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[Detail] Preface from Punchinello 1, no.1 (1870).

Invention and Industrialization

The late 1800s were a period marked by industrialization and invention in both the United States and Europe. In 1869, the French, under the leadership of Ferdinand de Lesseps, had completed the Suez Canal between the Mediterranean and Red Seas. Punchinello lampooned de Lesseps and canal building in its May 21, 1870, issue. The article examined the building of the "Cape Cod Canal," which would produce yearly tolls of $80 to $90:

. . . The Canal will be nearly four miles in length, and will be made of a uniform width of four feet, with a depth of two. This gigantic undertaking will of course cost an immense amount of time and money, but under the able supervision of Elkanaii Hopkins, the gifted engineer who constructed the board-walk in front of Deacon Brewster's house, at Standish Four Corners, there can be no doubt of its success. Advantage will be taken of the duck-pond of Captain Jehoiakim Brown, which is situated in the course of the proposed canal. By leading the Canal directly through this pond, at least a quarter of a mile of excavation will be avoided. M. De Lesseps is known to have decided upon making a similar use of the Bitter Lakes in the construction of his Suez ditch, after having seen Elkanaii Hopkins' plans for our great Cape Cod Canal.

From "The Great Canal Enterprise," Punchinello, Volume 1, Issue 8, May 21, 1870, page 115

For more serious articles on the building of an inter-oceanic canal, conduct a keyword search using such search terms as de Lesseps, Nicaragua Canal, Panama Canal, or names of treaties associated with diplomatic negotiations regarding a canal (e.g., Clayton-Bulwer and Hay-Pauncefote).

One of the most prolific inventors of the period was Thomas Edison, who received his first patent in 1869. In 1874, Western Union paid enough for his quadruplex telegraph to allow him to start his Menlo Park, New Jersey, research laboratory. Numerous articles in the collection (accessible using the search term Thomas Edison) discuss several of Edison's inventions. In addition, Scribners Monthly published a profile of Edison in November 1878. Read the profile, in which author William H. Bishop wrote that the inventive impulse has "a moral side, a stirring, optimistic inspiration. . . . We feel that there may, after all, be a relief for all human ills in the great storehouse of nature. . . . There is an especial appropriateness, perhaps, in its occurring in a time of more than usual discontent."

  • To you, what is most notable about Edison and his work?
  • How do you respond to Bishop's assessment of invention? Look through several issues of Manufacturer and Builder or Scientific American, both of which contained many articles about new technologies. What evidence can you find that others shared Bishop's view of invention?
  • Do you think this attitude toward invention was peculiar to the period of intense technological innovation that occurred in the late 1800s? Or do you think it is more persistent? Explain your answer.