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Chapter 7

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Year of Decision

Bernard DeVoto

published by Little, Brown and Company,
Boston, 1943

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 8
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p211  Interlude:
World of Tomorrow

Not only war was fixing the destiny of the United States in May, 1846. In the last week of the month the bill to extend American jurisdiction over Oregon came up in the Senate, and Thomas Hart Benton rose to speak about it. He talked for three days, and the passages of analysis must have exhausted such of his colleagues as sat them out, for Old Bullion could be windy and achingly dull. But it was a great speech nevertheless, and when it was over Benton's longest study had come into fruition and the republic was nobly served by the great expansionist. His speech gave final substance to a lifetime's love and vision and when he finished it everyone knew that, when the Oregon question should be reopened, as it was about to be, nothing beyond 49° would be asked for. Also, during this month from time to time the bill establishing the Smithsonian Institution kept coming up when either house had a moment to spare, and at last something was to be done about the funds which the Englishman James Smithson had bequeathed to democracy for the "diffusion of knowledge" and which, unhappily, had been invested in state bonds now in default. Hitherto Congress could not agree on what kind of agency would best diffuse knowledge, but agreement neared. The bill was finally passed in August. Fifteen Regents were appointed, among them Robert Dale Owen, Rufus Choate, and Richard Rush. And since the government had need of Mathew Maury in his present place, it called our other first-rank scientist, Joseph Henry, from Princeton. Too bad that in making him an administrator it put an end to his researches.

More striking, however, was the National Fair, which opened in Washington on May 21 and taxed the boarding houses with additional crowds besides those that had swarmed in for military appointments and contracts. Mr. Polk visited it on the second day and, thin-lipped, thought the exhibits "highly creditable for the genius and skill of our countrymen," but was sure that the manufacturers had organized it "to prevent a reduction of the present rates of duty imposed by the oppressive protective tariff act of 1842." The President was maneuvering to repeal that act, and there was doubtless something in his suspicion. Certainly the Whig press  p212 exhaustively derived protectionist morals from the show. Democratic editors were cool toward it, except the tail-twisters, who found it horridly pro‑British in sympathy and concluded that it was financed by British gold.

If it was, the British had been shortsighted. . . . Let us simply sprawl into some lists. The city of Lowell's products which so rudely transgressed the Brook Farmers' theories: calicoes, satinets, cambrics, cashmeres, muslins, balzarines, bed quilts, blankets, carpetings, laces, silks . . . Parchments, wrapping papers, glazed and colored papers, wallpapers, window shades, oilcloths . . . Binders' leathers, cordwainers' leathers, saddlers' leathers, harness leathers, military leathers, trunks, valises . . . Alum, epsom salts, rochelle salts, copperas, quinine, morphine salts, nitrate of silver . . . Mustard, chocolate, "prepared" cocoa, rice flour . . . Puddled boiler-plate iron, bar iron, rod iron, hoop iron . . . Steel pens, gold and silver pens, brass wire, steel wire, door latches, coffee mills, stair rods, locks, nails, saws, augers, house bells, church bells, school slates, candelabra . . . Ice‑cream freezers, sausage cutters, meat cutters, honing mills, washing machines, forges, hot‑air furnaces, parlor stoves, cooking ranges, plows, scythes, shovels, spades, bullet molds, platform scales, water filters . . . Portable steam boilers, portable steam engines, a hydrostatic valve. A wheat fan, a seed and grain planter, a "tubular steam penetrator." Jackson Roberts' wheat-threshing machine . . . Bath heaters, patent refrigerators (ice water circulated through hollow shelves), welded wrought-iron tubes, tobacco presses . . . Hussey's reaping machine, McCormick's reaping machine. Cotton looms. Spinning frames. Patent weaver's shuttle. Card-making machine. Rotary backing-tool. Revolving stand premium pump . . . On and on for pages.

If you have observed certain goods that were extending the American empire southwestward, hauled in the wagons of the Santa Fe trade, be informed that the energies signified by the above list had, just last summer, produced an iron durable enough to be used in the axles of those wagons. Such axles were a startling innovation, which was already spreading. In 1846 William Kelly of Pennsylvania discovered that he could make malleable iron and steel from pig iron with no intermediate stage by blowing cold air through it when molten. The discovery was so revolutionary that his friends and family wanted him certified as insane, but it happened to anticipate the process of Henry Bessemer.​1 In 1846 the mills at Lowell were being repowered with a significant new engine, Uriah Boyden's water turbine which had the undreamed‑of efficiency of 82%. In 1846 at Dover, New Hampshire, the schoolmaster Moses Farmer  p213 (who had invented a machine for manufacturing some of the window curtains listed above) was tinkering with a model electric railroad. It ran by a motor powered from a wet battery and he demonstrated it publicly the following year.

