"The American Machinist" Weekly

Technology in the l9th c.

A weekly publication called The American Machinist appeared shortly after the American Civil War, and was published continuously through the l9 th. and into the 20 th. century This time period spans a very important interval, at the beginning of which new machinery began to appear in response to arms needs arising from the war, and the concept of mass production was invented. Interchangeable parts for military equipment followed immediately, and gave a new sense of what machines could do, in fact what they were going to have to do, as a matter of course in the future.

Somewhere in the mid-l880's, a critical line was crossed. Steam engines for stationary use had been developed and perfected, but were still found to yield under twenty percent efficiency. At the same time they were a real liability in city manufacturing shops because of their size and the need for constant attendance by an "engineer" which the law required. The volumes of coal going in as well as ashes going out further complicated city use, yet it was in the cities that the cheap labor of European immigrants was found. Something was needed to simplify all this, a compact machine which did more work in less space with less fuss and more efficiency, and just such a device appeared in the middle of the decade. When the Philadelphia firm of Church Westinghouse and Kerr advertised that their practical electric motor was ready for delivery in l886, the manufacturing world was prepared for immediate acceptance

In the l880's the first generation of degree-holding "engineers" were making their appearance. Schools like Johns Hopkins and Cornell spawned a new breed of collegiate boy-engineers, theorists who knew a lot of mathematics but very little about hands-on shopwork. The confrontation of the shop-wise foreman with the theory-wise engineer was first faced in this decade. Interestingly enough, the differences between the two classes of experts continues to this day, there are still engineers who go to the shop to pick up information they for drawings, and the shop-man in turn is still awed by the superabundant professionalism of the engineer, whom he distrusts. In the first confrontation a hundred years ago, the issues were as clear as they were ever to become.

In l880 an experienced shop hand could still remember the early days in the l840's, when everything in machine shops was hand made, from handtools to lathes and milling machines. Shops generated their own equipment since there were few sources for ready-made machines, a situation that was still largely true for clothes and many food-supplies. But by the l880's Browne and Sharpe and also Cincinnati, to mention two familiar names, were in business, and from that time to the end of the century a great deal of creative effort went into the design of high quality, highly specialized machinery. First came the turret lathe, then the automatic "screw machine", in turn followed by mills and grinders and sheet metal punches, until by the year l900 the industry boasted almost every primary machine tool which we still use, although often in a primitive and undeveloped form.

By the l880's the identity of the worker had crystallized, and the distinction between the experienced,, neat and efficient workingman, as against the casual and at times negligent "old style" worker, was becoming increasingly clear. The best of the old-style workers was seen as a man skilled at many operations, often many trades, while the new-style man was becoming a specialist at his special machine. Even such matters as safety were being noted, including accidents to children employed in factory work. The data which were later to produce a social conscience were now being collected.

The American Machinist featured letters to the editor, which came from persons with a variety of backgrounds which we might not otherwise know about. These letters show individuals' reactions to the general mechanical scene, as such they are interesting and also important documents in themselves.. By the l880's an important new contributor had appeared, the short story writer who used materials from the mechanical working classes. The writing which comes from these authors is wonderfully American, it has the twang of American speech, but is written with the care of serious artists. The writers of this time are contemporary with Mark Twain and probably knew his work, but they are certainly not imitating him at that early date. It may even turn out that general American writing techniques of this time produced Mark Twain, rather than vice versa. Since none of this material has been seen by the public since its first publication, it may come as a surprise that such high quality writing lies undiscovered in the pages of a weekly trade publication. The stories of the best regular contributing writers are remarkable, they must be read to be believed!.

In the latter half of the l9th century illustrations had to be done by hand. Wood-engraving was an established technique capable of delineating fine detail. Since one of the aims of articles in The American Machinist was to introduce the public to new machines, and incidentally to sell them, interesting descriptions and well executed drawings were mandatory. What were at that time cheap, available techniques of illustration, have come now to be regarded as woodcut-work of the highest quality. At the present time we can see machinery as suitable material for representation in art.. The American Machinist woodcuts constitute a veritable museum collection of the best of the woodcarver's technique. They may not be art in the full sense of the word, but their craft entitles them to a place in the print-maker's repertory. This part of the proposed study demands critical analysis and appreciation by critics who are graphic artists and know the history of their field.


The weekly publication of The American Machinist is worthy of detailed study from several points of view. As an important chapter dealing with authentic original materials pertaining to the history of technology and American economic development, it offers a wealth of information and factual data. Social historians will find much valuable material here, which must be elicited by careful reading of the contexts. The history of engineering, as well as the history of the American work-ethic is broadly represented. But the story writers, whose work delightful as literature, are an undiscovered vein in the l9th century mine of raw materials; they also have an academic function in documenting American language and American stylistics of the period. The art-work is a study in itself, displaying the highest levels of craft in a difficult medium, just before the photographic image made illustration a much easier technique, and at the same time a much harder art.

To study this material in its manifold aspects will require the cooperation of a group of experts. It is suggested that funds be sought for cooperative study, to be done by a social historian, an economic historian, a historian of technology, a student of American language and story-writing, and a printmaker familiar with woodcut. Each of these can work in his own institution with a group of research student-assistants. When the individual work is near completion, a symposium-conference of all persons concerned should be arranged to air and share the work already done, and sketch out plans for completing the total project. In six months another conference can be expected to bring things together, at which time an editorial committee from each section of study can decide how best to present the combined research for publication. Initially a single volume on each aspect of the study, as above outlined, would seem reasonable. A comprehensive reader for the stories, geared toward wide use college courses in American Literature, would seem in order, as well as a companion volume on the woodcuts with illustrations and critical comment to round out the whole project.

Plans for such an important study should be discussed in advance, so that the project can be developed as a tightly-knit and well organized piece of work. Publication of individual parts without the backup of the comprehensive research in all areas would seem to defeat the aim of a broad enterprise of this sort. The main areas of interest are a)developments of new technologies, b) the social history of the period in light of changes in American business and factory practices, c) the remarkable artwork illustrating machinery, but worth study as elaborate woodcut at its highest point, and finally d) the development of trade-related story writing, much of which deserves republication with comment.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College