Today we tend to think of the Industrial Revolution as an urban phenomenon, a great social and cultural change associated with the rise of the “mill towns” of New England. The places that epitomize that revolution in our regional landscape would then seem to be the planned factory cities on the Merrimack River, preeminently Manchester, New Hampshire and Lowell, Massachusetts. But the very fact that these cities were planned – were, two centuries after the founding of Boston, “new” – should remind us that their origins lie elsewhere. The great mill complexes of those hydropower cities arose because new technologies of manufacturing made them possible and even inevitable; those cities represented the flowering of the Industrial Revolution, not its roots. The revolution was born and nurtured in the little mills and workshops and barns where local tinkerers set their minds and hands to the task of mechanizing or improving a familiar process such as spinning, weaving, carding, or napping cloth.
Wherever a mill stood, then – and this could be almost anywhere an adequate head of water was available – some inquisitive and enterprising owner or worker or neighbor might be toying with schemes to upgrade or even transform its operations. Especially throughout the northeast – the innovating spirit was less powerful in the mid-Atlantic states and never took hold in the Deep South — mechanical tinkering of this kind was widespread. During the period between 1810 and 1820, for example, many successful patents relating to the manufacturing of cloth were filed from the larger cities – Boston, Philadelphia, Providence, Hartford. But a great many such patents also came in from a remarkably wide variety of little villages, places like Poultney, Vermont, Manlius, New York – and Andover, New Hampshire.
The Andover inventor who won a patent for his cloth shearing and napping machine was John J. Bryant, who lived and worked in East Andover. He was a young man – indeed, surprisingly young for a skillful machinist and patentee: when he invented his new machinery he was only eighteen or nineteen years old, and he was still no more than twenty when he received his patent in 1818. He and his slightly younger brother, Jeremy Y. Bryant, left their home in Newmarket in 1816 or 1817 and came to Andover to build new lives for themselves here. Since neither of them had yet reached the age of majority, their father must have cooperated with them to “give them their time” until they turned 21; this kind of not-unusual legal arrangement would enable his sons to keep their own wages and enter into contracts, while also making them liable for their own debts. Presumably, all the Bryants were confident that these two resourceful young men were already fully capable of making their way in the world independently.
John and Jeremy Bryant seem to have lived somewhere on Maple Street, for an old court record notes that John’s property was bounded on the south by “lune Pond” – that is, Loon Pond, the old name for Highland Lake. They worked in the small complex of mills at the outlet of the lake. Eastman, in his history of Andover, tells us that they were “proprietors of the fulling mill at East Andover in 1823”; their advertising shows that they were open for business there no later than mid-1821. They were also part-owners, with Robert Barber and David Dyer, of the sawmill there; and since Barber also had owned a carding, dyeing, and fulling mill there since 1817-18 and likely for years before, it is highly probable that John Bryant was working in Barber’s cloth mill, and devising and testing his improvements there, no later than early 1817.
Our first glimpse of John Bryant’s inventive handiwork comes from a letter printed in the Concord, MA Middlesex Gazette in late June 1818. (The letter was quickly reprinted in several other newspapers; regional interest in mechanical improvements of this sort was already running high.) A clothier from Dover, NH, Richard Gove, was writing to describe a new machine he had just seen in operation – “the Steel Spring Cloth dressing Machine recently invented by Mr. John J. Bryant of Andover, N. H.” “The Machine is so admirably calculated,” he noted admiringly, “that a piece of cloth by passing through it wet or dry, may be napped, shorn and brushed.” Gove described a multi-stage process. First, the cloth was napped by a card that was cranked into position, pressed against the cloth by springs, and adjusted with a screw. Second, the cloth was napped by a rotating cylinder that bore the cloth up against a series of steel blades and sheared it between one of these and a fixed, opposed blade. During this stage, Gove claimed, Bryant’s device “shears off the nap about twice as fast as the common twisted blade or ten times as fast as the hand shears.” Finally, the cloth was “smoothed by a cylindrical brush.” Moreover, “the machinery will all operate together, or any one of the parts may be used without the operation of the other.” Gove celebrated it as “the first complete cloth dressing machine that has been invented.”
