By John Steele Gordon
The industrialization of America in the last third of the 19th century is one of the epic stories of economic history. It made the United States the most powerful nation in the world, a position it holds to this day. But the post-Civil War industrialization had an important and largely overlooked predecessor in the first decades of the 19th century, when, as Charles Morris writes in "The Dawn of Innovation," "the American penchant for mechanized, large-scale production spread throughout industry, presaging the world's first mass-consumption economy." It is a story well worth telling, and Mr. Morris tells it well.
In 1800, the U.S. economy was characterized by subsistence farming, by the export of plantation crops, such as tobacco, and by mineral production. Eighty-five percent of the workforce was engaged in farming, and shipbuilding was the only major American industry that competed overseas. Sixty years later, on the eve of the Civil War, the U.S. had the largest industrial base after Britain and the world's second largest gross domestic product. It had greatly expanded its agricultural exports, especially cotton to feed the insatiable British textile mills and wheat to feed Britain's soaring population. But it had also built its own vast textile and whaling businesses in New England.
Whole industries sprang up as the country's population boomed and spilled over into the Middle West. The rich agricultural lands there produced huge surpluses of grain and meat, especially pork. The city of Cincinnati—whose population grew to 160,000 in 1860, from 2,500 in 1810—became known as "Porkopolis" because of the number of hogs its slaughterhouses processed annually.
Mr. Morris does a particularly good job of explaining the crucial importance of synergy in economic development, how one development leads to another and to increased growth. The lard (or pig fat) from the slaughterhouses, he notes, served as the basis for the country's first chemical industry. Lard had always been used for more than pie crust and frying. It was a principal ingredient in soap, which farm wives made themselves, a disagreeable and even dangerous task thanks to the lye used in the process.
The Dawn of Innovation
By Charles R. Morris
(PublicAffairs, 368 pages, $28.99)
But when lard processing was industrialized to make soap, it led to an array of byproducts such as glycerin, used in tanning and in pharmaceuticals. Stearine, another byproduct, made superior candles. Just in the decade from the mid-1840s to the mid-1850s, Cincinnati soap exports increased 20-fold, as did the export of other lard-based products. Procter & Gamble, founded in Cincinnati in 1837 by an Irish soap maker and an English candle maker who had married sisters, grew into a giant company as the fast-rising middle class sought gentility.
Mr. Morris goes into great detail on the development of interchangeable parts—the system of making the components of a manufactured product so nearly identical that they can be easily substituted and replaced. This was very largely an American innovation, one centered in New England. The interchangeability of parts would become, of course, vital to the later development of mass-produced consumer items, everything from toasters to automobiles. But it played a key role in the early 19th century as well. An American clockmaker named Chauncey Jerome was able to turn out 280,000 clock movements a year and profitably export these intricate time-keeping mechanisms to Britain at a price of only $1.50 each. Mr. Morris reports that British customs was so amazed that it accused Jerome of "dumping" and at first refused to let them in. By the 1860s most British household clocks had American movements. There was similar American export success with firearms.
The author's in-text illustrations and diagrams are very helpful in showing the cleverness and ingenuity of mechanisms designed by such forgotten giants as the clockmaker Eli Terry, the gun maker Thomas Blanchard and the steam-engine designer George H. Corliss. Mr. Morris's deft character sketches bring them to life as well. Blanchard, for instance, had limited social graces and a bad stammer but was a born tinkerer. As a teenager he went to work for his brother in a tack factory, affixing the heads onto tacks, a job he hated. Instead of quitting the job, he eliminated it by inventing a tack-making machine, which he patented and then sold the licensing rights for $5,000, a huge sum for a teenager.
The steam engine was the defining invention of the early industrial age. The first steam engines were made by the Britons Thomas Newcomen and James Watt. But the high-pressure steam engine was invented in 1801 in America by Oliver Evans. (It was independently invented in Britain by Richard Trevethick at almost the same moment.) By the mid-19th century, the United States was clearly in the lead in steam-engine design, thanks especially to Corliss, whose engine proved to be an astonishing 30% more fuel-efficient than earlier models. In 1876, he designed and built the largest steam engine ever constructed. It powered the entire Philadelphia Centennial Exposition and was a major exhibit itself.
The steam engine powered the steamboat and the railroad, which knitted the country together into one huge common market, allowing industrial economies of scale that would, in the later 19th century, astonish the world. Mr. Morris has written an illuminating narrative that shows, among much else, what happened when Yankee ingenuity met the Industrial Revolution.
Mr. Gordon is the author of "An Empire of Wealth:
The Epic History of American Economic Power."