Men Of Progress
A painting of leading 19th-century inventors hints at the tensions between inventors and scientists in American society
Christian Schussele’s 1892 painting Men of Progress portrays 19 of the era’s greatest living inventors, the heroes of America’s recent technological ascendancy.
Gathered in this fictional assembly are inventors Cyrus McCormick (reaper), Samuel Colt (revolver pistol), and Joseph Saxton (precise balances) — all of whom came to the attention of the public in 1851 during America’s spectacular showing at the Great Exhibition in London’s Crystal Palace. Even as the Civil War threatened to tear the nation apart, Schussele’s painting boldly asserted the indivisible, unassailable, and unstoppable power of the empire of technology. From the life- and world- altering transformations wrought by the Industrial Revolution emerged the potent idea that technology was the engine of all social progress. Amid the ruin of two world wars, modern historians would come to view this idea as naive, calling it “the myth of progress.”
Yet within the painting, which so fully suggests the harmony and united purpose of its subjects, already lurks a little known cold detail: the ’two men most prominently displayed held a deep and enduring animosity for one another. If a symbolic axis ran through the painting, it was that running from stern-faced Joseph Henry, leaning against the column in the center as if presiding over the assembled greats, to the white-maned Samuel F B. Morse, seated in the foreground with a model of the telegraph at his right hand. Henry, the 65 year-old electrical physicist and head of the Smithsonian Institution, and the 71 year-old Morse, artist and inventor, had only recently been locked in a bitter priority dispute over that very invention. Was it simply an accident of composition that Morse seems to be looking away from the group and avoiding Henry’s gaze in particular? Perhaps so. But Schussele might well have been aware of the public battle that began in the mid-1840s, when Henry took umbrage at a book by one of Morse’s acolytes that ignored his involvement in inventing the telegraph. The controversy still simmered well into the 1850s. Henry claimed to have shown Morse the scientific principle behind electric signaling as early as 1839, and he insisted that such principles could not be patented. Morse countered that what mattered was not the scientific discovery but the actual passage from first principles to applicable invention.
Their initial friendly collaboration soured into bitter dislike. At the time of the painting, Henry seemed poised to win the public relations contest: he was widely regarded as the real father of the telegraph, and Morse discounted as a mere implementer. But eventually Morse would gain public standing through the force of his patents, while Henry’s contributions were all but forgotten.
Were this only a story of private antagonism, the quarrel would merit only a sidebar in the history of technology and invention. However, Henry’s argument with Morse embodied a broad and growing front of resentment in the United States between the communities of scientists and inventors — a cultural cleavage that the painting may or may not have hinted at. Which of these two groups were the real “men of progress”?
Whether Morse took issue with the painting is not known, but Henry was ambivalent when first asked to sit for it in late 1859 by the architect and businessman John Skirving. Both complimented and troubled by the request, he penned a characteristically modest reply, which was also a masterpiece of feigned sincerity. In words eminently polite but nonetheless keenly edged, he first declared himself unworthy of being included among such an illustrious group, explaining that he had been “principally devoted to the investigation of scientific principles without regard to the purposes to which they might have been applied.” He did humbly admit that a number of his discoveries had proved technologically important, but he quickly emphasized that other inventors had made the applications. His major accomplishment as an inventor rested upon a series of electrical experiments conducted several decades earlier, which had led to prototypes of the electric motor and the electric telegraph. But Henry never applied for patents on either invention.
Whatever his ambivalence toward the Schussele painting, Henry had no problem with the fundamental idea behind Men of Progress. Sharing the technological enthusiasms of his era, which he had done so much to inspire, he regarded science and invention as the driving forces of progress and proudly counted himself among its leaders. In initially balking at Skirving’s request, he wrote rather disingenuously that “I do not think that I am entitled to a place in the group of the illustrious inventors with whom you have classed me.” His other writings contradict this sentiment. While deeming technology essential to human progress, he contended that the origin of any significant invention lay in basic scientific discovery. At its best, technology was applied science. Henry insisted that inventors and the public should recognize the debt they owed to what would later be called pure science.
In the late 19th century, however, no one was prepared to accept this belief— and few probably would have understood Henry’s argument to begin with. Many inventors proudly insisted that they were men of simple, feet-on-the-ground Yankee ingenuity who had no use for formal education, professors, or theoretical science. Nor did the public seem able to make the distinction between unschooled tinkerers and professional scientists. In fact, inventors shaped their identities in part around their differences with scientists.
