Inventions and Discoveries
the infancy of the United States, Americans imitated and adopted British
inventions and technology. As American political and economic power
grew in the mid-nineteenth century, the impact of each country's technology
on the other began to be mutual. After the United States became the
dominant world power in the twentieth century, American science and
technology deeply affected many areas of British life.
James Watt's invention of the steam engine in Britain toward
the end of the eighteenth century launched the Industrial Revolution;
Americans were quick to adopt Watt's new technology by applying steam
power to water transportation and by modifying British steam-powered
vehicles like the locomotive to the American environment. During these
early years of the American republic, British technology was copied
in countless areas: bridge design and building, canal building, and
textile manufacturing, to name a few.
American technology established its first foothold in Britain
after London's Great Exhibition of 1851, when the McCormick reaper,
the Colt revolver, and Day and Newell's patent locks found customers
in the mother country. It was also during this decade that the Singer
sewing machine made major inroads in the British market.
After the American Civil War there was a reciprocal exchange
of technology; the United States received from Britain such major innovations
as the Bessemer converter, and Britain received from America inventions
such as the telephone, courtesy of a transplanted Scot, Alexander Graham
In the twentieth century American technology became a dominant
feature in major sectors of British life: mass production methods pioneered
by Henry Ford, manned flight, skyscrapers, and computers, to name a
few. In areas such as pure science, a great deal of reciprocity continued,
as, for example, in the discovery of DNA by the British-American team
of James Watson and Francis Crick.
Sketch of Steamboat,
Ink and pencil.
Library of Congress (133)
The Steam Boat
The idea of using steam power to propel
boats occurred to American inventors soon after the potential
of Watt's new engine became known. John Fitch (1743-1798)
is generally conceded to have been the United States's
pioneer in steam navigation. He successfully launched
and operated a steam powered vessel on the Delaware River
on August 22, 1787, in the presence of members of the
Constitutional Convention. Here is one of Fitch's early
sketches of a steam boat.
The St. Louis Bridge
The famous iron arch bridge, spanning
the Mississippi River at St. Louis, is often called the
Eads Bridge in honor of James B. Eads (1820-1889), who
designed it in 1867 and saw it through to completion in
1874. When challenged about the practicality of his design,
Eads cited Telford's London bridge design of 1800.
The Great Centennial Exhibition
Critically Described and Illustrated.
Philadelphia: P. W. Ziegler & Co., 1876.
Illustration facing p. 409.
General Collections, Library of Congress (135)
Benjamin Henry Latrobe.
Design for the Washington Canal,
Prints and Photographs
Division, Library of Congress (137)
The Washington Canal
Here is one of Benjamin Henry Latrobe's
designs for the Washington Canal. Latrobe (1764-1820)
learned the techniques of canal building in England from
engineer, John Smeaton (1724-1792). After immigrating
to the United States in 1796, Latrobe was involved in
numerous canal building and water supply projects. He
worked on the designs for the canal during the period
that he was Surveyor of Public Buildings in Washington
from 1803 to 1812.
The Introduction of Railroads
George Stephenson's (1781-1848) construction, in the north
of England, of his first locomotive was in 1814; his first
successful run was in 1825. Shortly thereafter, Americans
were building railroads in imitation of the British and
made numerous innovations on British locomotives, such
as Jervis' "bogie," a device that allowed the engine's
front wheels to swivel and negotiate steep, winding tracks.
Report on Canals, Railways,
Roads and other Projects, Made to the Pennsylvania Society
for the Promotion of Internal Improvements.
Philadelphia: H.C. Carey and I. Lea, 1826.
and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress
In 1830 an American, Joseph Henry (1797-1878), demonstrated
the potential of Sturgeon's device for long distance communication
by sending an electronic current over one mile of wire
to activate an electromagnet which caused a bell to strike.
Thus the electric telegraph was born. Samuel F.B. Morse
(1791-1872), whose sketches of a "magnetized magnet" in
operation are shown here, successfully exploited Henry's
Samuel F.B. Morse.
