American Progress painted by John Gast - Westward Expansion

Connections Through Time– Part IV. Across To America

The rapid technical revolution in iron working will change America forever.


Manifest Destiny

Prescient to the rapid technical revolution that was coming to America, on November 18, 1847, new light shone forth above the Capitol City. A giant 6 foot diameter glass and gilded iron gas lantern—known as Crutchett’s lantern “rising on a 92 foot mast over the United States Capitol dome[1]. Washington Gas had built network[2] of cast iron pipes authorized by Congress. Over 800 cast iron lanterns[3] illuminated the city of Washington and The White House. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad had opened service August 25, 1835, and, the nation’s first telegraph followed the B & O’s right-of-way in 1844. In May 1854, the Capitol dome itself would be replaced with a cast iron[4] structure using 6400 tons of iron.



U S Capitol 1850 With Glass Dome
U S Capitol 1850 With Glass Dome


Alexander Hamilton wrote to Congress in his December 5, 1791, Report On Manufactures specially noted how the Nation’s important iron and steel works would be. He opened his report writing, “The expediency of encouraging manufactures in the United States, which not long ago since deemed very questionable, appears at this time generally admitted.” Of the American iron industry he wrote, “The manufactures of this article are entitled to preeminent rank. None are more essential in their kinds, nor so extensive in their uses. They constitute, in whole, or in part, the implements or materials, or both, of almost every useful occupation. Their instrumentality is everywhere conspicuous”.


Alexander Hamilton on December 5, 1791 Report of Manufactures- Excerpt on Iron Industry
Alexander Hamilton on December 5, 1791 Report of Manufactures- Excerpt on Iron Industry


Hamilton could have imagined the literal fulfillment of such an idea—that the Capitol building itself, where he delivered that Report, 65 years later integrated with cast iron pipes and crowned with a cast iron dome that had become the most revered structure in the world, as the center of global power.


The walkway up to Capitol Hill
The walkway up to Capitol Hill


Reflecting back to 1800, the United States expanded in territory[5] and a growing population with massive numbers of immigrants[6]; the rapid growth in American households fueled consumer needs. This drove progress in agriculture and many new businesses—especially the core industries of iron works and textile manufacturing. Hundreds of new towns were created and thousands of new entrepreneurial establishments determined to succeed—an explosion of innovation ideas led to thousands of new U.S.patents. Technological developments in England and the rest of Europe were rapidly integrated into America industry on a greater scale—namely transportation[7], communications, agricultural tools, guns, settlement infrastructure, and all the components required for construction[8] and outfitting households and businesses.


United States Patents 1790 to 1860
United States Patents issued from 1790 to 1860


Three fundamental industries led to the mass production of iron, wire, and later steel:


History Of American Railroad Industry With Time And Distance Chart
American Railroads– Times & Distances (illustration by Nathan  C. Wedge)


Railroads—iron rails and spikes for tracks, large 5’ diameter cast iron wheels and all the parts for steam locomotives and rail-cars outfitted with suspension springs. On Christmas Day 1831, the South Carolina Canal And Rail Road Company’s Best Friend of Charleston[9] commenced 6 miles of passenger rail service from Charleston, South Carolina.


Malcolm Keir, Professor of Dartmouth College wrote: “The one factor of all others that has placed the iron industry of America before the competitors in the world is the railroad. Railroads have been the greatest consumers of iron within the history of that commodity.”[10]


This inaugurated an expansive boom in railroad tracks, trains and networks so that by 1840 railroad tracks exceeded 2,800 miles. Track miles tripled twice in the next two decades— so that by 1850 there were 9,000 miles and by 1860 there were railroad 27,000[11] miles of line in the United States.


American Telegraph Network
American Telegraph Network


The Transcontinental Line that linked the east and west coasts of the Nation was completed in 1869. Within 15 more years—in 1885 four additional transcontinental lines had been constructed with160,000 miles of track.


On November 18, 1883, America’s clocks were suddenly reset and changed to time belts or zones[12]a new feature borrowed from the British and introduced in the United States by the railroads without any government approval or oversight. Railroads also produced a market innovation in the transcontinental movement of passengers and products—a commercial boom.


First Telegraph–1844 Baltimore to D.C. (illustration by Nathan C. Wedge)


The Telegraph[13], invented in 1793 in England by Major Charles LeHardy[14], of the Isle of Jersey, was put into operation in America in June 1844. A telegraph line using copper wires extended 40 miles between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. The success[15] was overwhelming and by 1845 the line had extended 250 miles reaching Philadelphia and New York. Many networks of telegraph expanded by 1850—laying nearly 10,000 miles. This included two networks from New York to New Orleans of 1,966 miles, one from Charleston, S.C at 1,200 miles and others all linking back up to New York. The original copper wires proved unsuitable and were replaced by iron wire[16]. High-grade No. 6 gauge galvanized iron wire[17] became industry standard.


