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'HE history of an invention has two sides, each full of human interest,
one side having to do with the effect of the invention upon the world, and the other concerning the personal trials, struggles and triumphs of the inventor himself. The life histories of all great inventors are invariably tinged with a certain half sad, half romantic interest. Moreover, the history of inventions in general is the history of our own times, ending sharply at only yesterday. Perhaps the evening paper will give an appendix of to-day's progress also.
Having since 1875 made, in Scribner's Monthly and the Century, an almost continuous record of inventions, the writer is perhaps in a position to observe the spirit of our times in regard to invention and inventors. The history of industry has been an almost continuous warfare against the inventor. Not always against his ideas, though these are first attacked. The new ideas mean wealth ; and selfishness as soon as it has mastered fear and anger at the industrial revolution that follows a new invention strikes always at the man in its eagerness to get his property. But all things are now changed. Hostility has given place to welcome, criticism is changed to appreciative inquiry. Every new invention is sought for eagerly and known half round the world on the day of its birth.
I remember seeing in the office of a celebrated patent lawyer a picture representing a man old and worn before his time, with hard hands and eager questioning eyes, standing in the library of some successful business man. The capitalist sat coldly listening to the poorer and yet wiser man, as if it was a familiar story, full of vague visions of uncreated wealth never to be realized. The picture is already behind the times. The poor inventor no longer begs for financial aid to carry out his ideas. The capitalist, if doing anything, is casting about for ways and means to force open the inventor's workshop to let in the reviving light of business enterprise and abundant capital. The inventors have also changed. They have lost much of that vague unrest and crude guessing after the truth from which
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sprang so much of their grief and disappointment. The blind feeling after the right thing that made such a patient hero of a Goodyear has been exchanged for that scientific reasoning from the known to the unknown that marks the work of an Edison.
Young students of history sometimes imagine that the progress of the world has been chiefly shaped by kings and generals. These men have been viewed with a false perspective. The history of our times, at least, is made by our inventors. Even in the past inventors have often wrought greater changes in the lives of the people than many kings. The student, it seems to me, should hear less of kings and battles, and more of work and workmen. The history of industry and invention is becoming the history of men and women and little children, their hopes and aims, their labors and triumphs.
In our national life history a few men stand forth, leaders of a great and mighty company. These men link our times with the forgotten past, and enable our workmen to join hands with the toilers of every age, even to those poor laborers who lived in the midst of prehistoric times. Our workmen use the tools of the Cave man and the Lake Dweller. Our inventors have improved upon the very tools the ancients attributed to the gods. These foremost minds have done much to modify the industry of the whole world, and each has been a creator of wealth that has been poured out in exhaustless abundance upon our people.
The history of American inventions is not, as perhaps some young people imagine, a dreary catalogue of technical details. All great inventions are wonderfully simple. They are almost self-luminous, so that the surprise is not at their complexity and startling novelty, but at the thought that no man ever imagined so plain a thing before. If you take a quantity of raw cotton linť just pulled from the bolls, you will find the tangled, fluffy mass filled with hard seeds resembling beans, and closely fastened to the lint. Pick out one of these seeds, and, holding it between the fingers of one hand, attempt to pull away the lint with the fingers of the other hand. If you are industrious, you can pick the seeds from a pound of lint in one day. Now imagine the lint laid on a grid of iron bars precisely like the spread-out fingers of your left hand. Now crook the fingers of the right hand and make a clawing motion between the fingers of the other hand. If your fingers were sharp enough they might catch and pull out some of the lint and leave the seeds behind on the grid formed by your fingers. It will not work that way, and yet that is the underlying idea of the saw gin as invented by Eli Whitney. He arranged a grid or net-work of wires, and placed behind it a series of circular saws in such a position that the teeth of the saws should project through the net-work as they revolved. Lint placed on the netting was caught by the sharp teeth of the saws, torn off and dragged through the spaces in the netting, while the seeds, unable to pass, were left behind and quickly slid down the grid out of the way. It only remained to contrive something to pull the lint from the saws before they revolved and carried it back again. This was a trilling affair, suggested no doubt by the already known cotton carder, and in Whitney's gin was a simple revolving brush that swept the lint from the saws.
