"It seems as if God, admitting Man in participation of divine Omnipotence, had given him an element of his own, and said, "Go! take thou this as thy command, with it thou shalt traverse every sea, thou shalt neither wait for winds, nor dread the storm; thy power shall exceed my power, thy element vanquish my elements, the most intricate channels shalt thou explore unaided by me. ...The discovery of the Copernican system, the invention of the Press, the application of the Steam-Engine to the purposes of navigation, are epochs engraved on the tablets of eternity." (2)
With due allowance for hyperbole, Hugh Richardson's stirring cry captures the captain's sense of standing at the threshold of a new era in human history. Across that threshold, he fervently believed, lay great profits for those who seized the opportunities presented by marine applications of the steam engine.
From the rather different perspective of an economic historian, the substitution of steam power for the vagaries of water, wind and muscle lies at the heart of the spectacular productivity growth of the Industrial Revolution. (3) In North America, the technological advances of steam power were channelled into the integration of regional and national markets, using steamboats and, a generation or more later, railways. (4) A key element in both the Industrial and Transportation Revolutions was the constant innovation of the firms producing steam engines and, in particular, marine engines.
The "Steam Revolution" in North America began on the Hudson River in the spring of 1807. (5) Two years later it arrived on the middle St. Lawrence, where John Molson and his partners launched the Accommodation. (6) Two more years would pass before the launch of the first steamboat on the Mississippi River system, four before commercial steam navigation began in British and European waters, and eight years before the Frontenac and the Ontario began serving ports on the Great Lakes. (7)
While the study of steam navigation is relatively well served in many regions, in general marine engineering is poorly understood. There are few general studies, the best surviving examples of the early engines are under water and most of the critical work of fine tuning the basic principles was done in the era before each alteration was an excuse for a trip to the patent office. (8) The best studies of marine engines deal with the massive power plants of ocean steamships and the dangerous experiments with high pressure steam in shallow draft Mississippi steamers. Although these surveys draw attention to the single cylinder, low pressure walking-beam engine, it is often simply to comment on the curious survival of a technological dinosaur. (9)
Canadian references to marine engineering in the first half of the nineteenth century first emerged in the context of business history and tended to take the technology for granted. Tulchinsky, Wilson and Parker touch on the linkages between steamboat construction and the engine founding trades. (10) By contrast, most histories of Canadian engineering favour the civil and mining engineer or indulge the national passion for railway history. (11) Students of the iron and steel trades have concentrated on production at ironworks like Saint-Maurice and Normandale or on the production of consumer goods. (12)
The most effective Canadian approaches to the engine founding trades have been unpublished studies by Larry McNally, Kenneth Lewis and David McGee. McNally addresses some key questions regarding locational factors, inputs, markets, labour and capital. However, his concentration on Montreal foundries leaves the limits of Montreal's "metropolitan dominance" of the trade unclear. By approaching the subject from a broader market perspective we may better focus on this relationship. (13)Kenneth Lewis also raises questions about Montreal's competition with American and Great Lakes foundries, and the American and British origins of the firms. (14)McGee's is a far more ambitious study seeking to understand the entire history of Canadian marine engineering within the context of Network theory, the essential insight that technical systems are composed of and interact with "an endless assortment of natural, social, economic and political elements." (15)
This paper has emerged from a larger investigation of the introduction of steam navigation on the Great Lakes. The study encompasses the geography and the "politics" of the trade, the people involved as well as the technology which defined it. The technology, particularly the engine technology, had a significant impact on capital and operating costs, labour recruitment, the competitive position of vessels, and ultimately, the profitability of a venture. All of these issues prompted an examination of the available steam engines and who was supplying them.
A number of questions have to be addressed. What was the technology available to steamboat proprietors prior to 1838? What were the qualities most in demand for different classes of vessels? What were the cycles in demand? How did various foundries meet the nature of the demand? Finally, I will draw some conclusions about the nature of the technology employed on the Canadian side of the Great Lakes, the nature of innovation in the trade, the role of marine engine founders in Canadian industrial development and their fate in the shipbuilding trades.
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