On the international view, The Gutta Percha Company of UK was founded in 1845 and had monopolized underwater cable. By 1865 Gutta Percha had supplied 14,000 miles of insulated cable wire to create The Trans-Atlantic Telegraph Line and 64 other undersea telegraph networks.


American Wire Industry
American Wire Industry–Washburn & Moen   (illustration by Nathan C. Wedge)


Wire, “one of the oldest known industries with roots reaching back to the dawn of civilization”[18] had a sleepy beginning in America. It was the need for making screws that motivated Ichabod Washburn to establish a tiny wire manufacturing company in Worcester, Massachusetts that would become The Washburn & Moen Manufacturing Company. Between 1837 and 1847, Washburn’s wire quality dictated that all iron billets 8’ by 1-1/8” were imported from Sweden. Once in the United States, the billets were rolled into rods at mills in Troy, New York, Fall River, Massachusetts, or Windsor Locks, Connecticut. The company provided products ranging from special painted telegraph wire (that prevented corrosion) to specialty piano wire for Jonas Chickering[19] to fashionable hoops skirts[20] requiring 8 gauge wire.


A Backward Glance At American Roots

Iron mining and foundries were built back in the colonial times and some pig iron was exported to England—but domestic use was relatively low. The Lynn Furnace on the Saugus River in Lynn, Massachusetts was one of the first. It began operations in1646 producing just 1 ton of pig iron per week.


Nail-making was the first iron product—nail works were centralized in Plymouth and Bristol counties in Massachusetts and Litchfield, Connecticut. This was expanded into northern New York and eastern Pennsylvania near Wheeling and Pittsburg.


Pittsburg, Pennsylvania an iron rolling mill opened in 1812—soon synonymous for the American industry producing 556 tons of nail annually. Pittsburg did not have iron ore itself, but the massive Juanita River iron district in the Allegheny Mountains supplied the iron. Men led twelve or fifteen horse teams where 200 pound U-shaped bars laid over horses backs delivered the iron to Pittsburgh; This iron was used for wire, picks, axes, shovels, plows and agricultural devices.[21]


When the Constitution was adopted, the country only produced 500 tons of steel per year. The 1810 Census notes 918 tons manufactured but this was not complete since all states were not surveyed the same. Records state national capacity in 1831 was at 1600 tons and 1850 was at 6000 tons. It was the Census of 1860 that produced a comprehensive reporting of all industry segments.


1880 United States Census Northeast Iron And Steel
1880 United States Census– NE States produced 90% of US Iron and Steel


Alexander Hamilton’s 1791 Report On Manufactures prophetically valued the nascent American iron industry. Rifles…railroad tracks, spikes, cast iron wheels and parts for the locomotives, railcar frames, carriage springs, telegraph wire, farming implements, nails and hardware, scissors and hammers, and all sorts of wire for cotton bales to pianos—iron was the essential component in the “American Engine For Ingenuity”.


Washburn & Moen 1681-1881 350,000 miles wire fencing
Washburn & Moen 1861-1881 estimated 350,000 miles plain wire fencing


Worcester Becomes The Wire Capital

As the textile revolution began in New England, cast iron loom and spindle frames began to be produced. Worcester, Massachusetts, having several turnpikes[22] and the Blackstone Canal opened in 1828, created good access to materials close to the foundling textile industry and Worchester became the center of iron wire production.


A Smithsonian Institute report notes: “Wire making was one of many small industries that started up in the Worcester area during the early nineteenth century to supply individuals and other manufacturers. Card wire was being drawn in Leicester as early as 1809 and in Spencer, by 1812, two entrepreneurs were experimenting in fine wire drawing. In 1813, a wire factory was in operation in West Boylston. The following year, a wire mill on the Ware River in Barre was advertised for sale and a wire manufactory was being carried on in Phillipston. Some time prior to 1815 a building on Leicester Street in Worcester was being used for wire production and by 1820 the wire drawing business in Spencer was well established .


Washburn & Moen Wire

A Washburn & Moen Manufacturing Company, Worcester, MA.


Although Washburn & Moen is probably not a company you’ve likely heard about—this company was the greatest producer of steel wire in the American 19th century; by 1860, over 58% of American wire was produced in Worcester, Massachusetts.


