Chronicles of America 

Benjamin Franklin And His Times

On Milk Street, in Boston, opposite the Old South Church, lived Josiah Franklin, a maker of soap and candles. He had come to Boston with his wife about the year 1682 from the parish of Ecton, Northamptonshire, England, where his family had lived on a small freehold for about three hundred years. His English wife had died, leaving him seven children, and he had married a colonial girl, Abiah Folger, whose father, Peter Folger, was a man of some note in early Massachusetts.

Josiah Franklin was fifty-one and his wife Abiah thirty-nine, when the first illustrious American inventor was born in their house on Milk Street, January 17, 1706. He was their eighth child and Josiah's tenth son and was baptized Benjamin. What little we know of Benjamin's childhood is contained in his "Autobiography", which the world has accepted as one of its best books and which was the first American book to be so accepted. In the crowded household, where thirteen children grew to manhood and womanhood, there were no luxuries. Benjamin's period of formal schooling was less than two years, though he could never remember the time when he could not read, and at the age of ten he was put to work in his father's shop.

Benjamin was restless and unhappy in the shop. He appeared to have no aptitude at all for the business of soap making. His parents debated whether they might not educate him for the ministry, and his father took him into various shops in Boston, where he might see artisans at work, in the hope that he would be attracted to some trade. But Benjamin saw nothing there that he wished to engage in. He was inclined to follow the sea, as one of his older brothers had done.

His fondness for books finally determined his career. His older brother James was a printer, and in those days a printer was a literary man as well as a mechanic. The editor of a newspaper was always a printer and often composed his articles as he set them in type; so "composing" came to mean typesetting, and one who sets type is a compositor. Now James needed an apprentice. It happened then that young Benjamin, at the age of thirteen, was bound over by law to serve his brother.

James Franklin printed the "New England Courant", the fourth newspaper to be established in the colonies. Benjamin soon began to write articles for this newspaper. Then when his brother was put in jail, because he had printed matter considered libelous, and forbidden to continue as the publisher, the newspaper appeared in Benjamin's name.

The young apprentice felt that his brother was unduly severe and, after serving for about two years, made up his mind to run away. Secretly he took passage on a sloop and in three days reached New York, there to find that the one printer in the town, William Bradford, could give him no work. Benjamin then set out for Philadelphia. By boat to Perth Amboy, on foot to Burlington, and then by boat to Philadelphia was the course of his journey, which consumed five days. On a Sunday morning in October, 1723, the tired, hungry boy landed upon the Market Street wharf, and at once set out to find food and explore America's metropolis.

Benjamin found employment with Samuel Keimer, an eccentric printer just beginning business, and lodgings at the house of Read, whose daughter Deborah was later to become his wife. The intelligent young printer soon attracted the notice of Sir William Keith, Governor of Pennsylvania, who promised to set him up in business. First, however, he must go to London to buy a printing outfit. On the Governor's promise to send a letter of credit for his needs in London, Franklin set sail; but the Governor broke his word, and Franklin was obliged to remain in London nearly two years working at his trade. It was in London that he printed the first of his many pamphlets, an attack on revealed religion, called "A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain." Though he met some interesting persons, from each of whom he extracted, according to his custom, every particle of information possible, no future opened for him in London, and he accepted an offer to return to Philadelphia with employment as a clerk. But early in 1727 his employer died, and Benjamin went back to his trade, as printers always do. He found work again in Keimer's printing office. Here his mechanical ingenuity and general ability presently began to appear; he invented a method of casting type, made ink, and became, in fact, the real manager of the business.

The ability to make friends was one of Franklin's traits, and the number of his acquaintances grew rapidly, both in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. "I grew convinced," he naively says, "that TRUTH, SINCERITY, and INTEGRITY in dealings between man and man were of the utmost importance to the felicity of life." Not long after his return from England he founded in Philadelphia the Junto, a society which at its regular meetings argued various questions and criticized the writings of the members. Through this society he enlarged his reputation as well as his education.

