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Yankee Ingenuity: A Review

By Philip R. Devlin

(October 4, 2023) — In one week “Made in Connecticut: The 2023 Manufacturing Summit” will be held at the Aqua Turf in Southington. It is sponsored by the Connecticut Business and Industry Association (CBIA). It is designed to promote and to spur interest in manufacturing by Connecticut manufacturers. Let’s take a 100-year plus look back at a time in America when the small state of Connecticut dominated the manufacturing landscape and needed no promotion.

“You adapt. You overcome. You improvise.” So says Clint Eastwood as Gunny Sgt. Highway in the classic 1986 movie called Heartbreak Ridge. Sgt. Highway’s concise expression about what Marines need to do in battle is also an apt description of the “Yankee ingenuity” that characterized early America, particularly here in Connecticut. This type of adaptation to circumstances led many tinkering Nutmeggers to be some of the most famous inventors in our history. The inventiveness of Connecticut citizens was captured well by historian W. Storrs Lee in his 1957 book, The Yankees of Connecticut:

 One patent hold among three thousand citizens is the average ratio for the United States, and in non-industrial states it runs as low as one in thirty thousand. The Connecticut ratio over the years has averaged one in a thousand, and sometimes as high as one in seven hundred, and that excludes the shy inventors and the careless ones who can’t be bothered with the red tape of registration.

A statistician with the Census Bureau in Washington, William A. Countryman, a Hartford native, wrote the following as part of an article in Connecticut Magazine in Volume 7 in 1902. His words validate the inventiveness of the Connecticut citizenry and the tremendous effect that it had on manufacturing and employment:

I have been much pleased as a native and citizen of Connecticut, now residing in Washington, D. C, to observe the evidence on every hand of the importance of our state as a manufacturing center. At my boardinghouse I find the plated ware to be of Connecticut manufacture. The clock that tells me the time; the watch my friend carries; the hat he wears; his pocketknife, are all from Connecticut. At the office I write with a Connecticut pen, and when I need an official envelope I find that the original package from which I take it bears a Connecticut mark. If I make an error and wish to erase it, I do so with a steel eraser made in Connecticut, and my letter finished I deposit in a corner letterbox, stamped “New Britain, Conn.” In looking about the city I am attracted to a shop-window glittering with swords, and read… this inscription: “Hartford, Conn., U. S. A.” A Winchester or a Marlin rifle, or a Colt’s revolver, all made in Connecticut, I find in another window a supply of fixed ammunition from New Haven and Bridgeport. Axes, hammers, augers, all kinds of builders’ hardware, are in a shop close by—all made in Connecticut. Foulards, cottons, woolens, worsteds, rubber goods of all kinds, are near by — they are standard makes from Connecticut. The gas and electric fixtures that show them off are of our manufacture… Do I want a button? Made in Connecticut. “Hand me a pin.” The box tells me it is from “Waterbury, Conn., U. S. A.” That automobile rushing by came from Connecticut. That bicycle, those tires, these novel call and door bells—all from Connecticut. Typewriters on every side are from our little state. And what of the sewing machine? Everybody knows that the earliest ones were made in Connecticut… And last let me say that where my trousers are put away at night they go into a hanger of the best kind—made in Connecticut.

Incidentally, the year that Countryman published his article—1902—was also the year that a company in Stamford invented the first electric typewriter.

The first Connecticut resident ever to receive a patent was Abel Buell of Killingworth. Buell received the patent for a lapidary machine. Scores of other important inventions can be attributed to Connecticut natives. Eli Whitney was responsible for the cotton gin and for the manufacture of interchangeable parts for guns. Whitney’s nephew, Eli Whitney Blake, invented the first machine for crushing stones, thereby changing roads forever.

Samuel Colt (above) produced his famous revolver after getting the idea for a revolving chamber by watching the action of a ship’s waterwheel. Winchester and Spencer invented rifles that affected the course of history. David Bushnell invented and launched the first submarine here in Connecticut. John Fitch of South Windsor designed and built the world’s first steam-powered boat in 1786. Charles Goodyear accidentally discovered the process for vulcanizing rubber by dropping a compound onto a wood stove and noting the effect that heat had on it. Hiram P. Maxim invented the first silencer for a gun in 1909. In the mid-20th century a Trinity professor named Vernon Krieble invented the thread-locking adhesive that came to be known as “Loctite.” These are just a few of the many significant inventions developed by Connecticut citizens from the 20th century and before.

Besides having an extraordinarily high ratio of patent holders for the size of its population, Connecticut also can lay claim to having the first woman ever to be granted a patent by the U.S. Patent Office: Mary Dixon Kies. Born and raised in Killingly, Kies invented a way of weaving straw with silk or thread. Her patented process helped boost the hat industry. She was granted her patent on May 5, 1809. Kies earned the praise of first lady Dolley Madison for her invention. By 1840, over 10,000 patents had been issued but only 20 had been issued to women. Today, more than 12 percent (tens of thousands) of all patent applicants are women. Since the patent office was established in 1790, over 7 million patents have been granted. In 1970, only 26 percent of all patents were granted to foreign enterprises.

By 2010, 244,341 patents were issued with more than 50 percent granted to foreigners or foreign companies. From 1990-1996, Connecticut was ranked second in the nation in per capita patents per one million people of population. In 1997, Connecticut led the nation in the per capita patent ranking per one million people. Since then the ranking for Connecticut has steadily fallen all the way to ninth in 2004—the last year that I found statistics for. The trend for the number of American patents in general, as well as the per capita average of Connecticut in particular, has been steadily downward in the last 15 years or so. The article that William Countryman wrote in 1902 about the ubiquity of the Connecticut products he found in Washington, D.C. could not be written today. He would probably have to substitute the word “China” for “Connecticut.” Perhaps next week’s conference can change that.



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