American history of the 19th century: Scientific progress

Wonderful has been the part that the United States has taken in the multitude of astonishing achievements of the nineteenth century, - always abreast of the times, often leading. Yet in 1800 the Republic was less than twenty-five years old, so that her greatness and eminence of themselves are a growth of a century. In 1800 a country with only 5,308,483 inhabitants, hugging the seacoast, the United States has grown to an immense area and to a population of over 76,000,000. Struggling during the period with grave domestic problems, many of them entirely new, learning, growing, building, organizing, - to-day the United States leads the world in wealth, mining, agriculture, fisheries, forestry, transportation, education, and almost every field of endeavor. Her own development chiefly an achievement of a century, she has led in making the nineteenth century the age of greatest achievement.

While the period between 1825 and 1830 was pregnant with railway movements, it can scarcely be said that any railway was successfully operated in the Americas before 1830, when the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad opened its first section of fifteen miles from Baltimore to Ellicotts Mills. The first genuine locomotive in use in the United States was the "Stourbridge Lion," which made its trial trip several months before the opening of the Baltimore and Ohio road, on a railway connecting the coal mines of northeastern Pennsylvania with the Delaware and Hudson Canal. From 1830 to 1835 many lines were projected, and at the end of 1835 there were over a thousand miles of railway in use in the United States.

Necessity was the mother of invention; the money which Great Britain lavished on deep cuts and expensive tunnels was not forthcoming in the young republic, so the engineers of the United States put their wits to work and devised flexible locomotives which will round any curve, and ascend steep grades without difficulty. The chief and most important of these inventions is the swivel truck, which, placed under the front of the car, enables the driver to make a sharp turn with perfect safety. The American locomotive is exported in larger quantities every year. The first street railway was laid in New York in 1831, the first cable car was used in San Francisco in 1873. In 1851 an electric locomotive was tested on the Baltimore and Washington line, which ran nineteen miles in an hour, but the trolley did not become commercially successful until 1893. In other modes of locomotion, as those of the bicycle and horseless carriages, American ingenuity has kept ahead of foreign competition.

Robert Fulton built the first practicable steamboat, the Clermont, in 1807. In order of construction it was the sixteenth, but it was the first to be used permanently on the Hudson River. Two similar boats ran regularly within a year between New York and Albany, taking thirty-two hours each way. The first steamboat in England did not appear until 1812. At Pittsburg in 1811 the first boat for Western rivers was built, and she made the trip to New Orleans. Great enthusiasm was aroused when, with the construction of the Enterprise in 1815, St. Louis was reached in twenty-five days from New Orleans.

The first steamer to cross the Atlantic was an American-built ship, the Savannah. The vessel had been built in New York as a sailing-ship. She was of 350 tons' burden, clipper-built, full-rigged, and propelled by one inclined, direct-acting, low-pressure engine, similar to those now in use. She had paddle-wheels that could be taken out and put on deck. The Savannah steamed to the city in whose honor she was named, and from there started for Liverpool May 24, 1819, making the voyage in twenty-five days, being under steam eighteen days. She used pitch-pine as fuel, the use of coal in American steamers not having been introduced at that day. From Liverpool she went to St. Petersburg. For some years she ran between Savannah and New York, and finally ran aground in a storm off Long Island, and went to pieces.

England's first vessels to make regular trips across the ocean, were the ships, Sirius and Great Western, in 1838, each averaging seven and a half knots an hour. It was not until 1847 that the first American steamer, the United States, was built expressly for the transatlantic trade, making the voyage in thirteen days. The Britannia, owned by Samuel Cunard, had been running between Liverpool and Boston since 1840, a fourteen-day trip. It is needless to speak of the wonderful achievements in ship-building and sailing in recent years. Submarine navigation is the latest development of American inventiveness and daring.

The invention of the first practicable telegraph by Samuel F. B. Morse, aided by Alfred Vail and Professor Gail, dating from 1836, is a familiar story. It did not come into general use until 1844. The first duplex system was invented by Joseph B. Stearns, of Boston, in 1872. Thomas A. Edison improved on this in 1874, enabling two messages to be sent the same way on the same wire. In 1875 Elisha Gray extended this into a multiplex system, when the Stearns and Edison systems were combined to form the quadruplex, by which four messages, two each way, can be sent simultaneously along a single wire. In 1898 Prof. Rowland, of Johns Hopkins University, perfected a method by which twelve messages can be sent at once. By the wonderful ingenuity of a young Italian electrician, Guiglielmo Marconi, a system of wireless telegraphy is being brought into practical use. Messages are being received from ships several miles out at sea. The spread of submarine cables has enabled the day's doings of the whole world to be reported in the evening papers of that day.