The father of an apprentice at Keimer's furnished the money to buy a printing outfit for his son and Franklin, but the son soon sold his share, and Benjamin Franklin, Printer, was fairly established in business at the age of twenty-four. The writing of an anonymous pamphlet on "The Nature and Necessity of a Paper Currency" called attention to the need of a further issue of paper money in Pennsylvania, and the author of the tract was rewarded with the contract to print the money, "a very profitable job, and a great help to me." Small favors were thankfully received. And, "I took care not only to be in REALITY industrious and frugal, but to avoid all appearances to the contrary. I drest plainly; I was seen at no places of idle diversion." And, "to show that I was not above my business, I sometimes brought home the paper I purchased at the stores thru the streets on a wheelbarrow."

"The Universal Instructor in All Arts and Sciences and Pennsylvania Gazette": this was the high-sounding name of a newspaper which Franklin's old employer, Keimer, had started in Philadelphia. But bankruptcy shortly overtook Keimer, and Franklin took the newspaper with its ninety subscribers. The "Universal Instructor" feature of the paper consisted of a page or two weekly of "Chambers's Encyclopedia". Franklin eliminated this feature and dropped the first part of the long name. "The Pennsylvania Gazette" in Franklin's hands soon became profitable. And it lives today in the fullness of abounding life, though under another name. "Founded A.D. 1728 by Benj. Franklin" is the proud legend of "The Saturday Evening Post", which carries on, in our own times, the Franklin tradition.

The "Gazette" printed bits of local news, extracts from the London "Spectator", jokes, verses, humorous attacks on Bradford's "Mercury", a rival paper, moral essays by the editor, elaborate hoaxes, and pungent political or social criticism. Often the editor wrote and printed letters to himself, either to emphasize some truth or to give him the opportunity to ridicule some folly in a reply to "Alice Addertongue," "Anthony Afterwit," or other mythical but none the less typical person.

If the countryman did not read a newspaper, or buy books, he was, at any rate, sure to own an almanac. So in 1732 Franklin brought out "Poor Richard's Almanac". Three editions were sold within a few months. Year after year the sayings of Richard Saunders, the alleged publisher, and Bridget, his wife, creations of Franklin's fancy, were printed in the almanac. Years later the most striking of these sayings were collected and published. This work has been translated into as many as twenty languages and is still in circulation today.

Franklin kept a shop in connection with his printing office, where he sold a strange variety of goods: legal blanks, ink, pens, paper, books, maps, pictures, chocolate, coffee, cheese, codfish, soap, linseed oil, broadcloth, Godfrey's cordial, tea, spectacles, rattlesnake root, lottery tickets, and stoves--to mention only a few of the many articles he advertised. Deborah Read, who became his wife in 1730, looked after his house, tended shop, folded and stitched pamphlets, bought rags, and helped him to live economically. "We kept no idle servants, " says Franklin, "our table was plain and simple, our furniture of the cheapest. For instance, my breakfast was a long time bread and milk (no tea), and I ate it out of a twopenny earthen porringer with a pewter spoon."

With all this frugality, Franklin was not a miser; he abhorred the waste of money, not the proper use. His wealth increased rapidly. "I experienced too," he says, "the truth of the observation, 'THAT AFTER GETTING THE FIRST HUNDRED POUND, IT IS MORE EASY TO GET THE SECOND, money itself being of a prolific nature." He gave much unpaid public service and subscribed generously to public purposes; yet he was able, at the early age of forty-two, to turn over his printing office to one of his journeymen, and to retire from active business, intending to devote himself thereafter to such public employment as should come his way, to philosophical or scientific studies, and to amusements.

From boyhood Franklin had been interested in natural phenomena. His "Journal of a Voyage from London to Philadelphia", written at sea as he returned from his first stay in London, shows unusual powers of exact observation for a youth of twenty. Many of the questions he propounded to the Junto had a scientific bearing. He made an original and important invention in 1749, the "Pennsylvania fireplace," which, under the name of the Franklin stove, is in common use to this day, and which brought to the ill-made houses of the time increased comfort and a great saving of fuel. But it brought Franklin no pecuniary reward, for he never deigned to patent any of his inventions.

His active, inquiring mind played upon hundreds of questions in a dozen different branches of science. He studied smoky chimneys; he invented bifocal spectacles; he studied the effect of oil upon ruffled water; he identified the "dry bellyache" as lead poisoning; he preached ventilation in the days when windows were closed tight at night, and upon the sick at all times; he investigated fertilizers in agriculture. Many of his suggestions have since borne fruit, and his observations show that he foresaw some of the great developments of the nineteenth century.

