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Home | Library | Inventive Progress, Part 2

Inventive Progress, Part 2

March 10, 2010

Tags Free MarketsWorld HistoryEntrepreneurshipPrivate Property

[Excerpted from chapter 18 of The Mainspring of Human Progress (1953), this article is part two of a two-part series. Part 1 can be found here.]

For thousands of years under the Old World concept of a static economy operating under bureaucratic control, human beings lived in hunger, filth, and disease. They worked ceaselessly at backbreaking drudgery to keep life in wretched bodies. They died young. For thousands of years, when not fighting wars, they managed to build pigsty shelters, to sow grain, cook meat, yoke oxen, and chain slaves to mills and oars.

Then in this New World, in a brief period of 160 years, Americans created an entirely different mode of life, with improvements and advances in the scale of living beyond the utmost imaginings of all preceding ages. Americans have disproved the pagan superstition of a static universe and have given a new meaning to the word progress.

If our progress is to continue, it is important that we do not forget the things which have brought us thus far.

Economists and statisticians are inclined to take the end of the Civil War as the milepost marking the beginning of America's first great era of accelerated progress. In terms of the increased output and higher standard of living that is true, but the seeds of that progress had been sown by the preceding generations.

Most of the things we have today are traceable, directly or indirectly, to what was going on in the minds of those who were blazing trails 100 and 150 years ago. That's when the basic foundations were being laid, and it is doubtful that there has ever been a time when human energy and original, independent, creative thinking were so intense and so well directed as in the years immediately following the Revolutionary War.

Elusive Lag

In the progress of a nation, just as in the decline of a nation, there is always a lag between cause and effect. This is an extremely important point, and failure to recognize it seems to account for most of the mistakes and misery of mankind down through the ages. Progress, or lack of progress, at any given time depends on what was happening in the minds of men and women at some previous time. The histories of Greece, Rome, and Spain afford abundant evidence.

Looking to the future instead of to the past, America's progress in the years ahead depends on the American thinking of today. The long-range prospects depend, not on us older folks, but on the thinking of the younger people who will be at the helm 10 years, 20 years, 30, 40, 50 years hence.

As individuals, what is their outlook on life? Are they fatalistic or self-reliant? What is the influence of the home, and how does it compare with that of 50 and 100 years ago? What's going on in the schoolroom? What is the philosophy of our educators and of men in public office?

One of the best ways to insure future progress is to keep clearly in mind the things which have been responsible for our past progress, as well as the things which may have kept America from being as great as it might have been.

This chapter is supposed to deal with inventive progress as affecting our economic growth and our high scale of living. And yet I'm not sure that I should apologize for this digression because it all comes back to the effective use of human energy, and the effective use of human energy depends on the mental and moral outlook of the individual persons who make up a society.

Parallel Efforts

As already indicated, it is difficult to trace the "genealogy" of any invention or discovery, and any attempt to do so is accompanied by the danger of omissions and inaccuracies.

Economic needs have a way of permeating society. It is a commonplace in the history of invention to find minds far distant from one another in time and space wrestling with the same problems — working independently but producing results that are roughly identical.

Rarely does anything spring full-blown. Progress advances by degrees, each improvement paving the way for the next, and since the advent of the printing press and the growth of scientific societies, the benefits of the independent efforts have pyramided on one another to an increasing degree and at an accelerated rate.

The more complicated the product, the harder it is to trace the genesis of its development. To tell the story of the steam engine, for example, would take a sizeable volume, with a "begat" chapter as long as the Book of Chronicles.

James Watt is usually thought of as its inventor, and it is true that Watt, more than any other individual, was responsible for the type of engine which ushered in the modern age of power. He introduced the condenser principle and translated reciprocating motion into rotary motion. But steam engines of a crude variety had been used to pump water out of English coal mines before James Watt was born.

As a matter of fact, the principle of the steam engine had been understood back in the days of ancient Greece; and we know that in Alexandria, Egypt, a man named Hero built a steam turbine in the year 130 B.C. But an invention, like a natural resource, doesn't amount to much unless and until something is done about it.

It always takes time to bring an embryonic idea to its full fruition — and the unavoidable lag is often prolonged by well-meaning people who still cling to the pagan concept of a static universe.

