It All Started In New Jersey
A historian explains why the Garden State is where all technology begins-or ends
EVEN AS A CHILD I WAS FASCINATED BY ORIGINS AND conclusions. Such a line of thinking naturally led to a career in history, during which I became curator of transportation at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. One of the first historic facts I learned was that John Cleves Symmes developed the land in and around my hometown of Cincinnati, some one million acres, starting in 1788. Symmes was from New Jersey. Then, as I read and studied, New Jersey began to appear large in all matters of national consequence. George Washington’s first big victories were in the battles of Trenton and Princeton, and Molly Pitcher, Aaron Burr, and Joyce Kilmer all were natives of the Garden State.
A theory formed in my head that almost everything either started or ended in New Jersey. When I began to study industrial history, this notion solidified into a postulate. The colonies’ first stagecoach ran in New Jersey in 1706. Alexander Hamilton established the first industrial town in America at Paterson in 1791. It became home to several major locomotive builders; the machinery was powered by water from the Passaic River. The engines for the first transatlantic steamship, the Savannah , were fabricated at the Speedwell Iron Works in Morristown in 1818. In 1825 John Stevens demonstrated his pioneer steam wagon/locomotive on the grounds of his estate in Hoboken. The telegraph was developed in New Jersey a generation later bv Samuel F. B. Morse and his partner Alfred Vail (whose father owned the Speedwell Iron Works).
A few decades after the test of the first telegraph line, another electrical wizard opened an invention factory in Menlo Park. Why did Thomas Edison pick New Jersey for the site of his laboratory? He must have understood that the chances of success for an invention increased if it was created in the homeland of all that was new and trendy. The proof: When Edison outgrew the Menlo Park facility, he moved to nearby West Orange.
By this point my reading had shown that the postulate should be elevated to a universal law: Damn near everything begins or ends in New Jersey. In recent years, while preparing a lecture on the origins of the steam engine, I came upon another example.
One of the first copper mines in North America was on the Passaic River, just upstream from Newark. Starting around 1720, the Schuyler family exploited this valuable deposit of the red metal. The mine was a novelty in colonial America, and it attracted such distinguished visitors as Benjamin Franklin, who noted in 1750 that the mine had flooded and the owners had ordered a steam engine from England to pump it clear.
That engine, probably the first steam engine in the New World, arrived in pieces in September of 1753. It was accompanied by a young British millwright, Josiah Hornblower (1729-1809). He came from a family of engine builders in Cornwall, England. He brought the knockeddown engine, some duplicate parts, and several mechanics. Still, the work progressed very slowly.
The Schuyler engine was not assembled until 1755, but when it was, its giant, three-foot-diameter piston proved effective in draining the mine. It continued in use intermittently for more than half a century. Sometime after the pioneer engine was abandoned, its cylinder was cut in two by a subsequent owner. In 1889 one half was donated to the Smithsonian Institution, where it may be seen today in the “Engines of Change” exhibit of the National Museum of American History.
We have spoken of many New Jersey firsts, but we should also mention a few final events. The fiery crash of the Hindenburg at Lakehurst, New Tersey, in 1937 put a dramatic end to transatlantic passenger airships. And about 40 years ago I made my first trip on the New Jersey Turnpike. It was a very hot and humid day. The refineries and chemical plants that lined the highway spewed out brown and yellow smoke. The car had no air conditioning, so the windows were down. I recall thinking at one point, as we inched along toward some distant tollbooth, that I had never felt so miserable. While in this low state, I had a revelation: This is how the world will end. And when it does, it will end in New Jersey.