His fame in science rests chiefly upon his discoveries in electricity. On a visit to Boston in 1746 he saw some electrical experiments and at once became deeply interested. Peter Collinson of London, a Fellow of the Royal Society, who had made several gifts to the Philadelphia Library, sent over some of the crude electrical apparatus of the day, which Franklin used, as well as some contrivances he had purchased in Boston. He says in a letter to Collinson: "For my own part, I never was before engaged in any study that so engrossed my attention and my time as this has lately done."

Franklin's letters to Collinson tell of his first experiments and speculations as to the nature of electricity. Experiments made by a little group of friends showed the effect of pointed bodies in drawing off electricity. He decided that electricity was not the result of friction, but that the mysterious force was diffused through most substances, and that nature is always alert to restore its equilibrium. He developed the theory of positive and negative electricity, or plus and minus electrification. The same letter tells of some of the tricks which the little group of experimenters were accustomed to play upon their wondering neighbors. They set alcohol on fire, relighted candles just blown out, produced mimic flashes of lightning, gave shocks on touching or kissing, and caused an artificial spider to move mysteriously.

Franklin carried on experiments with the Leyden jar, made an electrical battery, killed a fowl and roasted it upon a spit turned by electricity, sent a current through water and found it still able to ignite alcohol, ignited gunpowder, and charged glasses of wine so that the drinkers received shocks. More important, perhaps, he began to develop the theory of the identity of lightning and electricity, and the possibility of protecting buildings by iron rods. By means of an iron rod he brought down electricity into his house, where he studied its effect upon bells and concluded that clouds were generally negatively electrified. In June, 1752, he performed the famous experiment with the kite, drawing down electricity from the clouds and charging a Leyden jar from the key at the end of the string.

Franklin's letters to Collinson were read before the Royal Society but were unnoticed. Collinson gathered them together, and they were published in a pamphlet which attracted wide attention. Translated into French, they created great excitement, and Franklin's conclusions were generally accepted by the scientific men of Europe. The Royal Society, tardily awakened, elected Franklin a member and in 1753 awarded him the Copley medal with a complimentary address.1

If Franklin's desire to continue his scientific researches had been gratified, it is possible that he might have discovered some of the secrets for which the world waited until Edison and his contemporaries revealed them more than a century later. Franklin's scientific reputation has grown with the years, and some of his views seem in perfect accord with the latest developments in electricity. But he was not to be permitted to continue his experiments. He had shown his ability to manage men and was to be called to a wider field.

Franklin's influence among his fellow citizens in Philadelphia was very great. Always ostensibly keeping himself in the background and working through others, never contradicting, but carrying his point by shrewd questions which showed the folly of the contrary position, he continued to set on foot and carry out movements for the public good. He established the first circulating library in Philadelphia, and one of the first in the country, and an academy which grew into the University of Pennsylvania. He was instrumental in the foundation of a hospital. "I am often ask'd by those to whom I propose subscribing," said one of the doctors who had made fruitless attempts to raise money for the hospital, "Have you consulted Franklin upon this business?" Other public matters in which the busy printer was engaged were the paving and cleaning of the streets, better street lighting, the organization of a police force and of a fire company. A pamphlet which he published, "Plain Truth", showing the helplessness of the colony against the French and Indians, led to the organization of a volunteer militia, and funds were raised for arms by a lottery. Franklin himself was elected colonel of the Philadelphia regiment, "but considering myself unfit, I declined the station and recommended Mr. Lawrence, a fine person and man of influence, who was accordingly appointed." In spite of his militarism, Franklin retained the position which he held as Clerk of the Assembly, though the majority of the members were Quakers opposed to war on principle.

The American Philosophical Society owes its origin to Franklin. It was formally organized on his motion in 1743, but the society has accepted the organization of the Junto in 1727 as the actual date of its birth. From the beginning the society has had among its members many leading men of scientific attainments or tastes, not only of Philadelphia, but of the world. In 1769 the original society was consolidated with another of similar aims, and Franklin, who was the first secretary of the society, was elected president and served until his death. The first important undertaking was the successful observation of the transit of Venus in 1769, and many important scientific discoveries have since been made by its members and first given to the world at its meetings.