In 1846 the Sea Witch slid down the ways, was rigged and fitted, and on December 23 weighed anchor on her maiden voyage, out of New York, bound for Hong Kong. She made it in 104 days, and homeward bound reached New York 82 days from Whampoa. She was a sharp model, very beautiful, and her figurehead was a Chinese dragon with open mouth and partly coiled tail ending in a dart. Three years before, the Rainbow had been built for the same carriers, the first exemplar of the theories of design fathered by John W. Griffiths to which all the clippers were built, and in '46 John Currier built Ariel at Newburyport. All three were less extreme than the ships which Donald McKay and his followers were to be building in just a few years more for the California trade — and, in building them, were to make the most beautiful objects any American artists have ever made. But Sea Witch was a clipper right enough, and her times outward and homeward bound mark the beginning of a new era in transportation. If it was to be Donald McKay's era, it was also John W. Griffiths', who had created the theory of design and rigging, and Matthew Maury's, who had worked out the mastery of winds and currents. The American scientist, the American artist, and American technology had collaborated in a climax, a decision.

In 1846 Richard M. Hoe perfected and patented his method of attaching printers' type to a rotating cylinder, and in 1847 the Philadelphia Ledger installed the first of his new presses. It had four of these cylinders grouped together, and printed eight thousand newspapers in an hour — four times as many as the fastest press before it had been able to turn out. So the penny papers got an instrument that enabled them to reach their audience. The center of American journalism shifted to its foredestined place. The Union, the National Intelligencer, Niles' Register and the like no longer kept the center of editorial opinion so dangerously close to the center of political power. Greely, Bryant, Bennett, and Raymond came into their own. Democracy had gained a new weapon and a new tool. . . . Two years after the Ledger installed its new press, a technologist in England proved conclusively that type could not be made to hold to a rotating cylinder.

Look at the Patent Office. U. S. Pat. No. 4,464, April 18, 1846, to Royal C. House. A printing telegraph. Thus, two years after there was a public telegraph, long before there was a typewriter, there was a teletype.  p214 But what was significant in House's invention was the exquisite, exact, automatic production of successive operations in fixed sequence. Or U. S. Pat. No. 4,704, August 20, 1846, to Thomas J. Sloan. A simple thing: a wood screw which had a gimlet point and so turned itself into the wood instead of having to have a hole bored for it, the screw you used yesterday to put up a wall bracket. Or patent to Washburn Race of Seneca Falls, N. Y., for a self-acting register for stoves. Or patent to Erastus B. Bigelow, power loom for two- and three‑ply ingrain carpets — next year he will patent looms for tapestries and Brussels carpets. Or a double handful of patents improving the textile machinery of Lowell, self-acting mules, new Jacquard Frames for figured fabrics, till one is dizzy making notes. Patent for hat‑body machinery to H. A. Wells — and there are shifts and regroupings at Danbury. Patents to F. Langenheim of Philadelphia, W. A. Pratt of Alexandria, Virginia, and several others — improvements in the materials, processes, and mechanics for making reproductions by daguerreotype.

And U. S. Pat. No. 4,750, September 10, 1846, to Elias Howe. Covering three basic features of the first sewing machine: a grooved needle with the eye at the point, a shuttle operating on the opposite side of the cloth from the needle to form a lock stitch, and an automatic feed.

Bearing in mind what was to come out of Elias Howe's patent, one may glance back over the exhibits at the National Fair and understand how far, in 1846, the United States had already advanced in the World of Tomorrow. If you had spoken the phrase, "The American System," to Mr. Polk or any of his supporters or opponents, it would have meant to him the domestic policy fathered by Henry Clay and supported by the Whig Party, inherited by the Republicans, and maintained by them until usurped by the Democrats. That is, strong centralized control, development of the internal market, systematized public works, and the protective tariff. But in England and Europe the phrase had already acquired a different meaning. It meant a kind of factory production new to the world, which had made a large share of the manufacturers' exhibits. It meant: the displacement of hand labor by machine labor to an ever-increasing extent, the application of machine labor to successive operations, increased precision, the production of finished objects by such exact duplication of parts that the parts were interchangeable and so independent of the finished object, the progressive rationalization of processes and techniques, and the development of straight-line manufacture and automatic machine tools. It meant that, by 1846, the American industrial order had so matured that it was manufacturing tools for the manufacture of the goods exhibited at the Fair — specifically that in various places, especially the Naugatuck  p215 Valley and along the banks of the Connecticut River as far north as Windsor, Vermont, the modern machine-tool industry was well established. (Such men as Richard Lawrence, Frederick W. Howe, and Henry D. Stone, gunsmiths by training, were making machine tools in '46, had already developed jigs, dies, presses, planers, drop hammers, profile machines, and milling machines which are still serving their craft, and in a couple of years more would develop a turret lathe.) It meant that Eli Whitney, by the exercise of what was primarily a Yankee passion for economy, neatness, and logical order, had made the world over.