The budding American scientific community, led by Henry, Alexander Dallas Bache, and their group of antebellum devotees of fundamental research, self-mockingly known as “the Lazzaroni” (Italian slang for “rascals” and “beggars”), decried the public’s gullible acceptance of the claims of arrogant but uneducated inventors — scientists often classed them with quacks and charlatans —and their neglect of scientists’ contributions to technological progress. In their writings and public statements, scientists cast a harsh light on the ignorance of some in the inventing community, crafting an emerging professional identity and seeking public respect, not to mention financial support, for the scientific community. “Important as the study of Mechanical Philosophy must appear to every well informed mind,” wrote Henry in the 1830s, “it is a fact that there is a general tendancy among men of mere practicle skill particularly in this country to undervalue it and to consider scientific principles as mere hypothises from which no practical benefit can be derived. But these persons do not recollect or are ignorant of the fact that almost every art particularly it be of extensive utility is founded on the accumulated discoveries of scientific men for centuries.” Henry’s attacks on arrogant empirics became a recurring theme of his career, setting the pitch for many comparable dismissals by his colleagues.
Despite this stance, neither Henry nor his group were remotely averse to technology or invention. On the contrary, they enjoyed technical challenges and working in practical domains. They did shun the act of applying for patents as unworthy of knowledge seekers —in stark contrast to today’s scientific attitudes. Nor did they object to patent seekers so long as they accorded scientists the ultimate credit for making their rough work possible—precisely, of course, what Morse would not concede.
Ultimately, Henry agreed to appear in the painting: “If however the gentlemen whose names you have presented to me, think me entitled to a place among themselves, it might be improper for me to decline the compliment.” We do not know whether Morse or any others were actually consulted. Henry did sit for Schussele, apparently sometime in 1860. Still, given his views on mechanical invention, one wonders why he consented. Perhaps he was prepared to call a truce with Morse and his ingenious craftspeople. More likely, he thought it preferable to stake a claim for science rather than cede the ground to the crude empirics.
By the second half of the 20th century, the fractures in the technological landscape had healed, and images such as Men of Progress reinforced popular conceptions that inventors and scientists had always been allied in furthering technical progress. Today Men of Progress hangs in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery, a bold, if now quaint, artistic testament to America’s coming of age as a technological power.
From left to right, the inventors in the painting are:
1. William Morton, 1819-1868. Co-discoverer of anesthesia.
2. James Bogardus, 1800-1874. Inventor whose varied output ranged from engraving machines to the cast-iron building.
3. Samuel Colt, 1814-1862. Gun inventor and manufacturer.
4. Cyrus McCormick, 1809-1884. Inventor and manufacturer of the reaping machine and other agricultural equipment.
5. Joseph Saxton, 1799-1873. Inventor whose devices included tide gauges, hydrometers, and minting machinery.
6. Charles Goodyear, 1800-1860. Inventor whose vulcanization process made rubber useful.
7. Peter Cooper, 1791-1883. Built the first American steam locomotive; innovated in iron and glue manufacture; founded Cooper Union.
8. Jordan Mott, 1799-1866. Inventor and manufacturer in iron and related technologies.
9. Joseph Henry, 1797-1878. Physicist, electric-motor inventor, and first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.
10. Eliphalet Nott, 1773-1866. Stove inventor and president of Union College for sixty-two years.
11. John Ericsson, 1803-1889. Developed marine steam engines and the screw propeller and designed the revolutionary warship Monitor.
12. Frederick Sickels, 1819-1895. Inventor of cutoff valve crucial to later stationary steam engines.
13. Samuel Morse, 1791-1872. Inventor of the electric telegraph.
14. Henry Burden, 1791-1871. Inventor of horseshoe-making machine and agricultural machinery.
15. Richard Hoe, 1812-1886. Inventor of the rotary printing press.
16. Erastus Bigelow, 1814-1879. Inventor of power carpet looms.
17. Isaiah Jennings, 1792-1862. Inventor of friction matches.
18. Thomas Blanchard, 1788-1864. Inventor of numerous lathes and steam vehicles.
19. Elias Howe, 1819-1867. Inventor of the sewing machine.