America's wooden age : aspects of its early technology


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America's wooden age : aspects of its early technology
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Everhard, David L.
College of Architecure, University of Florida
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Gainesville, FL
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Aspects of Its Early Technology.

Brooke Hindle, Editor

Book Analysis
Winter Quarter
History 675-M. Wisely

January 31, 1977

Dave Everhard

Aspects of ts Early Technolofy
Brooke Hindle, Editor

Although it is well known that our forefathers depended

to an astounding degree on the vast forests of the primitive

continent that they were pioneering, we usually think of wood

as being used in log cabins and fireplaces since we are often

subject to the oversimplifications provided by historians in

describing history. Brooke Hindle has attempted in America's

Wooden Age to throw some light on the matter of how early Amer-
icans utilized this forest resource and how this actually devel-

oped into a technology unto itself, a Wooden Technology.

Hindle has collected a series of articles by noted authors

and historians that deal with specific subjects related directly

or indirectly to wooden technology. Some of these articles

attempt to dispel some misconceived notions about their subject,

namely, the articles by Charles Caroll, Louis Hunter and Nathan

Rosenberg. The others are intended to provide information and

illustration about subjects such as the early lumbering industry.

I feel that each article is well-written and illustrated and that

each should be a good source of data on the subject of which the

author wrote.

In the following paragraphs I intend to give a short synopsis

of the specific articles to show the central theme and basic

emphasis of each. It would be interesting to see this book

become a series of books dealing with many more subjects pertin-

ent to the theme of Wooden Technology. Hindle writes in his intro-

duction, "The central importance of the environment of great

forests upon the selection and development of technology and upon

the character of American civilization itself is a great undev-

eloped theme of history (p. 5).

"The Forest Society of New England"
An essay by Charles F. Carroll

Mr. Carroll's article attempts to show that there were
two main phases in the utilization of forest resources by the
first immigrants to this continent. When they first viewed the

forests, they saw the land as being a new Eden, a paradise; but

they soon learned that the forests harbored all kinds of insects,

snakes, and other unnamed fears; they also had to be cleared to

provide room for the planting of crops which was no easy task

in itself. A long period of adjustment finally eased away to a

time when the settlers were at least able to subsist, "and canoes,

like hogs, wooden fences, clapboard houses, blazing wood fires, and

great barns gave evidence of the new forest society that was dev-

eloping in New England" (p. 24).
The second phase of the adaptation to the forest environment

was the period in which the exploitation of the resource began

to take place. After about 1640 when immigration to New England

had slvoed and the settlements had become more stable communities,

the settlers began to recognize that wood could be the one impor-

export item with which they could, in trade, acquire the items

which were so costly for them to import. With the Dutch in Lan-

hattan in 1623 and the Danish in Vaine about l634 came the sawmill

technology that was necessary if the colonists were to exploit

the wood export trade. This was soon done, for example, by devel-

oping markets for white pine boards and oak barrels in the Wine

Islands and elsewhere. Another important export was the trem-
endous fir tree trunks used for masts by the British shipbuilders.

With the trade markets successfully established, lumbering soon

became a major occupation in the colonies for both full-time

work and as supplemental income to landholders with stands of

timber. This source of capital, needless to say, had an impor-
tant effect on the growth of the early economy. Carroll finishes

his essay by saying, "Yet the total system that emerged in New

England-a system that joined the lumbermen of Northern New England-

to the prosperous Massachussetts ports, and the merchants and

craftsmen of those ports, in turn, to the complex social and

economic systems of the British, French, Protugese, and Spanish

Empires-ensured that the settlers, even the most pious Puritans,

would be something other than they started out to be" (p. 35-36).

"America's Rise to Woodworking Leadership"
An essay by Nathan Rosenberg

This article deals with a rather specific time and subject,

which begins with America's dependence on forest resources.

"This dependence provides a central underlying theme of this

essay, concentrating upon the emergence of woodworking machinery

in America between 1800 and the 1850's," states the author (p. 38).

Rosenberg goes on to say that the initial thrust of "resource

utilization" was embodied in the colonists' adoption of the use

of the waterpowered sawmill, a development resisted in England

until the 18th century. Other developments were the patenting

of nail cutting and heading machinery and the invention in the

1830's of the balloon frame which opened a new market of easy,

inexpensive construction and all but eliminated timber framing.

"Early Lumbering: A Pictorial Essay"
Charles E. Petersen

"A picture is as good as a thousand words," so I will not

offer Petersen too much competition here except to say that this

is a good, brief essay about specific data related to the growth

of the lumber industry. His illustrations of the European saw-

mill precedent are especially interesting. This "essay" is

strong on detailed information but a little weak on general

and explanatory information.

