Abstract: Exhibiting Innovation: U.S. Mechanic and Manufacturer Associations as Entrepreneurial Communities, 1820–1840

Joseph H. Wycoff


This paper discusses craft artisans' and manufacturers' popularization of technology innovation and their conceptualization of a political economy of manufacturing as evidenced by the mechanics' journals and fairs first organized in the period from 1820 to 1840. A segment of master artisans who originated from the craft system broke with their traditions to form mechanics' institutes in an effort to unite science and the mechanic arts. Many of these institutes focused exclusively on organizing scientific lectures; however, the largest institutes in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston also had important connections to the first mechanic journals and fairs in the United States. Through these organs, the artisans of the old craft system formed an "entrepreneurial community" that solidified the preeminence of new technology in the American political economy. Specifically, I argue that artisans' associations in the first half of the nineteenth century combined aspects of natural philosophy and patent jurisprudence into a coherent discourse on the political economy of manufacturing that imagined a new species of personal property—combinations and compounds of motion—as the keystone of progress and the wealth of nations.