Franklin's appointment as one of the two Deputy Postmasters General of the colonies in 1753 enlarged his experience and his reputation. He visited nearly all the post offices in the colonies and introduced many improvements into the service. In none of his positions did his transcendent business ability show to better advantage. He established new postal routes and shortened others. There were no good roads in the colonies, but his post riders made what then seemed wonderful speed. The bags were opened to newspapers, the carrying of which had previously been a private and unlawful perquisite of the riders. Previously there had been one mail a week in summer between New York and Philadelphia and one a month in winter. The service was increased to three a week in summer and one in winter.

The main post road ran from northern New England to Savannah, closely hugging the seacoast for the greater part of the way. Some of the milestones set by Franklin to enable the postmasters to compute the postage, which was fixed according to distance, are still standing. Crossroads connected some of the larger communities away from the seacoast with the main road, but when Franklin died, after serving also as Postmaster General of the United States, there were only seventy-five post offices in the entire country.

Franklin took a hand in the final struggle between France and England in America. On the eve of the conflict, in 1754, commissioners from the several colonies were ordered to convene at Albany for a conference with the Six Nations of the Iroquois, and Franklin was one of the deputies from Pennsylvania. On his way to Albany he "projected and drew a plan for the union of all the colonies under one government so far as might be necessary for defense and other important general purposes." This statesmanlike "Albany Plan of Union," however, came to nothing. "Its fate was singular," says Franklin; "the assemblies did not adopt it, as they all thought there was too much PREROGATIVE in it and in England it was judg'd to have too much of the DEMOCRATIC."

How to raise funds for defense was always a grave problem in the colonies, for the assemblies controlled the purse-strings and released them with a grudging hand. In face of the French menace, this was Governor Shirley's problem in Massachusetts, Governor Dinwiddie's in Virginia, and Franklin's in the Quaker and proprietary province of Pennsylvania. Franklin opposed Shirley's suggestion of a general tax to be levied on the colonies by Parliament, on the ground of no taxation without representation, but used all his arts to bring the Quaker Assembly to vote money for defense, and succeeded. When General Braddock arrived in Virginia Franklin was sent by the Assembly to confer with him in the hope of allaying any prejudice against Quakers that the general might have conceived. If that blustering and dull-witted soldier had any such prejudice, it melted away when the envoy of the Quakers promised to procure wagons for the army. The story of Braddock's disaster does not belong here, but Franklin formed a shrewd estimate of the man which proved accurate. His account of Braddock's opinion of the colonial militia is given in a sentence: "He smil'd at my ignorance, and reply'd, 'These savages may, indeed, be a formidable enemy to your raw American militia, but upon the King's regular and disciplin'd troops, sir, it is impossible they should make any impression.'" After Braddock's defeat the Pennsylvania Assembly voted more money for defense, and the unmilitary Franklin was placed in command of the frontier with full power. He built forts, as he had planned, and incidentally learned much of the beliefs of a group of settlers in the back country, the "Unitas Fratrum," better known as the Moravians.

The death struggle between English and French in America served only to intensify a lesser conflict that was being waged between the Assembly and the proprietors of Pennsylvania; and the Assembly determined to send Franklin to London to seek judgment against the proprietors and to request the King to take away from them the government of Pennsylvania. Franklin, accompanied by his son William, reached London in July, 1757, and from this time on his life was to be closely linked with Europe. He returned to America six years later and made a trip of sixteen hundred miles inspecting postal affairs, but in 1764 he was again sent to England to renew the petition for a royal government for Pennsylvania, which had not yet been granted. Presently that petition was made obsolete by the Stamp Act, and Franklin became the representative of the American colonies against King and Parliament.