The cotton gin has been somewhat modified since Whitney's time, notably in the case of the roller gin employing two rollers that clasp the lint between them and tear it away from the seeds, yet his invention is still used, and his original ideas still survive in the admirable machines now turned out from our shops. He would hardly recognize his gin under the cover of the attachments applied to it, yet could not fail to admire its workmanship and capacity. If there is an immortality for him, it is clear
1765-1825. enough in the persistent life of his ideas; his imagination and mechanical skill survive in thousands of cotton gins at this instant turning the last new wealth wrung from the ground into available capital.
In the great company of inventors Eli Whitney stands on a plane with Jacquard. Like him he created a wholly novel invention that changed the industrial history of a nation. The gin, like the perforated card, was born perfect, so that, while countless modifications and alterations have been made in both inventions, they survive to this day practically unchanged, as if complete beyond the reach of any essential improvement. Like the Frenchman, he knew something of the sorrow that springs beside the birth of so many inventions, though for a wholly different reason. Jacquard was, as he said himself, “delivered over to universal ignominy," through the unreasoning fear of the workpeople he afterwards made rich. Whitney held in his hand potential wealth beyond calculation, and
the temptation to wrest it from him by force was too much for the human nature of those days.
Whitney graduated from Yale in 1792, having come from Westborough, Mass., where he was born, December 8, 1765. He was studying law in Savannah and living at the home of Mrs. Green, when at her instigation he turned his attention to the cotton cleaning industry. She seems to have had faith in his inventive powers and urged him to make a gin. He made the machine with his own hands, with only an idea for a model, keeping the matter as secret as possible ; yet before it was finished the workshop was broken open and the machine stolen. The story of his life is a part of our history told to every child. He seems to have possessed his soul with
a certain quiet heroism. Convinced at last that no reasonable compensation would ever be made to him for his priceless gift to the nation, he abandoned his invention and turned his at. tention to honest work in other fields. The State of South Carolina granted him $50,000, and North Carolina collected a fee on every machine in the State and paid it over to him as a partial compensation for placing
millions in her lap. It may be thought we would do better by such a man to-day, but it must be kept in mind that the temptation to infringe his patent and to refuse to renew it was perhaps the most tremendous temptation ever placed before the conscience of a people. Perhaps, if our Congress had had the wisdom of France in buying Daguerre's invention and then making it free, the life of one citizen to whom the nation owed so much would have been happier, and the story of Eli Whitney's life would be less sad. He died at New Haven, January 8, 1825, and his name still survives in the town where his factory stood at Whitneyville, Connecticut.
The American is, perhaps, the most cunning of hand in working wood of any man who ever lived. The Swiss wood carver may be more patient with small tools, and elder workmen in Europe more artistic, yet in novelty, variety and profusion of wood-working tools and machines, this inartistic woodman has outdone and outgrown them all. In saw-mills, moulding, planing, paneling and turning machines, American invention
has found a worthy field. It cannot be claimed that all the immense variety of wood-working machines now in use here are of American origin. Some of the machines are older than our history, and among these is the lathe_like the loom, an old, old tool, dating back to the beginnings of work. Many of our machines originated in Europe, and the great multitude of American inventors have only given their attention to improvements and additions.
The wood-turning lathe is older than our era, and has been made for hundreds of years in substantially the same form as now. sists of three essential parts —two points of support for the piece of wood to be turned, one of these causing the wood to turn rapidly, and some means of supporting a cutting tool in such a position as to cut the
1788–1864. wood as it revolves. In the hands of a good workman it will turn any desired form; and the art of turning may be regarded as one of the minor art industries. This tool in the hands of one inventor became a new machine, automatic in action, and performing work that until it appeared seemed wholly impossible. Take the handle of an American axe. A curious piece of wood of most irregular shape. The shape itself is a native inspiration, and when we consider that it is made in a machine the wonder only increases. How could these curving lines be automatically produced in wood? The wooden stock of a gun is even more irregular in form, and yet it comes from the same machine that produces the axe-handle, the wheel-spoke, piano-leg, shoe-last, and hundreds of other wooden tools or appliances.
The accompanying figure represents a side view of Blanchard's lathe for turning irregular forms. It consists of a few essential parts—two sup. porting points that hold the piece of wood to be turned, as in any lathe, a