Railway Signal Telegraph,
Library of Congress (143a,b)
"Gems of the Crystal Palace,
No. 1, The Exterior."
London: George Baxter, 1854.
Prints and Photographs
Division, Library of Congress (143A)
The Crystal Palace, 1851
On May 1, 1851, Queen Victoria opened
the Great Exhibition of Works of Industry of All Nations
in London's Hyde Park. The first world's fair, the exhibition
brought together the best manufactured products of seventy-seven
nations. The building in which it was held, nicked-named
the "Crystal Palace," was itself a technological marvel
of iron and glass devised by Joseph Paxton. More than
six million people from many nations visited the exhibition
during its five and a half-month run.
American Display at the Exhibition
The American Pavilion, which featured large numbers of inventions
and improvements in agricultural machinery, was at first
criticized by the British press. However, certain products,
including Colt's revolver, McCormick's reaper, and Day
and Newell's patent lock changed British opinion and demonstrated
the U.S. potential for becoming a leading industrial power.
Rising in the pavilion's center was a trophy of vulcanized
rubber by the Goodyear Rubber Company.
"America," from Dickinson's
Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851, . . .
London: Dickinson Brothers, 1854.
Modern Collections, The
British Library (144b)
Nagel and Weingartner.
"New York Crystal Palace for
the Exhibit of the Industry of all Nations."
New York: Goupil & Co., ca. 1852.
Prints and Photographs
Division, Library of Congress (145A)
The New York Crystal Palace, 1853
A striking example of the American propensity
to imitate British models, the New York Exhibition of
1853 was inspired by and attempted to replicate the London
event of two years earlier. It was housed in a building
that aspired to copy in so far as possible the London
Crystal Palace. Though advertised as an exhibition of
"science, art, and industry," the New York Exhibition
appeared to emphasize the arts to a greater degree than
its London counterpart.
"You're Beat Downright"
In this cartoon a post-mortem is being held on the Great Exhibition
of London of 1851 between Britons, represented as John
Bull, and Americans. The Yankees are boasting and the
British are lamenting that American entries took the prizes
in agricultural implements at the Exhibition (a McCormick
reaper is at the far right). A Briton consoles himself
that "these Americans are bone of our bone, and the origin
of their genius is British."
"The Great Exhibition of 1851."
New York, NY: Currier and Ives, n.d.
Prints and Photographs
Division, Library of Congress (147)
Eighth Wonder of the World: The Atlantic Cable."
New York: Kimmel and Foster,
Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (149)
The Atlantic Cable
The Atlantic cable, promoted by American
entrepreneur, Cyrus Field (1819-1892), was a major Anglo-American
enterprise that led to closer relations between Britain
and the United States. Between 1857 and 1866 five expeditions
attempted to span the Atlantic with a cable. A cable was
successfully laid in 1858, but operated for only a month.
Efforts were resumed after the American Civil War and
in 1866 success was achieved; Field rejoiced that it was
like "clasping hands across the sea."
Invented by Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922),
a Scottish immigrant to America, the telephone revolutionized
communications throughout the United States, Britain,
and the world. Here are Bell's notes of a conversation
with his assistant, Thomas Watson, in October 1876 in
which the two men express satisfaction with the improvements
achieved in voice communication since Bell's initial success
the preceding March. "It is the best I ever heard," Bell
exultantly told Watson.
Alexander Graham Bell.
Sketch of Telephone, October,
Library of Congress (150)
"The Type-Writer" advertisement.
The Nation, December 16, 1875, p. xviii.
The typewriter was another product of
American technological ingenuity that attained widespread
use in Britain after the Civil War. Invented immediately
after that conflict, the typewriter was converted into
a commercial success by the Remington Company and by 1890
"the machine began to occupy an important place in the
British commercial world." The paper in the typewriter
seen in this advertisement contains a quotation from Shakespeare's
"Making Bessemer Steel at Pittsburgh,
the Converters at Work."