The Steamboat

A boat propelled by steam was launched on European waters in the year 1707. It was built by the French scientist Denis Papin, who was living in Germany at the time. He made a successful voyage down the Fulda River. But at the town of Munden, he was attacked by an organized gang of boatmen.

His new contraption was destroyed, and Papin barely escaped with his life. Thus, the pressure groups, through the use of violence, retarded the development of steam propulsion for almost a century. It was in 1807, just an even 100 years after Denis Papin had run afoul of the river gangsters, that Fulton's Clermont made its maiden trip from New York to Albany.

Robert Fulton is usually thought of as the inventor of the first American steamboat, but he was more of a promoter than an inventor. No less than 16 steamboats had been built and operated in this country before the launching of the Claremont.

Before Fulton

The half-forgotten genius John Fitch, of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, built a steamboat in 1786; and during the following ten years, with the aid of Harry Voight and others, he built five additional steamboats — all of them successful and each one better than its predecessor.

Fifteen years ahead of Fulton's Clermont, Fitch's fourth boat, the Persaverence, was operating on a daily schedule up and down the Delaware, carrying passengers between Philadelphia and Trenton, New Jersey. But unlike Fulton, John Fitch was a poor promoter, and he was too engrossed in his work to bother about the political angles.

Then there was the able engineer, Col. John Stevens, who launched his first boat in 1802. His third boat, the Phoenix — completed simultaneously with the Clermont — was equipped with an improved engine, designed and built by Colonel Stevens himself, whereas the Clermont's engine was imported from England.

But Stevens was at a disadvantage because Fulton's backer, Chancellor Livingston, through political pull, had obtained a twenty-year monopoly on the operations of steamboats in and around New York State. Also, it seems that Nicholas Roosevelt, a former associate of Stevens, had thrown his support to Fulton's group.

At any rate, the monopolistic setup was too much for Stevens to buck. So while the Clermont was chugging its way up the peaceful Hudson, the Colonel braved the waters of the Atlantic and took his new boat from Hoboken to Philadelphia — the first ocean voyage ever made under steam power.

Livingston and Roosevelt tried to extend their monopoly over the entire United States; but the newly freed Americans didn't like the idea of governmental restraint — in less than a generation, independent operators had covered the western waters with steamboats of their own contrivance. In the meantime, the dynamic New World had challenged the static Old World by making the first ocean crossing in a boat powered by steam. It was the good ship Savannah, which crossed to Cork, Ireland, in the year 1818.

Little Things

The demand for houses following the Revolutionary War was as great or greater than it was following World War II.

Lumber was plentiful; the bottleneck was nails. Iron nails had been in use in the Roman Empire at the time of Christ, but they had always been laboriously made by hand; the forging of nails for the building of a house took about as much time as the construction of the house itself. Legend has it that in colonial days old houses were deliberately burned to the ground and the ashes sifted in order to salvage the hand-wrought nails.

"Economic needs have a way of permeating society. It is a commonplace in the history of invention to find minds far distant from one another in time and space wrestling with the same problems — working independently but producing results that are roughly identical."

Nails sold by the dozen, at prices not much lower than they now bring in antique shops. Thomas Jefferson kept a dozen slaves busy forging nails just to keep up with the building activities on his Monticello estate. But this was all changed when, in 1795, Jacob Perkins of Newburyport, Massachusetts, developed a machine that would turn out sixty thousand nails a week.

The history of nails is paralleled by that of many other ordinary household items which today are bought at the nearest dime store without a second thought.

The thrifty colonial housewife could have told you without a moment's hesitation just how many pins, needles, and buttons she had in her sewing basket; the head of the house carried a mental inventory covering his meager stock of nails, tacks, screws, and scraps of metal.

Brass buttons sold for ten cents each until Paul Revere, in 1801, worked out a machine that would roll brass of uniform thickness. Then the button manufacturers of Waterbury, Connecticut, began stamping out buttons on presses operated by a water wheel.

Pins and needles were especially treasured. They were larger than those in common use today and far more expensive — especially pins, as the heads were made separately and welded or brazed in place. Selling pins "by the paper" didn't come into practice until 1844, when a small manufacturer in Derby, Connecticut, worked out a way to produce them entirely by machine at the rate of two million a week.

