Engineering Philadelphia

Engineering Philadelphia: The Sellers Family and the Industrial Metropolis

Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Engineering Philadelphia
    Book Description:

    The Sellers brothers, Samuel and George, came to North America in 1682 as part of the Quaker migration to William Penn's new province on the shores of the Delaware River. Across more than two centuries, the Sellers family-especially Samuel's descendants Nathan, Escol, Coleman, and William-rose to prominence as manufacturers, engineers, social reformers, and urban and suburban developers, transforming Philadelphia into a center of industry and culture. They led a host of civic institutions including the Franklin Institute, Abolition Society, and University of Pennsylvania. At the same time, their vast network of relatives and associates became a leading force in the rise of American industry in Ohio, Georgia, Tennessee, New York, and elsewhere.

    Engineering Philadelphiais a sweeping account of enterprise and ingenuity, economic development and urban planning, and the rise and fall of Philadelphia as an industrial metropolis. Domenic Vitiello tells the story of the influential Sellers family, placing their experiences in the broader context of industrialization and urbanization in the United States from the colonial era through World War II. The story of the Sellers family illustrates how family and business networks shaped the social, financial, and technological processes of industrial capitalism. As Vitiello documents, the Sellers family and their network profoundly influenced corporate and federal technology policy, manufacturing practice, infrastructure and building construction, and metropolitan development. Vitiello also links the family's declining fortunes to the deindustrialization of Philadelphia-and the nation-over the course of the twentieth century.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6974-9
    Subjects: History, Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xvi)
    (pp. 1-10)

    “There’s millions in it!” exclaimed Colonel Eschol Sellers as he conjured up schemes to sell patent medicines, build railroads, corner the market on hogs, and turn remote lands in Tennessee into cities buzzing with enterprise. The protagonist of Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s novel,The Gilded Age, the Colonel was a sympathetic but delusional character. His tongue, they wrote, “was a magician’s wand that turned dried apples into figs and water into wine as easily as it could turn a hovel into a palace and present poverty into imminent future riches.”¹ His plans invariably rested on the corrupt and...

    (pp. 11-45)

    In 1790, George Washington moved into his presidential mansion at Sixth and High Streets, as Philadelphia became the nation’s capital. A grand brick home paid for by Robert Morris, the financier of the Revolution, the mansion was down the street from the region’s chief merchant countinghouses and a block from the State House. Yet these individuals and institutions represented the city’s fleeting claims to political and mercantile power. A decade later, President John Adams and Congress decamped to Washington, and Pennsylvania’s capital had left for the country town of Lancaster. Morris sat in debtors’ prison, and New York would soon...

    (pp. 46-75)

    Around 1820 a German coppersmith named Henri Mogeme arrived at Sellers & Pennock’s engine shop on Market Street. Escol’s father, Coleman, trying to decide whether to hire him, inquired about his experience. After learning to use tools at the Heidelberg Polytechnic, the visitor replied, he had worked in machine shops in London, Manchester, Liverpool, and then at West Point and the Allaire Iron Works in New York City. Escol remembered that “Father made some remark about his wandering habits,” to which Mogeme replied, “Yes, but the more move the more learn and the better work do.”¹

    This process of moving, learning,...

    (pp. 76-106)

    In December 1855, Coleman received his invitation to return to Philadelphia. His second cousins William and John Jr. recalled that when they last corresponded, “you were very desirous of obtaining a situation east of the mountains.” They proposed that he take charge of the drawing office at their machine tool works, to replace their brother-in-law and partner Edward Bancroft, who had recently met an early death. Coleman would play a central role in the design of machines and organization of production at William Sellers & Co. The firm’s namesake would continue to oversee mechanical operations on the shop floor as well...

    (pp. 107-135)

    By the time of the Civil War, William Sellers was an influential leader among Philadelphia capitalists at large, not just manufacturers. Perhaps the best evidence of this was his membership in the Saturday Club. From the 1860s to ’80s, this exclusive group included the chief power brokers of the region’s elite Republican set. Investment bankers Anthony Drexel and Clarence Clark and merchant John Welsh, later U.S. ambassador to England, were national figures in finance and trade. Pennsylvania Railroad president Thomas Scott and machine builders William Bement and Sellers represented industry. Board of Trade president and longtime Franklin Institute board secretary...

    (pp. 136-155)

    Visitors to the 1876 Centennial Exhibition witnessed not only consumer goods and the machines that produced them. They also encountered exhibits of the key tools in the Western powers’ development of a global marketplace—cannons, shells, and torpedoes made of what manufacturers called steel.¹ Most of the weapons at the exhibition came from Germany and England. But one Philadelphia exhibitor distinguished itself for its steel railway tires, axles, and super-hard tools for cutting metal, apparently the first such items made by the Siemens method of steel production. This established William Sellers’s Midvale Steel Co. as the leading scientific steelmaker in...

    (pp. 156-191)

    In an 1885 article in theJournal of the Franklin Institute, Coleman Sellers laid out his vision for the science of building cities. Machines produced in the workshop could improve urban life, he argued, only if the city was designed to accommodate them. “Great results followed in practice when a scientifically-constructed and well-laid road was ready for the locomotive,” he observed. “Let us have smooth well laid streets, too,” so that streetcars may move people efficiently between zones of home, work, and leisure. Transit, heat, light, and water were matters of civic importance, public goods that must be delivered efficiently....

    (pp. 192-216)

    In April 1900, William and John Jr., both in their mid-seventies, sold the Edge Moor Bridge Works to the newly formed American Bridge Co. J. P. Morgan assembled the new corporation in a classic Morgan consolidation to reorder competition and profit in the industry. He merged Edge Moor Bridge with twenty-seven other firms, including Carnegie’s Keystone Bridge. Morgan’s group paid the Sellerses $321,247 (over $8.6 million in 2010) for their company and half of the right-of-way of the River Front Railway that served the factory.¹ The Sellerses had always struggled to make a profit in this business, and elected to...

  13. NOTES
    (pp. 217-258)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 259-268)