As, in the summer of '46, Samuel Colt found out. From 1836 to 1842 Colt had manufactured about five or six thousand of his patent revolvers, the first success­ful repeating firearms. Bad financial management — outside Colt's control — had forced the closing of the factory and he had gone on to experiment with electrically controlled submarine mines and had laid the first success­ful submarine electric cable. But his revolvers had been tested in the Seminole War and had worked into the possession of the Texas Navy and the Texas Rangers — and of Santa Fe traders, such mountain men as Kit Carson, and other practical men who had to deal professionally with the Plains Indians. They had promptly worked a revolution in warfare comparable to and more immediately important than that heralded by the American light artillery at Palo Alto. They had proved themselves the first effective firearm for mounted men,​2 and had given the Texans and other frontier runners the first weapon which enabled white men to fight with Plains Indians on equal or superior terms.​3 Nearly all of the primordial five or six thousand had, by 1846, gravitated to the place where they were needed, the Western frontier. Most of the journals quoted in this book speak admiringly of their use and value in the West; nearly every writer who discusses outfits for emigrants recommends them.

As soon as Taylor was ordered to the Rio Grande, officers of his who had used Colt's revolvers in Florida began clamoring to have them made standard equipment, and the demand was supported by the Texas Rangers when they were incorporated in the army. The War Department bought up all those available in secondhand shops and brought Colt back to the armament industry with a contract for one thousand revolvers, which was supplemented with a second contract for the same number before the first was completed. Colt had kept none of his revolvers and could  p216 not buy one, and so had to make his model from memory. He improved it by simplifying it, which is emblematic of the American System, but more striking is the progress that had been made in four years. When his factory closed down in 1842 there remained many operations which had to be performed by hand. In 1846, when he began manufacturing again, it proved possible to perform nearly all of them by machine.

He went to the Whitney Arms Company, just outside New Haven, where Eli Whitney's son was carrying on and developing the methods of his father — and was helping the government switch the army from muskets to the "Harper's Ferry" percussion‑cap rifle. (Though far from fast enough to equip the troops now necessary for the war.) With Whitney, Whitney's toolmakers, and Colt himself collaborating, new machine tools were designed. They passed into Colt's possession at the completion of the first contract, and the factory which he then set up at Hartford was the most advanced application of the American System so far seen. It was so advanced that when, a few years later, Colt set up a factory in England he could not satisfy his sense of commercial diplomacy by employing local industry and workmen. No foreign machines of the necessary precision could be found or made, and he had to bring them in from the United States. Bringing them in, he could not find mechanics sufficiently skilled to operate them, or sufficiently habituated to thinking in terms of complex machines to be trained. There had been a complete reversal in less than a generation, since the Lawrences and Lowells had had to smuggle out English mechanics to design their textile machinery. The Yankees now led the world.

The establishment of the Colt's Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company thus concentrates in a single item the full significance of the National Fair of '46. Colt or Elias Howe — or Cyrus McCormick, who got three hundred of his reapers made for him this year and would presently move to the Middle West and erect his own factory — signify the extreme spearhead of the industrial drive. They merely inherited, however, what the remaker of societies, Eli Whitney, had put into motion before the turn of the century. For if Whitney's cotton gin had dramatically reversed social trends and created an economy, his long-term revolution in manufacture (arrived at simultaneously, be it remembered, by another gunsmith, Simeon North, his neighbor twenty‑odd miles away) was reorganizing the world. That revolution had been quietly accelerating all along, so that when, for instance, the clockmakers of Connecticut learned how to make brass works for their products, fully fifteen years before our period, they could apply the American System and achieve the mass production of  p217 identical, serviceable, cheap articles. But the further point is that by '46 that acceleration had become from one point of view prophetic, and from another, catastrophic. No Henry Adams attended the National Fair to spin an elegant metaphysical meditation into a theory of physical force. Since none did, it would have been extremely intelligent of Mr. Polk, or his supporters, or more especially John C. Calhoun, to spend laborious hours studying the exhibits and meditating on the future of the United States.

This text has several times taken an image from astronomy and spoken of energies which were drawing the United States out of shape, as theory tells us the earth swelled out in a loop when the moon was born. They are all in now. From astral space a dispassionate Martian might have seen the First Republic in process of transformation to the Empire by forces which moved within a parallelogram. He would have noted the armies working south, the fissures raveling across Congress, the American System building the factories of Elias Howe and Samuel Colt and Cyrus McCormick, and a long line of now‑faded white-tops moving west.

The Author's Notes:

 (p494)  1 Some authorities, however, date Kelly's discovery in 1847.

[decorative delimiter]

2 In the hands of cavalry they were, according to the official statements of U. S. Army officers, as effective as the rifled carbine at 100 yards and as effective as the musket at 200 yards.

[decorative delimiter]

3 This is the point made by Walter Webb in The Great Plains. A rather silly controversy has recently led to the publication of An Appraisal of Walter Prescott Webb's "The Great Plains" by the Social Science Research Council, in which this and other points are challenged. So far as the point repeated from Webb in my text is concerned, the challenge simply will not hold. Absolutely all the available evidence — it makes an enormous bulk and, to a bystander's diffident amazement, none of it is studied in the Appraisal — supports Mr. Webb's discussion of the effect of the introduction of the revolver in plains warfare. In fact, Mr. Webb would have been justified in making his conclusion more sweeping and more emphatic than he did.

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