John Bull & Uncle Sam - Four Centuries of British-American Relations

British inventions and technologyDuring the infancy of the United States, Americans imitated and adopted British inventions and technology. As American political and economic power grew in the mid-nineteenth century, the impact of each country's technology on the other began to be mutual. After the United States became the dominant world power in the twentieth century, American science and technology deeply affected many areas of British life.

James Watt's invention of the steam engine in Britain toward the end of the eighteenth century launched the Industrial Revolution; Americans were quick to adopt Watt's new technology by applying steam power to water transportation and by modifying British steam-powered vehicles like the locomotive to the American environment. During these early years of the American republic, British technology was copied in countless areas: bridge design and building, canal building, and textile manufacturing, to name a few.

American technology established its first foothold in Britain after London's Great Exhibition of 1851, when the McCormick reaper, the Colt revolver, and Day and Newell's patent locks found customers in the mother country. It was also during this decade that the Singer sewing machine made major inroads in the British market.

After the American Civil War there was a reciprocal exchange of technology; the United States received from Britain such major innovations as the Bessemer converter, and Britain received from America inventions such as the telephone, courtesy of a transplanted Scot, Alexander Graham Bell.

In the twentieth century American technology became a dominant feature in major sectors of British life: mass production methods pioneered by Henry Ford, manned flight, skyscrapers, and computers, to name a few. In areas such as pure science, a great deal of reciprocity continued, as, for example, in the discovery of DNA by the British-American team of James Watson and Francis Crick.

The Steam Engine

In 1769 the Scotsman, James Watt (1736-1819), patented an improved version of the steam engine which ushered in the Industrial Revolution. Americans were quick to seek ways to apply Watt's invention to the needs of their country.

James Patrick Muirhead. The Origin and Progress of the Mechanical Inventions of James Watt. Vol. 3. Page 2, London: J. Murray, 1854, fold-out, p. 64. General Collections, Library of Congress (132)

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The Steam Boat

The idea of using steam power to propel boats occurred to American inventors soon after the potential of Watt's new engine became known. John Fitch (1743-1798) is generally conceded to have been the United States's pioneer in steam navigation. He successfully launched and operated a steam powered vessel on the Delaware River on August 22, 1787, in the presence of members of the Constitutional Convention. Here is one of Fitch's early sketches of a steam boat.

John Fitch. Sketch of Steamboat, ca. 1787. Ink and pencil. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (133)

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The St. Louis Bridge

The famous iron arch bridge, spanning the Mississippi River at St. Louis, is often called the Eads Bridge in honor of James B. Eads (1820-1889), who designed it in 1867 and saw it through to completion in 1874. When challenged about the practicality of his design, Eads cited Telford's London bridge design of 1800.

Phillip Sandhurst. The Great Centennial Exhibition Critically Described and Illustrated. Philadelphia: P. W. Ziegler & Co., 1876. Illustration facing p. 409. General Collections, Library of Congress (135)

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The Washington Canal

Here is one of Benjamin Henry Latrobe's designs for the Washington Canal. Latrobe (1764-1820) learned the techniques of canal building in England from engineer, John Smeaton (1724-1792). After immigrating to the United States in 1796, Latrobe was involved in numerous canal building and water supply projects. He worked on the designs for the canal during the period that he was Surveyor of Public Buildings in Washington from 1803 to 1812.

Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Design for the Washington Canal, 1810. Pen-and-ink drawing. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (137)

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The Introduction of Railroads

George Stephenson's (1781-1848) construction, in the north of England, of his first locomotive was in 1814; his first successful run was in 1825. Shortly thereafter, Americans were building railroads in imitation of the British and made numerous innovations on British locomotives, such as Jervis' "bogie," a device that allowed the engine's front wheels to swivel and negotiate steep, winding tracks.

William Strickland. Report on Canals, Railways, Roads and other Projects, Made to the Pennsylvania Society for the Promotion of Internal Improvements. Philadelphia: H.C. Carey and I. Lea, 1826. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (138)

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Beginning of Electronic Communications

In 1825, British inventor William Sturgeon (1783-1850) exhibited a device that laid the foundations for large-scale electronic communications: the electromagnet. Sturgeon displayed its power by lifting nine pounds with a seven-ounce piece of iron wrapped with wires through which the current of a single cell battery was sent.

William Sturgeon. Scientific Researches, Experimental and Theoretical, in Electricity, Magnetism, Galvanism, Electro-magnetism, and Electro-chemistry. Bury: T. Crompton, 1850, plate 7. General Collections, Library of Congress (142)

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The Telegraph

In 1830 an American, Joseph Henry (1797-1878), demonstrated the potential of Sturgeon's device for long distance communication by sending an electronic current over one mile of wire to activate an electromagnet which caused a bell to strike. Thus the electric telegraph was born. Samuel F.B. Morse (1791-1872), whose sketches of a "magnetized magnet" in operation are shown here, successfully exploited Henry's invention commercially.