Up to that time, ordinary pins sold for as much as 20 cents each and were looked upon as appropriate gifts for weddings and at Christmas time. They also took the place of small change to supplement barter between neighboring families — which, incidentally, is the origin of the phrase pin money.

Far-reaching Effects

As in the case of the cotton gin, it is almost impossible to measure the value of any useful invention. The dollar volume of the increased industrial production is only a part of the story and may be greatly exceeded by the gains in human efficiency. Consider the effect of steamships, railroads, telephones, automobiles, airplanes, etc., in releasing time and energy for other purposes. Or, to take a less spectacular example, imagine the time wasted by the colonial housewife in searching for one of her 20-cent pins.

Consider the saving in time and human energy and the thousand-and-one improvements in living that we owe to electricity. Its story is so involved and so far-reaching that it would take a whole book to develop it — even if I had the necessary knowledge and talent for calculations of such astronomical proportions.

But here's just one example, a rather simple example — certainly less spectacular than either electricity or steam power. It has to do with plows.

Plows had been in use since the dawn of history, but they had remained practically unchanged down through thousands of years. At the time of the American Revolution, they were still being made from the prongs of trees, sometimes with a bit of metal fastened to the tip.

It was not the type of problem that appealed to the highbrow scientist. Tilling the soil had always been left to peasants and slaves, so why worry? But in the New World where men were free, a vast agricultural empire was opened up as a result of American ingenuity applied to the improvement of this ancient tool.

In colonial days, the vast Midwestern prairie lands and a good part of the Mississippi Valley were looked upon as worthless. Early visitors spoke of the sweeping plains as a "land ocean" that would forever remain wild and uncultivated.

Several Reasons

This conclusion was not without a reason. In fact, it was based on several reasons.

The prairie country, in contrast to the eastern area, was not covered with forests; and although cutting down trees and clearing land had been the bane of their existence, the pioneer settlers looked with suspicion on any land that didn't have to be cleared. They reasoned that if it wouldn't grow trees, it just couldn't be of any value for growing crops.

The prairies were covered by a tough, primeval sod. When this sod was dry, the ordinary plow wouldn't cut through, and when it was softened by rain, the rich loam underneath was so sticky that it clung to the plow blade. The fertile soil of the river valleys was described as "too thick to drink and too thin to plow."

Cast-iron plows had been tried, but without much success. They wouldn't "scour." They were too heavy to handle. And there was an age-old superstition that a plow made of metal would poison the crops.

But John Deere, a Yankee blacksmith who migrated from Vermont to the Mississippi Valley, was not so skeptical. Instead of using iron, he made a plow out of the very finest steel then available. From an old buzz saw disc, he trimmed out the required parts, and on patterns carved from a log, he carefully pounded the sheets into the proper shapes and bolted them to a well-constructed hardwood frame.

When you come right down to it, John Deere's plow could hardly be called an invention. About all he did was to find a new use for an old material and to carry out his ideas in a thoroughly workmanlike manner.[1]

But John Deere's plow cut through the sod like a razor, and the sticky loam slid off the plowshare like butter sliding off a hot knife. True, it was heavier than its wooden predecessor; but John Deere was a giant of a man, and he trudged across the prairie lands with his new-fangled plow thrown over his shoulder, just to overcome the weight argument.

And after John Deere had a few seasons of increasingly good crops, the realistic, free-minded settlers cast aside the superstition that metal would poison the soil, and the prairie country was on the boom.

Just Reward

A big industry grew out of John Deere's simple invention, and a number of other industries followed in its wake because binders, reapers, tractors, and other advanced types of farm machinery were developed as a natural result of his having found a way to plow the prairie sod.

Millions of acres of the most productive soil in the world were brought into use. Prosperous towns and cities sprang up in the vast prairie "wastelands"; and John Deere's plow, along with the more intricate inventions of Cyrus McCormick and others, opened up similar opportunities for increased agricultural production in all parts of the world — including the Russian Ukraine.

It staggers the imagination to think how John Deere's simple contribution increased the wealth of mankind. Perhaps it would have come without freedom to invent and freedom to share in the rewards of inventive efforts; but there's no escaping the fact that plows had remained practically unchanged down through the ages, while the peoples of the world were going hungry.

