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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,564

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This is the grave of George Corliss.

Born in 1817 in Easton, New York, Corliss grew up in fairly average environment. His father was a local doctor on the New York-Vermont border. Corliss started working at the age of 14, got some schooling, and hoped to rise in life. From the time he was a child, he was good at mechanical things. By 1837, he led a crew to rebuild a bridge in Vermont after a flood. He started his own store in 1838 and did that until 1841, got married, had a couple of kids. One thing not very average about his upbringing–his father’s house was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Corliss could have led a comfortable enough life in his small town store. But he had a hankering to go into invention full-time and this was a period in which tinkerers could do that. So he did and started patenting stuff in 1842. His first was a machine for sewing leather boots and shoes, which became part of the deskilling process that defined a lot of 19th century work struggles. In 1844, he moved to Providence in order to secure funding to build and market his machine. He needed work while this went on and so he got a job as a draftsman in a local company. He also started working on improving steam engines and this would be his life work. Water-based engines in factories still ruled the day. Steam was inefficient at that time, but if you could create a better version of these engines, you could decouple industrialization from spots with waterfalls to generate power.

In 1848, Corliss had gotten enough investors to start his own steam engine factory under the name Corliss, Nightingale & Company, which included one of his partners. He bought out his partners in 1856 and reestablished the business as Corliss Steam Engine Company and included his brother in leadership. By this time, he was a successful businessman. He was sending his engines to British cotton mills by 1862. The Corliss steam engine really was a huge innovation in the history of the Industrial Revolution, especially once he started perfecting the valves, which was done partly in British plants and partly under his own close supervision. I am no expert on engineering or mechanics, so I am not even going to try and describe how it works. There’s a long Wikipedia entry on the thing for those of you who have skills in talking about these things.

All I can say is that by moving mechanical production away from water-based engines, it allowed for more intensive industrialization and made the process immune to things such as drought that would limit the ability to produce power or floods that would inundate a factory. The increased efficiency also meant less coal that needed burning, which helped buyers justify the high cost of his ever more efficient but also pricey engines. The impact on labor was not so intense, except that it just required more and more of it as industrialization expanded. This of course led to a big market for work for unemployed or underemployed Europeans, who flooded into American factories in the years after the Civil War, many of which used Corliss’ devices. Of course conditions in these factories were horrendous and that includes in Corliss’, but that’s not really about the engines per se so much as about the rapaciousness of capitalists and the indifference to the value of workers’ lives shared across 19th century industry.

Speaking of the Civil War, Corliss expanded his production of machinery to serve the Union cause in the war. When the Union wanted to build ironclad ships, it needed very specialized production for parts of it and only a few companies existed that could provide it. So Corliss took that on and built important parts of that groundbreaking boat. He was so committed to the Union cause that once he got that contract, he put a halt to any other work in the factory until it was done.

By about 1867, Corliss was one of the most famous inventors and industrialists. He won first prize at the 1867 World’s Fair in Paris in an engine building competition. In granting the prize, one commissioner noted of the Corliss valve gear  “A mechanism as beautiful as the human hand. It releases or retains its grasp on the feeding valve, and gives a greater or less dose of steam in nice proportion to each varying want. The American engine of Corliss everywhere tells of wise forethought, judicious proportions and execution and exquisite contrivance.” These kind of accolades started coming fast to Corliss. In 1870, upon being honored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, its current president Asa Gray stated,  “No invention since Watt’s time has so enhanced the efficiency of the steam engine as this for which the Rumford medal is now presented.”

So Corliss got to spend his later years as an elite. The factory still hummed. He served a few terms in the state legislature, a solid Republican. He was an elector in the 1876 presidential election for Hayes. His original 1849 patent expired in 1870, so he lost the monopoly over his engines and many other companies started manufacturing them or similar types. But they were still called Corliss engines, no matter what company made them. He took on Rhode Island’s entry in the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, and he built the gigantic engine that ran power for the whole fair. The fair planners made a big deal out of this. They had President Grant and Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro II each pull a lever at the same time to start the engine and immediately the thirteen acres of machines showing American industrial might started up, everything from cotton gins to lithographs for wallpaper. That engine weighed a mere 776 tons. It took 71 flat cars to get that beast from Providence to Philadelphia for assembly. He spent $100,000 on it. Then, after it worked great for the whole exhibition, he sold it to George Pullman for his infamous company town at a discount, for $62,000. Still, the publicity for Corliss was worth maybe not getting what he put into a used engine.

Corliss died in 1888. He was 70 years old. By the time he died, he had won 68 patents. His factory in Providence by this time employed approximately 1,000 workers. However, the business went under in the Panic of 1893.

George Corliss is buried in Swan Point Cemetery. Providence, Rhode Island.

In 2006, Corliss was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, which evidently actually has a museum in northern Virginia. If you would like this series to visit other people inducted in 2006, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Martha Coston, who invented signal flares for ships, is in Philadelphia. Bob Gore, who invented Gore-Tex, is in Oxford, Pennsylvania. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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