Franklin did his best to avert the Revolution. He made many friends in England, wrote pamphlets and articles, told comical stories and fables where they might do some good, and constantly strove to enlighten the ruling class of England upon conditions and sentiment in the colonies. His examination before the House of Commons in February, 1766, marks perhaps the zenith of his intellectual powers. His wide knowledge, his wonderful poise, his ready wit, his marvelous gift for clear and epigrammatic statement, were never exhibited to better advantage and no doubt hastened the repeal of the Stamp Act. Franklin remained in England nine years longer, but his efforts to reconcile the conflicting claims of Parliament and the colonies were of no avail, and early in 1775 he sailed for home.

Franklin's stay in America lasted only eighteen months, yet during that time he sat in the Continental Congress and as a member of the most important committees; submitted a plan for a union of the colonies; served as Postmaster General and as chairman of the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety; visited Washington at Cambridge; went to Montreal to do what he could for the cause of independence in Canada; presided over the convention which framed a constitution for Pennsylvania; was a member of the committee appointed to draft the Declaration of Independence and of the committee sent on the futile mission to New York to discuss terms of peace with Lord Howe.

In September, 1776, Franklin was appointed envoy to France and sailed soon afterwards. The envoys appointed to act with him proved a handicap rather than a help, and the great burden of a difficult and momentous mission was thus laid upon an old man of seventy. But no other American could have taken his place. His reputation in France was already made, through his books and inventions and discoveries. To the corrupt and licentious court he was the personification of the age of simplicity, which it was the fashion to admire; to the learned, he was a sage; to the common man he was the apotheosis of all the virtues; to the rabble he was little less than a god. Great ladies sought his smiles; nobles treasured a kindly word; the shopkeeper hung his portrait on the wall; and the people drew aside in the streets that he might pass without annoyance. Through all this adulation Franklin passed serenely, if not unconsciously.

The French ministers were not at first willing to make a treaty of alliance, but under Franklin's influence they lent money to the struggling colonies. Congress sought to finance the war by the issue of paper currency and by borrowing rather than by taxation, and sent bill after bill to Franklin, who somehow managed to meet them by putting his pride in his pocket, and applying again and again to the French Government. He fitted out privateers and negotiated with the British concerning prisoners. At length he won from France recognition of the United States and then the Treaty of Alliance.

Not until two years after the Peace of 1783 would Congress permit the veteran to come home. And when he did return in 1785 his people would not allow him to rest. At once he was elected President of the Council of Pennsylvania and twice reelected in spite of his protests. He was sent to the Convention of 1787 which framed the Constitution of the United States. There he spoke seldom but always to the point, and the Constitution is the better for his suggestions. With pride he axed his signature to that great instrument, as he had previously signed the Albany Plan of Union, the Declaration of Independence, and the Treaty of Paris.

Benjamin Franklin's work was done. He was now an old man of eighty-two summers and his feeble body was racked by a painful malady. Yet he kept his face towards the morning. About a hundred of his letters, written after this time, have been preserved. These letters show no retrospection, no looking backward. They never mention "the good old times." As long as he lived, Franklin looked forward. His interest in the mechanical arts and in scientific progress seems never to have abated. He writes in October, 1787, to a friend in France, describing his experience with lightning conductors and referring to the work of David Rittenhouse, the celebrated astronomer of Philadelphia. On the 31st of May in the following year he is writing to the Reverend John Lathrop of Boston:

"I have long been impressed with the same sentiments you so well express, of the growing felicity of mankind, from the improvement in philosophy, morals, politics, and even the conveniences of common living, and the invention of new and useful utensils and instruments; so that I have sometimes wished it had been my destiny to be born two or three centuries hence. For invention and improvement are prolific, and beget more of their kind. The present progress is rapid. Many of great importance, now unthought of, will, before that period, be produced."

Thus the old philosopher felt the thrill of dawn and knew that the day of great mechanical inventions was at hand. He had read the meaning of the puffing of the young steam engine of James Watt and he had heard of a marvelous series of British inventions for spinning and weaving. He saw that his own countrymen were astir, trying to substitute the power of steam for the strength of muscles and the fitful wind. John Fitch on the Delaware and James Rumsey on the Potomac were already moving vessels by steam. John Stevens of New York and Hoboken had set up a machine shop that was to mean much to mechanical progress in America. Oliver Evans, a mechanical genius of Delaware, was dreaming of the application of high-pressure steam to both road and water carriages. Such manifestations, though still very faint, were to Franklin the signs of a new era.