Various devices are being perfected by which the familiar miracle of the telephone can be used for a nominal charge. Paris and London, 297 miles apart, were enabled to converse with each other in April, 1891. New York and Cleveland were connected, though 650 miles apart, in 1883, and the superiority of the long-distance telephone to the telegraph was clearly shown during the great blizzard of 1888, when for several days the only direct means of communication between Boston and New York was a long-distance telephone wire, which withstood the storm that destroyed all other lines. Chicago was brought into communication with New York in October, 1892; and now conversation is carried on as easily over this distance of a thousand miles as if between two residents in the same place. Conversations have been carried on between Texas and Maine, 2,600 miles apart.

America produced the first practicable type-writing machine, and still leads in all new improvements.

In great feats of engineering, America has won a unique record. The Erie Canal, 351 miles long, was opened in 1825. When the Nicaragua Canal is commenced, the world will be amazed at the celerity and ingenuity with which it will be completed, so continuously are our skilled engineers devising new methods and setting up new principles. Office buildings of eighteen and twenty stories have ceased to be uncommon. They have been made necessary by the congestion of the great cities. There was a limit beyond which structures of brick and wood might be built; but the use of iron and steel made it possible to build taller structures, two or three times the height of those possible by the old method. The new method of construction known as the skeleton frame construction does away with the use of brick and masonry except as a thin shell. Steel beams support the walls of each story, and these are framed between columns, permitting thin walls even at the base. The framework of iron and steel being erected, the masons and carpenters can work on all floors at once, and build from top and bottom. Great as have been the improvements in construction, the erection of these buildings calls for the highest engineering skill. The Manhattan Life building in New York, which is twenty-three stories high, weighs 21,000 tons, and there is a pressure of wind estimated at 2,400 tons against its exposed sides, and the total weight is over 30,000 tons.

The utilization of water-power has been an accomplished fact for centuries; but the modern turbine wheel owes its high repute to the improvements effected by an American, A. M. Swain, in 1851. The development of electricity as a propelling force may be recurred to in this connection. The germ of the electric motor is found in the invention of Joseph Henry, an American, who, though little known to the public, was one of the most prolific electrical inventors the world has seen. Many improvements were made by him in the magnet. Exhaustive research was made by him into the subject of the battery as a source of energy and the efficiency of galvanic batteries, and in 1831 he constructed an electric motor, the first of the kind the world had ever known.

A great step was made in the increased utilization of electricity when the problem of the transmission of power over long distances was solved. Now a current cannot only be distributed through a workshop with the utmost convenience and economy, but it can be sent to a workshop from an engine or waterwheel many miles away. The Niagara Falls is yoked to the wheels and lamps of Buffalo. This in itself is typical of all the achievements of the century, and is the crowning glory of electrical development.

The first experiments in this direction were made by Marcel Deprez, at Creil, in 1876 to 1886, and Deprez succeeded in transmitting mechanical power thirty-five miles for industrial purposes in the latter year. Many inventors busied themselves along these lines, and on February 3, 1892, Nikola Tesla, at the Royal Institution, exhibited his alternate-current motor, by which currents are transformed, by continually reversing the direction, into mechanical power. By means of Tesla's apparatus the force of 77 horse-power was transmitted from the rapids of the Neckar to Frankfort-on-the-Main, 110 miles, September, 1891.

So many and varied are the uses of electricity that it enters into every science. To barely enumerate these devices would require a volume. It stores speech in the phonograph and executes condemned criminals, both devices being American. The induction balance has been used as a sonometer, or machine for measuring hearing, and the bottom of the sea has been explored by sonometers for sunken treasure. Leaks in water-pipes have been localized by the microphone, and the story is told of a Russian woman who was saved from premature burial because the microphone made audible her feeble heart-beats. The peculiar sensitiveness of electricity makes it a means of surpassing delicacy in measuring heat, light, or chemical action. By the bolometer, invented by Prof. S. P. Langley, a change of temperature of one-millionth of a degree Fahrenheit has been recorded, a refinement scarcely approached by any other means of scientific detection.

