered, interdependent group of machines that converted cleaned cotton into spun yarn. The mill's structural materials, power source, and construction methods were all traditional, but its equipment and interconnectedness placed it at the cutting edge of American industrial development. Slater's expertise, rooted in a passive form of industrial espionage (as an apprentice in England he had become familiar with Richard Arkwright's textile machinery) underpinned the building of further mills: a larger installation for Oziel Wilkinson and Moses Brown in 1792, and then several of his own. It should also be noted that Slater's success derived to a great degree from the employment of children—a course of action that was appealing not only in terms of the low wages they could be paid but also for their ability to move about within cramped mechanical installations.

The basic understanding of watermill machinery—derived from European practice and to a certain degree perhaps intuited—moved forward significantly during this period, impelled for the most part by The Young Mill-Wright and Miller's Guide by Oliver Evans (1755–1819). First published in 1795, this work combined surveys of various mills, tables of calculations, and explanations of building methods, and was in some ways a written accounting of what had been up to that time an essentially oral tradition. But this publication was not simply rooted in practical experience—it also included full explanations of Evans's own groundbreaking work in mechanically integrated mill design: the gristmill as a multistory, building-sized, elevating, conveying, grinding, sifting, and bagging machine—all of it centrally powered. The Guide remained a popular reference into the mid-nineteenth century and undoubtedly played a major part in the proliferation of American water-mills (from approximately 7,500 in 1790 to 55,000 in 1840), many of them built on the Evans principle.

The most advanced application of waterpower during this period was the installation begun adjacent to the Pawtucket Falls on the Merrimack River, in Massachusetts, in 1821. The roots of this development lay in Francis Cabot Lowell's 1813 mill in Waltham, Massachusetts, which was the first factory capable of processing cotton from its raw state through to finished cloth. The workforce at this factory consisted of young farm women, boarded in company buildings next to the textile mills. This approach, later known as the Waltham system, allowed for the concentration of a large workforce close by a factory; frequent turnover avoided the creation of an entrenched proletariat. The Pawtucket Falls site was named for Lowell, who had died in 1817. A carefully planned network of power canals was built in stages. Alongside these canals independent companies could build mills, and power, measured in "mill powers," was leased from the owners of the canal system. By 1836 twenty-six textile mills, plus additional workshops, had been established on the site. Lowell not only placed the United States at the forefront of waterpower development but also laid the groundwork for New England's preeminence in machine tool building. A generation of mechanics and engineers were trained in the on-site machine shops built to maintain Lowell's textile machines, and the methods developed in these shops drove American mechanical engineering to new levels of accuracy.

At the close of this period the Lowell system was still under expansion, but its scale and sophistication had already placed it far beyond the subsistence-based mills that characterized waterpower in the mid-eighteenth century. It should be noted, however, that rudimentary mills were still being built in pioneer communities, indicating that the advancement of waterpower technology did not necessarily end the use of primitive forms and modest solutions. And inevitably Lowell shared many of the problems of these sites: a site defined by geography rather than proximity to markets, predictable disruptions from freezes and freshets, the unpredictability of floods and droughts—in short, the types of problems inherently associated with the use of a natural power source, regardless of the ingenuity employed.

See alsoEmbargo; Inventors and Inventions; Steam Power; Technology .


Hawke, David Freeman. Nuts and Bolts of the Past: A History of American Technology, 1776–1860. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.

Hunter, Louis C. A History of Industrial Power in the United States. Vol. 1: Waterpower. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1979.

Kasson, John F. Civilizing the Machine: Technology and Republican Values in America, 1776–1900. New York: Hill and Wang, 1999.

Nye, David E. America as Second Creation: Technology and Narratives of New Beginnings. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003.

Steinberg, Theodore. Nature Incorporated: Industrialization and the Waters of New England. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

J. Marc Greuther

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