Founded in 1820 by Ichabod Washburn, the company made lead pipe and machinery used in the woolen trade. Through a series or partnerships, Washburn experimented with wood screws and then began drawing wire.[23] From 1837 to 1847, as mentioned above,  all of the billets for premium making wire were imported from Sweden at Washburn’s insistence. Washburn engaged a distant cousin, Henry S. Washburn, who lived in Boston, to go to the Custom House there to accept the shipments. In the process, the wire rod was then pulled through the die block reducing its size and extending its length. Fine wires required several drawings to reach the desired finish gauge. Early in his wire-drawing experience, Ichabod Washburn improved his process for annealing wire. This relieved internal stresses and improve the wire strength, elasticity, and ductility—making it high quality and sought after.


“Westward Ho”

As American’s moved west (1850-1900)—the mass western migrations encountered vast, treeless expanses of open prairie with hardly any distinguishing features. It was an ocean of grass and wildflowers as far as one could see. Without trees for fences and little sources of stones to build walls, the homesteaders needed more practical ways to contain their livestock and fence their property. Some planted hedgerows, stock-proof living walls of thorny trees and bushes. Most homesteaders allowed their livestock of cattle and sheep to freely graze on the open prairie, sharing pasture and water resources with other settlers. These were the days of the “open range,” when cowboys drove cattle long distances to eastern prairie markets, when nomadic Plains Indian tribes followed the vast buffalo herds, and when thousands of pioneers bound for the far western territories set out on the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails.


J F Glidden Patent 157, 124 of 1874 Barbed Wire
J F Glidden Patent 157, 124 of 1874 Barbed Wire


A revolutionary new idea came along: barbed wire for fencing. The idea of barbed wire as a means for fencing livestock[24] had originated in America during 1868; Michael Kelly had invented the basic design for barbed wire when he twisted two plain wires together to create a cable for barbs. Then, in 1874, Joseph Glidden, a farmer from DeKalb, Illinois, made improvements to Kelly’s invention, locking a simple wire barb into a double-strand wire, for which he received a patent. There were 2500 variations on over 500 patents issued—but Glidden’s patent was #1.


Glidden Barbed Wire Patent 1874
Glidden Barbed Wire Patent 1874


Washburn & Moen patented their own designs, acquired Glidden’s patent and became the company that produced millions of miles of barbed wire that fenced America. Washburn’s Report To The New Hampshire Legislature in 1881 noted 350,000 miles of galvanized wire had been used for fencing between 1861-1881. Washburn & Moen’s barbed wire would be the desired standard —it changed the American landscape and produced a high-quality, economic method to fence farms and the range. By 1885, the company was producing 418 types of wire with an output of 245 tons a day![25]


Washburn & Moen Mfg. Co. Barbed Wire Fence Ad
Washburn & Moen Mfg. Co. Barbed Wire Fence Ad


The American iron industry had grown as new uses of iron and steel seemed unending. It had transformed—the best new process technologies were being utilized, and the rising scale of mining, construction of new furnaces, rolling mills, and factories expanded across the country.


In the decade between 1860-1870, The U.S. Census reports America had 808 iron working establishments employing 77,555 persons that produced 3,655,215 tons (2000 pound tons) valued over $135 million in raw material alone.  America had a thirst for massive amounts of high quality steel and iron just as a new chapter turned—The Second Industrial Revolution begun in 1870—utilizing even greater iron production technologies and being implemented into myriads of ideas such as wire springs for carriages, railroad cars, bed bases, mattresses, upholstered furniture and host of other metal products creating a “Home Furnishings Revolution” from 1870-1930. Many fundamental innovations in metal springs are still being re-engineered today in mattresses and furniture– even the Boeing “Dreamliner” landing gears and the new Ares1/Orion rocket planned for a future Mars landing uses specially engineered compression springs in a “Separation Spring Concept.”


NASA Next Generation Ares 1 Rocket Upper Stage:Orion Separation Springs Concept
NASA Next Generation Ares 1 Rocket Upper Stage:Orion Separation Springs Concept




Connections Through Time – Part III: On The Shoulders of Giants

Connections Through Time – Part II: Sprung Forward

Connections Through Time – Part I: Ancient Springs and Metalworks

United States Telegraph & Telephone Companies Miles Lines (pdf)