April 10, 1886,
Prints and Photographs
Division, Library of Congress (153)
The Bessemer Converter
In the mid 1850s the English inventor
Henry Bessemer (1813-1898) patented a process for cheaply
and rapidly converting pig iron into steel, thus further
accelerating the Industrial Revolution. During the Civil
War, an American, Alexander Lyman Holley (1832-1882),
redesigned the Bessemer process, increasing its efficiency
and laying the foundation for the swift growth of the
American steel industry under the leadership of entrepreneurs
like Andrew Carnegie.
This cartoon of Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) as the "Macmillion"
in a kilt made of the American flag was drawn in 1901,
after the Scottish immigrant to the United States had
made his fortune in the steel industry, using the Bessemer
process. Pictured here endowing four universities in his
native Scotland, Carnegie was one of the great philanthropists
of all time, creating in the United States a network of
local, public libraries among his other benefactions.
May 29, 1901,
"Edison's Greatest Marvel The
New York: Metropolitan Print Company, for Raff and Gorman,
Prints and Photographs
Division, Library of Congress (155)
The motion picture was another technology
in which the United States achieved dominance in the British
market during the course of the twentieth century. There
were two decisive steps in the creation of the modern
motion picture: the transition from the "peep show" to
the projection of images over a distance, accomplished
in the 1890s by Thomas A. Edison's (1847-1931) Vitascope;
and the talking picture, introduced in the American movie
the Jazz Singer in 1927.
In the twentieth century the United States achieved technological
leadership in certain areas that rivaled British technological
dominance early in the 19th century. One area in which
the United States took the lead was manned flight. Here
is Orville Wright's diary entry of December 17, 1903,
describing the first successful manned flight at Kitty
Hawk, North Carolina. Orville Wright (1871-1948) was at
the controls of the flight, lying prone on the lower wing
of the aircraft.
This image is not available online.
December 17, 1903.
Library of Congress (156A)
Letter to Orville Wright,
April 1, 1941.
Library of Congress (157b)
The Wright Flyer in London
Orville Wright sent his first successful
plane to the Science Museum in London after a disagreement
with the administration of the Smithsonian Institution.
The director of the Science Museum, J.B. Davy, during
World War II, wrote to Orville Wright, assuring him that
the plane was safe from German aerial bombardment. In
1948, at Wright's request, the plane was returned to the
United States and put on display at the Smithsonian Institution.
Beach Road Project, Singapore,
Prints and Photographs
Division, Library of Congress (161)
Skyscrapers are another distinctive American
contribution to twentieth century technology that have
become features of the British landscape. Seen here is
a prospective study of the Beach Road Project in Singapore
by the distinguished American architect, Paul Rudolph
(1918-1997). Rudolph's pupils, including Sir Norman Foster
(b. 1935) and Richard Rogers (b. 1933), have built prize-winning
skyscrapers in Great Britain.
Following in the tradition of Babbage,
the American Herman Hollerith (1860-1929) developed electronic
"tabulating" machines which could process large amounts
of data by a system of punching cards. Hollerith's machines
proved themselves in expediting the compilation of census
data in 1890 and 1900. Shown are instructions for the
operation of Hollerith's machine, a punch card, and a
key plate through which a punch perforated the cards.
Hollerith later worked for IBM.
Punch card, key plate, and
Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (163)
John von Neumann.
ENIAC flow diagram for AEL-ENIAC,
December 18, 1950.
Library of Congress (164)
Immediately after World War II the United
States began developing "super computers," machines capable
of processing massive amounts of information at high speeds.
Initially developed for military applications, these computers
allowed the United States to establish technological dominance
in this vital field. Here is a flow diagram, devised in
1950 by John von Neumann (1903-1957) for the ENIAC (Electronic
Numerical Integrator and Computer), one of the early American
The structure of the DNA molecule was
one of the finest examples of cooperation between British
and American scientists. American, James Watson (b. 1928)
and Englishman, Francis Crick (b. 1916) and published
their discovery in 1953, and received the Nobel Prize
in 1962 for their achievement.
The Library does not have permissions to display this image online.
"Molecular Biologist: Watson and Crick."
Time, March 29, 1999,
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