Filed under: Capitalism, Economy, The United States | Tags: A Wealth of Invention, The Industrial Revolution, Without Government Interference
Entrepreneurs see a business opportunity and some few have the courage to take the risk to realize the opportunity. The nineteenth century, the industrial revolution, was a ferment of invention that changed America and the world. There was the cotton gin, indoor plumbing, steam engines, the Canal Act, and then Cyrus McCormick invented the reaper. An acre of wheat could be harvested in a day until Cyrus McCormick came along, and then that amount grew to eight acres a day, and America became a breadbasket for the world. John Deere fiddled around with a steel saw blade and developed a plow that could cope with the heavy soils of the Midwest. The sewing machine transformed clothing.
And a gentleman from Massachusetts named Fredrick Tudor observed that in the winter there was all sorts of ice available for free on New England ponds and lakes. He saw an opportunity to bring ice to parts of the world where ice was never seen. On February 13, 1806, a ship chartered by Tudor sailed out of Boston Harbor loaded with a cargo of 80 tons of ice bound for Martinique. Didn’t work. Martinique had no place to store ice, Tudor hadn’t learned how to insulate the ice on the voyage, nor did “the Martiniquais, who had done without ice for two centuries, know exactly what to do with it, so they treated it as a curiosity.”
Tudor believed in his idea even if no one else did, and established ice houses in likely markets, but it wasn’t until he lit on a troublesome waste product of the firewood industry that his dream came to fruition. By the 1830s ice was a very profitable American export. In 1833 Tudor managed to get about a hundred tons of ice to Calcutta. The India Gazette demanded that the ice be admitted duty-free and unloaded in the cool of the evening. The British bought the entire cargo at a handsome profit for Tudor.
By the 1850s, ice was being shipped to Rio de Janeiro, Bombay, Madras, Hong Kong and Batavia. In 1847 twenty-three thousand tons of ice were shipped out of Boston to the hot cities of the world. This was the start of the American love affair with iced drinks and frozen desserts. ( Europeans continue to think we’re weird). By the 1880s the ice trade was estimated at eight million tons annually. The trade lasted well into the middle of the twentieth century as refrigeration began replacing the ice man.
The story of entrepreneurs is a fascinating one: the ideas that work and the ideas that didn’t. Here again, I have referred to An Empire of Wealth. New products are invented, refined, become popular and are succeeded by something else. Today, when technology is changing so fast we can hardly keep track, the new new thing is celebrated, admired, superceded and forgotten almost overnight. And what lasts?