And so, with vision undimmed, America's most famous citizen lived on until near the end of the first year of George Washington's administration. On April 17, 1790, his unconquerable spirit took its flight.

In that year, 1790, was taken the First Census of the United States. The new nation had a population of about four million people. It then included practically the present territory east of the Mississippi, except the Floridas, which belonged to Spain. But only a small part of this territory was occupied. Much of New York and Pennsylvania was savage wilderness. Only the seacoast of Maine was inhabited, and the eighty-two thousand inhabitants of Georgia hugged the Savannah River. Hardy pioneers had climbed the Alleghanies into Kentucky and Tennessee, but the Northwest Territory--comprising Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin--was not enumerated at all, so scanty were its people, perhaps not more than four thousand.

Though the First Census did not classify the population by occupation it is certain that nine-tenths of the breadwinners worked more or less upon the soil. The remaining tenth were engaged in trade, transportation, manufacturing, fishing and included also the professional men, doctors, lawyers, clergymen, teachers, and the like. In other words, nine out of ten of the population were engaged primarily in the production of food, an occupation which today engages less than three out of ten. This comparison, however, requires some qualification. The farmer and the farmer's wife and children performed many tasks which are now done in factories. The successful farmer on the frontier had to be a jack of many trades. Often he tanned leather and made shoes for his family and harness for his horses. He was carpenter, blacksmith, cobbler, and often boat-builder and fisherman as well. His wife made soap and candles, spun yarn and dyed it, wove cloth and made the clothes the family wore, to mention only a few of the tasks of the women of the eighteenth century.

The organization of industry, however, was beginning. Here and there were small paper mills, glass factories-though many houses in the back country were without glass windows--potteries, and iron foundries and forges. Capitalists, in some places, had brought together a few handloom weavers to make cloth for sale, and the famous shoemakers of Massachusetts commonly worked in groups.

The mineral resources of the United States were practically unknown. The country seems to have produced iron enough for its simple needs, some coal, copper, lead, gold, silver, and sulphur. But we may say that mining was hardly practiced at all.

The fisheries and the shipyards were great sources of wealth, especially for New England. The cod fishers numbered several hundred vessels and the whalers about forty. Thousands of citizens living along the seashore and the rivers fished more or less to add to the local food supply. The deep-sea fishermen exported a part of their catch, dried and salted. Yankee vessels sailed to all ports of the world and carried the greater part of the foreign commerce of the United States. Flour, tobacco, rice, wheat, corn, dried fish, potash, indigo, and staves were the principal exports. Great Britain was the best customer, with the French West Indies next, and then the British West Indies. The principal imports came from the same countries. Imports and exports practically balanced each other, at about twenty million dollars annually, or about five dollars a head. The great merchants owned ships and many of them, such as John Hancock of Boston, and Stephen Girard of Philadelphia, had grown very rich.

Inland transportation depended on horses and oxen or boats. There were few good roads, sometimes none at all save bridle paths and trails. The settlers along the river valleys used boats almost entirely. Stage-coaches made the journey from New York to Boston in four days in summer and in six in winter. Two days were required to go between New York and Philadelphia. Forty to fifty miles a day was the speed of the best coaches, provided always that they did not tumble into the ditch. In many parts of the country one must needs travel on horseback or on foot.

Even the wealthiest Americans of those days had few or none of the articles which we regard today as necessities of life. The houses were provided with open--which, however cheerful, did not keep them warm--or else with Franklin's stoves. To strike a fire one must have the flint and tinderbox, for matches were unknown until about 1830. Candles made the darkness visible. There was neither plumbing nor running water. Food was cooked in the ashes or over an open fire.

The farmer's tools were no less crude than his wife's. His plough had been little improved since the days of Rameses. He sowed his wheat by hand, cut it with a sickle, flailed it out upon the floor, and laboriously winnowed away the chaff.

In that same year, 1790, came a great boon and encouragement to inventors, the first Federal Patent Act, passed by Congress on the 10th of April. Every State had its own separate patent laws or regulations, as an inheritance from colonial days, but the Fathers of the Constitution had wisely provided that this function of government should be exercised by the nation.2 The Patent Act, however, was for a time unpopular, and some States granted monopolies, particularly of transportation, until they were forbidden to do so by judicial decision.