"Artisans in Wood:
The Mathematical Instrument Makers"
Silvio A. Bedini

This is an essay dealing with a very specific area of wood

technology and it is interesting for it shows the extent to which

the use of wood pervaded and influenced almost all aspects of

craft and commerce in Colonial America. It deals with the types

of scientific instruments that mathematical instruments makers

made and the woods which they employed to make them, sometimes

as a substitute for more costly, rare metals which they could not

afford to obtain. Some of the types of instruments which were

made were ship's instruments (such as the cross staff, back staff,

quadrant and octant) and surveying equipment (such as the semi-

circumferenter, compendium and the theodolus). Mathematical

Instrument Makers, which sounds like a contrived modern name, is

in fact what these gentlemen were known as, and the author describes

the nature of their trade, the way they advertised, took on

apprentices and became trained as instrument makers. This essay

is basically a factual report about this specific trade (which

died out about 1825) but it points up the fact that this tyne

of information is often taken for granted until it is lost or


"Colonial Jiatermills in the Wooden Age"
Charles Howell

Charles Howell's essay is an essay on the development of

water-power in the colonies. Rather than talk about facts and

figures however, he has written about the specific machinery and

types of rater-powered mills connected with this early industry.

He states that the earliest mills in the country were probably

built as sawmills for although cleared areas for growing grain

was scarce and the need for grist mills was slight, the supply

of timber for lumber was enormous. As the economy grew however

waterpower came to be used in many ways including sawmills, grist

mills and ironworks, and in preparing wool and plant fiber to be

used eventually in water-powered looms. Howell's essay deals with

grist mills in a very specific way.

He begins his essay by describing the development of the use

of water-power in European and Mlediterranean countries with the

development of horizontal mills known as the "Greek" or "Norse"

types. These later developed into "tub wheels" that drove mill

stones on a vertical shaft directly attached to them. These were
simple machines, easily built and suitedAprimitive purposes.

The Vertical water wheel, where the wheel is upright and the

shaft horizontal, is more complex and necessarily involves

gearing and linkages to operate the horizontal millstones, but

they are more efficient and can be much larger and more powerful.

Some types of vertical water sheels he describes are the overshot,

pitchback, breastshot and undershot. Part of this essay's strength

is that he connects an excellent explanation with pertinent illus-

trations tc develop a full description of grist mill machinery

and its operation that includes materials.used, hydraulics,

gearing, millstone types and the construction of the different

types. It is, needless to say, an excellent source for infor-

mation, illustration and history of watermill information.

"Waterpower in the Century of the Steam Engine"
Louis C. Hunter

This is probably the most thought provoking essay. in this

set of articles. It deals with the advent of the Industrial Rev-

olution and the role of water power in the emergence of the

United States as an industrial leader. Hunter's first sentence

states the point he attempts to prove, "The role of steam power

in early industrialization has been exaggerated and the reasons

for its preeminence misunderstood. The traditional explanation

for its rise to preeminence-mobility, flexibility in capacity,

and all seasons reliability-are projections of later experience ;

upon the past and have limited relevance in many situations?

(p. 160). This misunderstanding is based on two incorrect assump-

tions, one, that British experience was the world's model for

industrialization and, two, that waterpower became a secondary

or backward source of porer after Watt revolutionized industry

by developing the steam engine. p. 160). The author's thesis is,

however, that industrialization was spreading long before the steam

engine was available or dependable enough to begin to be used

on a large scale. Consequently, waterpower (in mills) was the

main source of power in the beginning of the Industrial Rev-

olution. The nature of water power and its connection to Wooden

Technology makes this discussion very relevent to the central

theme of this book. It also raises the question of the inter-

pretation of history that we receive from historians. Hunter

stated, "The Victorian view of the revolutionary role of steam-

power, not without its measure of validity, has been accepted by

historians almost without challenge. This has been especially

true of those broad-gauge interpretations so influential with

the general audience in which the subtler shades of interpretation

are avoided for the sake of brevity" (p. 162).

The author develops a convincing argument in his ensuing essay.

Basic to this argument is the understanding of the difference :.

between England and the United States at the time of the Indus-

trial Revolution. He shows that the generally accepted view of

the United States following the English model of industrialization

is not really relevant. England was an insular country, dense in

population, and with established roads, river systems and market,

and had, at most times, an abundance of labor and capital, but

these things were basically untrue of the U.S. at the time. In

some urban areas steampower was the only source of power avail-

able, but in general only urban areas had the sources of capital,

labor and market which could make steampower feasible. In non-

urban areas, waterpower was the only source which required little

manpower, had a low initial cost and required little to maintain.

It was, subsequently, the major source of power for the U.S. up

until 1860 or 1870, seventy-five years after the introduction of

the steam engine by Boulton and Natt.

This is a summary of Hunter's essay that does not really

do justice to the complete evidence of his article. It is a fine

article which shows the nature of history to be little grayer than

the black and white which the human mind often tries to see it as.