A group portrait honoring America’s rich invention history captures its greatest inventors in a moment in time that never occurred.
The painting hangs in the grand, neo-classical National Portrait Gallery in Washington, once home of the United States Patent & Trademark Office. It depicts a symbolic gathering that honors America’s innovative past, while encouraging observers to speculate on its future.
Men of Progress (1862) is a study of how America saw its leading technologists in the 19th century. The romanticized gathering of great minds never took place but was a virtual product of artist Christian Schussele’s imagination and his patron, Jordan Lawrence Mott, that took four years to compile from individual portraits. (This was a century and a half before Photoshop.)
The National Portrait Gallery, a Greek-revival building that was impeccably restored in 2006, housed the United States Patent Office from at least 1867 to 1932. (The official NPG history has the USPTO appearing in 1842.) Work on the building was started in 1831.
For my account of why Schussele’s vision of America’s visionaries remains timely, please read “Fathers of Invention”in the September IAM Magazine. Both print and digital editions are available.
Necessity and Ego
“If necessity is the mother of invention,” I write in the Intangible Investor, “then ego is the likely father.” The U.S. industrial revolution spawned an innovation age prior to the Civil War that helped to transform the United States from a wannabe nation to one of greatness.
“In 1857 the inventor of a coal-burning stove, Jordan Mott, commissioned Alsace-born portraitist Christian Schussele to paint a group portrait of 19 U.S. scientists and inventors who ‘had altered the course of contemporary civilization’”.
Those depicted in the portrait had never met as a group. The artist sketched separate studies of each subject before combing them in his final, formal composition. Image altering software would have made it easier, but that was some 140 years in the future.
The subjects’ eyes in the portrait are never fixed on each other or the artist, as if to distinguish each inventor’s singular vision.
Fathers of Invention
The following list identifies the inventors and their primary contributions, starting from the left side (The Father of the Fathers of Invention, Benjamin Franklin, hovers on the wall in the background):
Dr. William Thomas Green Morton: surgical anesthesia
James Bogardus: cast-iron construction
Samuel Colt: revolving pistol
Cyrus Hall McCormick: mechanical reaper
Joseph Saxton: coal-burning stove, hydrometer, ever-pointed pencil
Charles Goodyear: vulcanization of rubber
Peter Cooper: railway locomotive
Jordan Lawrence Mott: coal-burning cooking stove
Joseph Henry: electromagnet design
Eliphalet Nott: efficient heat conduction for stoves and steam engines
John Ericsson: armored turret warship
Frederick Sickels: steam-engine gear and steering device for ships
Samuel F. B. Morse: electric telegraph
Henry Burden: horseshoe manufacturing machine
Richard March: rotary press
Erastus Bigelow: power loom for carpets
Isaiah Jennings: threshing machine, repeating gun, friction match
Thomas Blanchard: irregular turning lathe
Elias Howe: sewing machine
I encourage those visiting Washington – students, tourists, inventors, government workers, IP holders and anyone interested in the rich innovation history of the U.S. – to stop by the National Portrait Gallery and take in this inspiring portrait. Admission is free.
Image source: commons.wikimedia.org; Edward Sachse & Co., chromolithograph, c. 1857.