The news of Bryant’s invention soon attracted attention, not only from interested clothiers and mechanics but from equally interested competitors. In particular, an established Worcester inventor, William Hovey, quickly responded with a threat of legal action. The machinery as described in Gove’s letter, Hovey declared in his newspaper notice, “exactly agrees” with a machine already invented in 1817 and patented earlier in 1818 by Hovey, Stuart, and Henderson; and that patent, he added, had already been defended and enforced in court against other would-be inventors. Accordingly, “Clothiers are cautioned from being deceived, as a suit will be commenced immediately against any one who shall make or use the above mentioned Machine [i.e. Bryant’s] without the consent of the Subscriber [Hovey] or his agents.” Hovey, of course, stood ready to supply them with machines of his own manufacture.
Hovey was a bona fide inventor and mechanic, with many accomplishments already to his name and others still to come (he continued to receive patents occasionally into the 1840s). But he badly muddied the waters with this uninformed attack on Bryant. (He had not seen Bryant’s machine first-hand; he was merely reading Gove’s description of it and drawing his own conclusions.) He was not, in fact, the Hovey of the patent he was here defending: that patentee was Eleazer Hovey, probably his father, although the patent right now belonged to him. And that Hovey-Stewart (not Stuart)-Henderson invention had been patented not in June 1818, as Hovey said, but in June 1808 – a typo that remained uncorrected as his newspaper notice was repeated weekly for two full months. The error mattered because some of Bryant’s acquaintances, reading Hovey’s accusations, quickly spoke up in his defense to testify that they “saw Mr. Bryant whilst in the act of constructing or fixing a set of Shear blades on the cylindrical principle, and saw them after they were completed, prior to the time which Mr. Hovey states Hovey, Stuart and Henderson’s machine was invented” – prior, that is, to the spring of 1817.
Young John Bryant, for his part, was forthright and cool in his own defense. While Hovey had not seen his invention, John had probably seen some version of the Hovey-Stewart-Henderson one, for that had made a truly important advance in cloth manufacture and was now being sold in several areas of New England and New York. He explained that the shearing blades of his invention “do not stand on the surface of a cylinder as [Hovey] says his does, but lie nearly flat,” so that “the nap is not torn out by the root, but is literally cut or shorn smoothly from the cloth.” In conclusion, he responded to Hovey’s hint of legal action with a reliance on legal defense: “If Mr. Hovey is dissatisfied with what has been said, perhaps the better way to decide it will be that prescribed by the Patent Law, that is a jury of the country.”
John Bryant had apparently entrusted his patent application to New Hampshire’s newly elected (in 1817) Senator, David L. Morrill, for forwarding to the Patent Office in Washington, D.C. (Morrill would of course be living and working in Washington for much of each year). Gove had noted that “Mr. Bryant expects to receive a Patent on the return of the Hon. D. L. Morrill from the city of Washington.” Bryant’s patent for “Napping cloth, shearing and brushing” was issued on September 2, 1818. There were no more attacks from Hovey, although Hovey did continue to enforce his patents aggressively against other would-be competitors. On the other hand, Bryant does not seem to have created a demand for his own machines, and never went into the business of making them for and selling them to others, as had been his original hope.
Bryant clearly had a fine understanding of mechanics, and he quickly won the respect of his fellow townspeople. He was soon appointed one of the six founding directors of the new Noyes School, Andover’s first public academy offering a true secondary education, and became the Board’s secretary. At the time the school was approved by the state legislature in 1822, Bryant was still only about twenty-three or twenty-four years old.
John Bryant’s brother, Jeremy, remained in Andover for the rest of his life, but John moved to Canterbury in 1824 or so, probably because he could buy property with a better head of water there. In Canterbury, he soon established a cloth carding and dressing works and a sawmill and lathe-splitting business; he also maintained his own farm and ran a tavern. John and Jeremy both raised families and became prominent figures in their respective towns, and were even serving as Justices of the Peace simultaneously in the 1830s. There are indications that each sometimes lived at the other’s residence for considerable periods of time, for John shows up in an 1827 legal document as then a resident of Andover, while a few years later Jeremy and his family appear in the 1830 census as residents of Canterbury, along with John and his own family.
The old millworks complex at the outlet of Highland Lake has disappeared now, and few traces of those structures remain. But the next time you cross over the channel bridge at the foot of Highland Lake, nearly opposite the Old North Church, look down along the watercourse and try to imagine the little mills that once clustered there. You are looking at one of the documented seedbeds of the Industrial Revolution.