American inventiveness is largely occupied in the constant multiplication of labor-saving machines. Patents are being applied for and issued daily on mechanical constructions designed either to aid or supplant man-power. There is no field of industry, however unimportant, which has not been invaded by the inventor with a view to minimizing the human effort required therein to produce its quota of material. The sewing-machine, patented by Elias Howe in 1846, may stand as the best known illustration. Nearly a million are made every year. The shoe-making industry has been revolutionized by the American sewing-machine, and its exported product is playing havoc with the shoe trade of Europe. The first machine for sewing on soles was brought out in 1861. It sewed 900 soles in ten hours. A shoe factory in Lynn, Mass., made a pair of ladies' boots for the Paris Exposition of 1889 in just twenty-four minutes. For this feat the pair of shoes went through the usual routine of the shop. Forty-two machines and fifty-seven different operators contributed to the operation, which included the cutting up and stitching of twenty-six pieces of leather, and fourteen pieces of cloth, the sewing on of twenty-four buttons, the working of twenty-four button-holes, and the insertion of eighty tacks, twenty nails, and two steel shanks. Since that time still more perfect machinery has been introduced into the industry, and a pair of ladies' shoes may now be turned out in twenty minutes.

Equally marvellous is the history of cotton-spinning and weaving machinery, from the invention of the gin by Eli Whitney in 1793. The same is true of the wool-weaving industry. It is difficult to name a single mechanical trade that has not been literally revolutionized by American skill and genius during the nineteenth century. The industrial history of the period is one long tribute to the ceaseless painstaking efforts of American scientific thinkers and practical workers to lessen the burden of labor and improve its output. From tallow to oil, and from gas to electricity, the progress of artificial illumination has been slow but steady. It is amusing now to look back at the opposition to gas-light. Philadelphia fought for more than twenty years against its introduction as a means for lighting the city. Peale, in his museum in the State House, had as early as 1816 or 1817 produced a fine illumination through the use of gas obtained from a private plant belonging to a man on Lombard Street, whose dwelling was probably the first in America to be lighted with gas. Peale was immediately enjoined from continuing his luminous exhibition, as it was declared to be a menace not only to the historic old State House, but to the entire city as well.

The United States Gazette declared it a folly and a nuisance, and insisted that common lamps would "take the shine off all the gas-lights that ever exhaled their intolerable stench." All manner of objections were brought against the obnoxious fluid. The newspapers dwelt emphatically on the dire warning that the introduction of gas would result in terrific carnage and destruction, and that the refuse of the works would kill the fish in adjacent streams. Even from the University of Pennsylvania came the voice of Professor Hare, protesting, that, even if gas were the good thing which its supporters declared it to be, tallow candles and common oil lamps were good enough for him. On March 23, 1833, a formal petition of remonstrance, signed by twelve hundred of the wealthiest citizens of Philadelphia, was carried to the State House. Gas triumphed, nevertheless.

Photography, the biograph, and the many wonderful branchings out from these processes, owe much to American skills, both of invention and perfecting.

From the gold days in California to the discovery of deposits in the Klondike region, American mining processes and machinery have commanded the world's markets. The machinery for collecting, refining, and carrying petroleum, and its product, natural gas, tells the same tale of progressive endeavor.

In agricultural machinery, American genius has won world-wide honors and rewards. In 1831, Cyrus McCormick, of Virginia, invented a successful grain-harvesting machine, containing the essential elements of every reaping-machine built from that day to this. It was first successfully operated on the farm of John Steele, near Steels's Tavern, Virginia. Two years later Obed Hussey built a machine which was much like the McCormick reaper, except that it had no reel and no divider and no platform on which the cut grain could accumulate. Both of these machines were shown in 1851 at the Great Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations in London. Under the auspices of the Royal Agricultural Society of England they were tested in the field, and the "Grand Council Medal" was awarded to the McCormick one, which was referred to by the judges as being worth to the people of England "the whole cost of the exposition." Subsequently the French Government decorated its inventor with the Legion of Honor for "having done more for the cause of agriculture than any living man."

A hundred additional examples of American progressiveness might be culled from the scientific records of the century, but space forbids. Wherever we search, we shall find our country nobly represented. In the achievements of astronomy, geology, anthropology, chemistry; in the triumphs of explorers in the Polar region, in Africa, and the far East, and in the unknown expanses of our own West, some of the most glorious discoveries are credited to American "Pathfinders."

Return to The Great Republic by the Master Historians (Vol 4)