The first Patent Act provided that an examining board, consisting of the Secretary of State, the Secretary of War, and the Attorney-General, or any two of them, might grant a patent for fourteen years, if they deemed the invention useful and important. The patent itself was to be engrossed and signed by the President, the Secretary of State, and the Attorney-General. And the cost was to be three dollars and seventy cents, plus the cost of copying the specifications at ten cents a sheet.

The first inventor to avail himself of the advantages of the new Patent Act was Samuel Hopkins of Vermont, who received a patent on the 31st of July for an improved method of "Making Pot and Pearl Ashes." The world knows nothing of this Samuel Hopkins, but the potash industry, which was evidently on his mind, was quite important in his day. Potash, that is, crude potassium carbonate, useful in making soap and in the manufacture of glass, was made by leaching wood ashes and boiling down the lye. To produce a ton of potash, the trees on an acre of ground would be cut down and burned, the ashes leached, and the lye evaporated in great iron kettles. A ton of potash was worth about twenty-five dollars. Nothing could show more plainly the relative value of money and human labor in those early times.

Two more patents were issued during the year 1790. The second went to Joseph S. Sampson of Boston for a method of making candles, and the third to Oliver Evans, of whom we shall learn more presently, for an improvement in manufacturing flour and meal. The fourth patent was granted in 1791 to Francis Baily of Philadelphia for making punches for types. Next Aaron Putnam of Medford, Massachusetts, thought that he could improve methods of distilling, and John Stone of Concord, Massachusetts, offered a new method of driving piles for bridges. And a versatile inventor, Samuel Mulliken of Philadelphia, received four patents in one day for threshing grain, cutting and polishing marble, raising a nap on cloth, and breaking hemp.

Then came improvements in making nails, in making bedsteads, in the manufacture of boats, and for propelling boats by cattle. On August 26, 1791, James Rumsey, John Stevens, and John Fitch (all three will appear again in this narrative) took out patents on means of propelling boats. On the same day Nathan Read received one on a process for distilling alcohol.

More than fifty patents were granted under the Patent Act of 1790, and mechanical devices were coming in so thick and fast that the department heads apparently found it inconvenient to hear applications. So the Act of 1790 was repealed. The second Patent Act (1793) provided that a patent should be granted as a matter of routine to any one who swore to the originality of his device and paid the sum of thirty dollars as a fee. No one except a citizen, however, could receive a patent. This act, with some amendments, remained in force until 1836, when the present Patent Office was organized with a rigorous and intricate system for examination of all claims in order to prevent interference. Protection of the property rights of inventors has been from the beginning of the nation a definite American policy, and to this policy may be ascribed innumerable inventions which have contributed to the greatness of American industry and multiplied the world's comforts and conveniences.

Under the second Patent Act came the most important invention yet offered, an invention which was to affect generations then unborn. This was a machine for cleaning cotton and it was offered by a young Yankee schoolmaster, temporarily sojourning in the South.


  1. It may be useful to mention some of the scientific facts and mechanical principles which were known to Europeans at this time. More than one learned essay has been written to prove the mechanical indebtedness of the modern world to the ancient, particularly to the works of those mechanically minded Greeks: Archimedes, Aristotle, Ctesibius, and Hero of Alexandria. The Greeks employed the lever, the tackle, and the crane, the force-pump, and the suction-pump. They had discovered that steam could be mechanically applied, though they never made any practical use of steam. In common with other ancients they knew the principle of the mariner's compass. The Egyptians had the water-wheel and the rudimentary blast-furnace. The pendulum clock appears to have been an invention of the Middle Ages. The art of printing from movable type, beginning with Gutenberg about 1450, helped to further the Renaissance. The improved mariner's compass enabled Columbus to find the New world; gunpowder made possible its conquest. The compound microscope and the first practical telescope came from the spectacle makers of Middelburg, Holland, the former about 1590 and the latter about 1608. Harvey, an English physician, had discovered the circulation of the blood in 1628, and Newton, an English mathematician, the law of gravitation in 1685.
  2. The Constitution (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8) empowers Congress: "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."