Digital History

The Roots of American Economic Growth

Resistance to Technological Innovation Previous Next
Digital History ID 3512



At the beginning of the 19th century, a lack of skilled mechanics, an inadequate system of higher education, and widespread resistance to technological innovation hampered economic progress. The United States lagged far behind Europe in the practical application of science and technology. There was probably just one steam engine in regular operation in the United States in 1800, one hundred years after simple engines had first been used in Europe. Ten years after the first cotton mill opened in the United States in 1791, only eight cotton mills operated in the country. Inventors, like Oliver Evans, designer of an early locomotive, and John Fitch, creator of the first American steamboat, failed because they were unable to finance their projects or persuade the public to use their inventions.

The lack of skilled mechanics presented a particularly severe barrier to innovation. In 1805, when Robert Fulton wanted to build a torpedo, he could find only one mechanic in New York who could follow his plans, a Frenchman who spoke virtually no English. Two years later, when he needed an engine to propel the Clermont up the Hudson River, he had to import a steam engine from England, since American craftsmen could not construct such a complicated machine.

The inadequate state of higher education also slowed technological innovation. At the beginning of the 19th century, Harvard, the nation's most famous college, graduated just 39 men a year, no more than it had graduated in 1720. Harvard's entire undergraduate faculty consisted of the college president, a professor of theology, a professor of mathematics, a professor of Hebrew, and four tutors. All the nation's libraries put together contained barely 50,000 volumes. Noah Webster, author of the nation's first dictionary, admitted grudgingly: "Our learning is superficial in shameful degree ... our colleges are disgracefully destitute of books and philosophical apparatus."

Even in educated circles, resistance to technological change was widespread--despite the well-known and widely publicized experiments of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. At the end of the 18th century, Jedidiah Morse, a graduate of Yale College and pastor of a church near Boston, gave pointed expression to the widespread hostility toward change. "Let us guard against the insidious encroachments of innovation," he wrote, "the evil and beguiling spirit which is now stalking to and fro through the earth, seeking how he may destroy."

By the 1820s, however, the United States had largely overcome resistance to technological innovation. When Friedrich List, a German traveler, visited the United States in the 1820s, he was astonished by the amount of public interest in technology. "Everything new is quickly introduced here," List wrote. "There is no clinging to old ways; the moment an American hears the word `invention' he pricks up his ears."

How had Americans overcome resistance to technological innovation? The answer lies in the efforts of literally hundreds of inventors, tinkerers, and amateur scientists, who transformed European ideas into practical technologies. Their inventions inspired in Americans a boundless faith in technology. Early American technology was pioneered largely by self-taught amateurs, whose zeal and self-assurance led them to create inventions that trained European scientists did not attempt.

As early as the 1720s, it was known that electricity could be conducted along a wire to convey messages, but it was not until 1844 that an American artist and inventor named Samuel F. B. Morse demonstrated the practicality of the telegraph and devised a workable code for sending messages. A Frenchman built the first working steamship in 1783, but it was 24 years later that Robert Fulton, an American, produced the first commercially successful steamship. Eighteenth-century Europeans knew that ether would induce unconsciousness, but it was not until 1842 that a Georgia surgeon named Crawford Long used ether as an anesthetic. The first real steam engine was invented by an Englishman in 1699, but it was an American named Oliver Evans who in 1805 produced a light and powerful steam engine with high-pressure cylinders.

During the mid-eighteenth century, an Englishman had devised plans for a submarine, but in 1776, an American, David Bushnell, built the first workable submarine--a one-man, hand-crank powered vessel called the Turtle, which attempted to fasten an explosive charge on the hull of the British ship the Eagle. Mechanical clocks could be found in the late middle ages, but it was an American, Eli Terry, who found a way to mass produce wooden clocks around 1800.

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