Innovation Little Bitz: Portable Steam Power Invented on the Merrimack
Portable Steam Power Invented on the Merrimack
John Chipman Hoadley came to the new city of Lawrence in 1852 to run the Lawrence Machine Shop owned by the Essex Company. Hoadley had begun his engineering career while still a teenager, working on expansion plans for the Erie Canal. The move to Lawrence 16 years later put him at the epicenter of the textile–driven wing of the Industrial Revolution. Machine shops like the Essex Company’s built and maintained the constantly evolving, complicated machinery necessary to produce textiles.
In 1857, after the shop’s spinoff from the Essex Company failed, Hoadley took control of the operation, formed his own business, J.C. Hoadley Co., and focused his energies on the market for portable and semiportable steam engines. His product was so popular with farmers and laborers that the name “Hoadley” became a generic term for portable steam engines.
Joel Havens, an expert from the historic machinery website VintageMachinery.org, puts the Hoadley into historical context: “Steam engines were the first replacement power source for waterpower and animal power, waterpower being limited by location, and animal power by size. It was difficult at best to harness more than six or eight horses, whereas the portable steam engine could be set up almost anywhere… This allowed farmers and loggers to take their power into the fields and the forests to do the jobs of animals faster and more efficiently.”
These mill-supporting machine shops also provided a place for bright young men to receive hands-on training. Pardon Armington and Gardiner Sims met while working at Hoadley, and went on to form their own steam engine company in Lawrence in 1875.
Interestingly, in 1866, Lawrence elders were looking for a “poor man’s” candidate who would best represent the new city, and found that man in the then 30-year-old Armington, a Lawrence High School graduate. The newly elected mayor of Lawrence built up the city’s infrastructure including sidewalks, schools and police courts, but the citizens of Lawrence were left unhappy and in debt, causing Mayor Armington not to seek re-election.
Armington and Sims moved to Rhode Island in 1881 and continued perfecting their steam engine. According to Havens, by 1886, the company had reached its nadir of success, with Thomas Edison acquiring close to 300 of its stationary steam engines to power his electric generators, which were used to supply early streetlights with electricity in several American cities.
By the early 1900s, steam engine technology was being usurped by more powerful gasoline and electric engines.