Samuel F.B. Morse. Railway Signal Telegraph, ca. 1840. Color sketches. Page 2 Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (143a,b)

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The Crystal Palace, 1851

On May 1, 1851, Queen Victoria opened the Great Exhibition of Works of Industry of All Nations in London's Hyde Park. The first world's fair, the exhibition brought together the best manufactured products of seventy-seven nations. The building in which it was held, nicked-named the "Crystal Palace," was itself a technological marvel of iron and glass devised by Joseph Paxton. More than six million people from many nations visited the exhibition during its five and a half-month run.

"Gems of the Crystal Palace, No. 1, The Exterior." London: George Baxter, 1854. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (143A)

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American Display at the Exhibition

The American Pavilion, which featured large numbers of inventions and improvements in agricultural machinery, was at first criticized by the British press. However, certain products, including Colt's revolver, McCormick's reaper, and Day and Newell's patent lock changed British opinion and demonstrated the U.S. potential for becoming a leading industrial power. Rising in the pavilion's center was a trophy of vulcanized rubber by the Goodyear Rubber Company.

Joseph Nash. "America," from Dickinson's Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851, . . . London: Dickinson Brothers, 1854. Copyprint. Modern Collections, The British Library (144b)

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The New York Crystal Palace, 1853

A striking example of the American propensity to imitate British models, the New York Exhibition of 1853 was inspired by and attempted to replicate the London event of two years earlier. It was housed in a building that aspired to copy in so far as possible the London Crystal Palace. Though advertised as an exhibition of "science, art, and industry," the New York Exhibition appeared to emphasize the arts to a greater degree than its London counterpart.

Nagel and Weingartner. "New York Crystal Palace for the Exhibit of the Industry of all Nations." New York: Goupil & Co., ca. 1852. Lithograph. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (145A)

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"You're Beat Downright"

In this cartoon a post-mortem is being held on the Great Exhibition of London of 1851 between Britons, represented as John Bull, and Americans. The Yankees are boasting and the British are lamenting that American entries took the prizes in agricultural implements at the Exhibition (a McCormick reaper is at the far right). A Briton consoles himself that "these Americans are bone of our bone, and the origin of their genius is British."

"The Great Exhibition of 1851." New York, NY: Currier and Ives, n.d. Enlarged Lithograph. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (147)

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The Atlantic Cable

The Atlantic cable, promoted by American entrepreneur, Cyrus Field (1819-1892), was a major Anglo-American enterprise that led to closer relations between Britain and the United States. Between 1857 and 1866 five expeditions attempted to span the Atlantic with a cable. A cable was successfully laid in 1858, but operated for only a month. Efforts were resumed after the American Civil War and in 1866 success was achieved; Field rejoiced that it was like "clasping hands across the sea."

"The Eighth Wonder of the World: The Atlantic Cable." New York: Kimmel and Foster, 1866. Hand-colored lithograph. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (149)

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The Telephone

Invented by Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922), a Scottish immigrant to America, the telephone revolutionized communications throughout the United States, Britain, and the world. Here are Bell's notes of a conversation with his assistant, Thomas Watson, in October 1876 in which the two men express satisfaction with the improvements achieved in voice communication since Bell's initial success the preceding March. "It is the best I ever heard," Bell exultantly told Watson.

Alexander Graham Bell. Sketch of Telephone, October, 1876. Ink. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (150)

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The Typewriter

The typewriter was another product of American technological ingenuity that attained widespread use in Britain after the Civil War. Invented immediately after that conflict, the typewriter was converted into a commercial success by the Remington Company and by 1890 "the machine began to occupy an important place in the British commercial world." The paper in the typewriter seen in this advertisement contains a quotation from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.

"The Type-Writer" advertisement. The Nation, December 16, 1875, p. xviii. General Collections, Library of Congress (151)

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The Water Closet

British technology, high and low, continued to flow into the United States after the Civil War, the water closet, i.e., the flush toilet, being but one example. Seen here is a variation of Thomas Crapper's (1837-1910)"Pull and Let Go" design for flush toilets, perfected in 1884.

Catalogue C of The Dalton-Ingersoll Company of Fine Sanitary Specialties and General Plumbing Supplies. Boston: The Dalton-Ingersoll Company, 1893. General Collections, Library of Congress (152)

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The Bessemer Converter

In the mid 1850s the English inventor Henry Bessemer (1813-1898) patented a process for cheaply and rapidly converting pig iron into steel, thus further accelerating the Industrial Revolution. During the Civil War, an American, Alexander Lyman Holley (1832-1882), redesigned the Bessemer process, increasing its efficiency and laying the foundation for the swift growth of the American steel industry under the leadership of entrepreneurs like Andrew Carnegie.

