Invention and inventiveness exploded during the half century following the American Revolution, most of it aimed at mechanizing anything that conceivably could be mechanized. Patents are not the precise equivalent of inventions, but they do provide a good access that can be numbered and qualitatively examined. In the year of the first Patent Act, 1790, only three patents were awarded; by 1840 the number was 457, clearly tracing the beginning of a logarithmic rise.
The immediate effect on the character and quality of life was perceptible but limited. The effect on imagination and the quality of dreams of the future was euphoric. Aaron and Cynthia Klein have caught the enthusiasm permeating this production of licensed ideas, most of them unusable, many uninformed, but a few predictive of a vastly altered world. It detracts nothing from the pivotal importance of the political events surrounding the birth of the nation to assert that the almost coincidental beginning of mechanization and industrialization pointed more directly to our present material patterns of life. This story has not even begun to receive the attention it requires.
Approaching it through the patented inventions provides a kaleidoscopic panorama; it captures the spirit but leaves a complex development unclear. The approach does have the endorsement of the people who lived through it. They were encouraged by the patent system to simplify the long and many-rooted origin of most major innovations. The personification of specific technological change in a single patent or inventor, usually one among many, had continuing appeal. This was the great period of happy eponyms: Evans' automated grist mill, McCormick's reaper, Whitney's cotton gin, Colt's revolver, Howe's sewing machine, Goodyear's rubber, Davenport's electric motor and Morse's telegraph.
All these and a variety of others from the fundamental to the ridiculous are represented in this book. Firm organization was required to prevent the diversity from overwhelming the subject; the Kleins achieve this by grouping related patents within well-chosen topical chapters. They establish the larger framework by discussing aspects of the early American scene that were favorable to technological change and related government policy, especially the growth of the patent system.
Within this setting, they properly begin with inventions related to farming, which remained the first concern of the large majority. Strikingly, very little effective mechanization of farming processes was imported along with the English Industrial Revolution that stimulated invention in other fields. The Americans did transfer English aspirations for agricultural improvement but the great successes were met in this country with improved plows and ax production and mechanized reaping, threshing and planting.
The primary English technologies whose transfer revolutionized American production and set her on the course to world primacy were the steam engine and the factory system. As for steam, that was not applied immediately to factory production and mine pumping, as in England, but to transportation. In this country, unexhausted water power resources were available for manufacturing, but the application of steam to transportation offered new hope in coping with the needs of an enormous and undeveloped land. The steamboat, the first American success in this quest, receives the best attention here. The railroad story is more complicated and does not yield as well to the patent tour.
Indeed, most of the big stories related to American invention are introduced, but few are given wholly satisfying treatment. Several are uninformed by the best scholarship and rely too much on discounted anecdotes. There is too little interpretation, too little sensitivity to social dimensions, and too little direct communications from participants. In the last category, the one source used at several points is a good one: Dr. Thomas Jones, who offered his own running commentary on current patents in the Journal of the Franklin Institute, which he edited for many years. But more would have added life and conviction. And there are too many errors of all sorts.
Despite its limitations, this book offers an intriguing introduction to an extremely important historical story. The general view is correct; the drawings are real; the fascination of the patents is compelling. Readers of different backgrounds will be captured and may be encouraged to read further about a pattern of development that deserves new levels of attention.