  1. Capitol Illumination Architect of the Capitol (AOC), Franklin Bradley
  2. Washington Gas Light was commissioned by Congress in July 1848. A cast iron pipe network was built to supply the city. USA Today – January 16, 2014 noted there are 13,000 miles of distribution main and 940,000 service lines—making it one of the Nation’s oldest infrastructure systems.
  3. Whale oil lanterns had illuminated Washington from 1801 to 1848.
  4. James, Fowler, Kirkland & Company in Bronx, New York was the foundry of the United States.Capito The l dome—at 29 stories is the largest cast iron dome in the world. The original structure is still in use having received a $60 million repair job (2013-2016) fixing 1300 cracks and deficient cast iron—plus 1200 gallons of paint.
  5. The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 added almost doubled the size adding parts of Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, part of Minnesota and North Dakota, part of South Dakota, Wyoming, and Colorado, and part of Montana; British Cessation of 1818 completed North Dakota and Minnesota; Spanish Cessation of 1819 added the western Louisiana, small parcel in Colorado, land south of Mississippi and Alabama to the Gulf Coast and Florida; Texas in 1845; Oregon Territory of 1846 Treaty with UK ceded Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and the remainder of Montana and Wyoming; Mexican Cessation of 1848 added California, Arizona, Remainders of New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming, Nevada and Utah; Gadsden Purchase of 1853 from Mexico completed parts of Arizona and New Mexico; and Sec. of State Seward’s Alaska Purchase from Russian in 1867.
  6. US Census figures as follows: 1800 was 5,308,483; 1810 was 7,239,881; 1820 was 9,638,453; 1830 was 12,860,702; 1840 was 17,063,353; 1850 was 23,191,876; 1860 was 31,443,321; 1870 was 38,558,371; 1880 was 50,189,209; 1890 was 62,979,766; and 1900 had reached 76,212,168.
  7. Elihu Ring’s Patent No. 2200 issued July 29, 1841 using springs and levers in carriage suspension. See Illustration.
  8. Ithiel Richardson’s Patent No. 433 issued October 20, 1837 spring for shutting doors. See Illustration
  9. Manufactured in parts at the West Point Foundry in New York in 1830.
  10. Manufacturing A Volume of Industries of America, Malcolm Keir, Ronald Press, p.179
  11. This was greater than the track miles in the rest of the world combined.
  12. November 18, 1883 “The Day Of Two Noons” commenced the system proposed by Charles Dowd in his pamphlet “A System Of National Time Zones For The Railroads” that divided the country into four zones at each 15 degree longitude. The railroads adopted a different system proposed by William Allen, editor of Travelers Official Railroad Guide which instead used major cities with railroad terminals and added a 5th zone for Canada. It was not until 1918 Congress passed The Standard Time Act that officially adopted the time zones into law. Charles Dowd died in 1904—crushed under train wheels.
  13. Levi Woodbury, Secretary of the Treasury, issued a circular in March 1837 proposing an American telegraph system.
  14. The “Silver Medal” of the Royal Society For The Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers, and Commerce was awarded to LeHardy in 1793. Papers in Mechanics. 1808, London, England.
  15. During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln utilized telegraph extensively—“camping” out in the Army Telegraph Office. According to a young telegraph operator, David Homer Bates (Lincoln In The Telegraph Office:Recollections Of The United States Military Telegraph Corps During The Civil War,1907) Lincoln wrote his draft of The Emancipation Proclamation at a desk in that office.
  16. “About two hundred and fifty pounds of iron wire are required to equal a mile. Its insulation is effected by winding it around caps or knobs of glass, or well glazed stoneware, or enclosing it with gutta percha*. The wires are generally supported on spars or posts, from twenty to thirty feet in height, nine inches in diameter at the base, four and a half at the top, set in the ground, and placed from twelve to fifteen rods** apart.” The Age Of Jackson, Robert Remini, 1972, p.194-195. * gutta percha” is plastic-like resin from Malaysian trees similar to rubber and was used for insulation and temporary fillings in teeth ** rod=16-1/2 feet
  17. A History Of Morse’s Invention And Its Predecessors In The United States, Lewis Coe, McFarland & Company
  18. The Wire Industry, Arthur Warren, The American Steel & Wire Company,1928
  19. In 1850, Chickering approached Washburn as a piano wire source since the English had monopolized the piano wire as a source; in 1856 Washburn patented a piano wire drawing method.
  20. Washburn in 1860 supplied 50& of America’s hoop skirt frames equaling 1500 tons of iron.
  21. History of Manufacturing In The United States 1607-1860, Victor Clark, p-515-518
  22. The Boston and Worchester Turnpike opened 1807; the Worchester and Stafford Turnpike opened in 1810.
  23. The first wire drawing machine Washburn used had a pincer device that drew wire through a die. This crude method took a lot of human force and a man could only draw about 50 pounds of wire a day. Washburn improvised so that it could pull about 15 feet each pass and up to 2,500 pounds of wire a day.
  24. Barbed wire was specified in a, 1888 British army manual and Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders used it in the Spanish America War. Barbed wire defined incarceration. Barbed wire is symbolic of political borders, Cold War check-points like East and West Berlin, and even the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea.
  25. Historical American Engineering Record, Washburn & Moen, page 14.