Charles Graham. "Making Bessemer Steel at Pittsburgh, the Converters at Work." Harper's Weekly, April 10, 1886, volume 30, pp. 232-233. Copyprint. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (153)

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Andrew Carnegie

This cartoon of Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) as the "Macmillion" in a kilt made of the American flag was drawn in 1901, after the Scottish immigrant to the United States had made his fortune in the steel industry, using the Bessemer process. Pictured here endowing four universities in his native Scotland, Carnegie was one of the great philanthropists of all time, creating in the United States a network of local, public libraries among his other benefactions.

Bernard Partridge. "The Macmillion." Punch, May 29, 1901, p. 395. General Collections, Library of Congress (154)

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Motion Pictures

The motion picture was another technology in which the United States achieved dominance in the British market during the course of the twentieth century. There were two decisive steps in the creation of the modern motion picture: the transition from the "peep show" to the projection of images over a distance, accomplished in the 1890s by Thomas A. Edison's (1847-1931) Vitascope; and the talking picture, introduced in the American movie the Jazz Singer in 1927.

"Edison's Greatest Marvel The Vitascope." New York: Metropolitan Print Company, for Raff and Gorman, ca. 1896. Color lithograph. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (155)

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Manned Flight

In the twentieth century the United States achieved technological leadership in certain areas that rivaled British technological dominance early in the 19th century. One area in which the United States took the lead was manned flight. Here is Orville Wright's diary entry of December 17, 1903, describing the first successful manned flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Orville Wright (1871-1948) was at the controls of the flight, lying prone on the lower wing of the aircraft.

This image is not available online.

Orville Wright. Diary entry, December 17, 1903. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (156A)


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The Wright Flyer in London

Orville Wright sent his first successful plane to the Science Museum in London after a disagreement with the administration of the Smithsonian Institution. The director of the Science Museum, J.B. Davy, during World War II, wrote to Orville Wright, assuring him that the plane was safe from German aerial bombardment. In 1948, at Wright's request, the plane was returned to the United States and put on display at the Smithsonian Institution.

J.B. Davy. Letter to Orville Wright, April 1, 1941. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (157b)

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Mass Production and Henry Ford

Henry Ford (1863-1947) pioneered mass production, which revolutionized industrial output in the twentieth century. Ford brought his innovative methods to Britain, building cars at Manchester and later at Dagenham. Here are Model T Fords, on an assembly line in Detroit and an ad for British Fords, ca. 1916.

"Completed Product of a Great Automobile Factory Ready for Delivery, Detroit, MI." Meadville, Pennsylvania: Keystone View Company, 1917. Copyprint. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (159)

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Skyscrapers are another distinctive American contribution to twentieth century technology that have become features of the British landscape. Seen here is a prospective study of the Beach Road Project in Singapore by the distinguished American architect, Paul Rudolph (1918-1997). Rudolph's pupils, including Sir Norman Foster (b. 1935) and Richard Rogers (b. 1933), have built prize-winning skyscrapers in Great Britain.

Paul Rudolph. Beach Road Project, Singapore, 1981-82. Architectural drawing. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (161)

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Punch cards

Following in the tradition of Babbage, the American Herman Hollerith (1860-1929) developed electronic "tabulating" machines which could process large amounts of data by a system of punching cards. Hollerith's machines proved themselves in expediting the compilation of census data in 1890 and 1900. Shown are instructions for the operation of Hollerith's machine, a punch card, and a key plate through which a punch perforated the cards. Hollerith later worked for IBM.

Herman Hollerith. Punch card, key plate, and operating instructions, ca. 1895. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (163)

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Super Computers

Immediately after World War II the United States began developing "super computers," machines capable of processing massive amounts of information at high speeds. Initially developed for military applications, these computers allowed the United States to establish technological dominance in this vital field. Here is a flow diagram, devised in 1950 by John von Neumann (1903-1957) for the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), one of the early American super computers.

John von Neumann. ENIAC flow diagram for AEL-ENIAC, December 18, 1950. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (164)

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The structure of the DNA molecule was one of the finest examples of cooperation between British and American scientists. American, James Watson (b. 1928) and Englishman, Francis Crick (b. 1916) and published their discovery in 1953, and received the Nobel Prize in 1962 for their achievement.

The Library does not have permissions to display this image online. Robert Wright. "Molecular Biologist: Watson and Crick." Time, March 29, 1999, pp. 172-173. General Collections, Library of Congress (166)


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