"Perhaps it's fortunate that in the days of John Deere, the major emphasis was on increasing wealth, rather than on how it should be divided."

I don't know how much money John Deere made as a result of finding a way to plow the rich prairie lands. I doubt if he got any more than he deserved — although I wouldn't attempt to say how much he was entitled to get, nor would I know how to go about estimating it.

I guess one way to do it would be on the basis of how many hours it took him to think up the idea and to develop the experimental model. The trouble is that inventive genius doesn't operate on an hourly basis. More often than not, worthwhile ideas come in leisure moments, as a result of an interest in the job that extends beyond working hours.

From all I can gather, John Deere had been turning the problem over in his mind for about a year before he hit on the solution. But a year's pay would hardly be enough — even if you figure it on a portal-to-portal basis, at maximum ceiling rates, and triple time for overtime.

Then too, it's quite possible that John Deere may have followed some false leads and spent time on other ideas that didn't "pay off." It might be that some of these futile efforts were the steppingstones which led him to a solution of the plowing problem. But no matter how liberally we might deal with him on an hourly basis, there would be the danger of shortchanging John Deere — and I want no part of it!

Ability to Pay

So let's take another approach and go at it from the standpoint of "ability to pay." Since Deere's sodbuster turned worthless land into highly valuable land, one might argue that he was entitled to a rather liberal percentage of the increased wealth. This might be arrived at by calculating the before and after value of the vast Mississippi Valley — including the fertile farmlands of Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Dakotas, to say nothing of the Russian Ukraine.

Roughly speaking, this represents the area that Jefferson bought from Napoleon for $15,000,000, but when this land was brought under cultivation, the value increased to about $20,000,000,000, which would mean an added wealth of $19,885,000,000.

But that doesn't throw any light on what John Deere's share should have been because it took the cooperative efforts of millions of free men during several generations to provide the follow-through and to get the job done.

True, John Deere played an important part in getting things started; but I'm using his name more as a symbol, and much of the credit belongs to Cyrus McCormick, James Oliver, and other inventors — none of whom could have gotten very far without the help of still others who supported their efforts. These included those who put up the money to build the factories and equip them with tools; those who used the tools; those who helped to develop new and better tools; those who worked out new and better methods for using the new and better tools; those who contributed to management, distribution, and service; and last but not least, the up-and-coming farmers who were willing to take a chance — to leave their comfortable homes in the East, and risk their money and their lives to open up a vast new country. I don't know of anyone who would be smart enough to figure their various shares of the increased wealth.

A Tough Problem

It's a tough problem any way you look at it. I guess the only way to solve it is the way it actually was done — through a free and unhampered balancing out of the incentives and the rewards among the various individuals who played a part. Perhaps it's fortunate that in the days of John Deere, the major emphasis was on increasing wealth, rather than on how it should be divided.

Too much stress on how it should be divided might easily have reduced the amount to be divided because it would have taken more people to do the figuring than to do the job. But that's really getting off the subject; I'm merely trying to emphasize the wealth producing possibilities of new ideas.

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No matter how much money John Deere may have made, it would be insignificant in comparison with the tremendous overall benefits shared by millions of people. And it's just possible that good old John Deere wouldn't have bothered his head about the plowing problem if he hadn't been living in a free country, where an ambitious blacksmith had a chance to become a prosperous manufacturer. Free minds are inventive minds. That is why America has always been a land of inventors.

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Notes

[1] Years ago, someone down on the farm told me that John Deere invented the knife-edge wheel which runs ahead of the plowshare and makes an incision for it to follow. But that's not true. The rolling colter was in use before the time of John Deere, and his plow wasn't even equipped with one. Indeed, it would be difficult to prove that there was anything entirely original in John Deere's plow. The efforts of other Americans, directed along similar lines, paralleled and even preceded those of Deere. When I ran into these disconcerting facts, I started to throw out the story. Then I thought that perhaps they made it an even better story because it illustrates the very important point that human progress doesn't depend so much on flashes of genius as on the person who does a bang-up job of carrying out his own ideas or the ideas of others. While I am using John Deere's name primarily as a symbol, there can be little argument that he, more than anyone else, was the man who got things started in the prairie "wastelands."


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