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Gently Mad

A Visual History of the Industrial Revolution

While little documentation survives of Lowell’s early collaboration with Moody, the planning that went into the design and construction of the bold industrial experiment that came to bear his name was minutely detailed by the engineers and draftsmen enlisted to the task, and is splendidly preserved in ten thousand plans and drawings which to this day remain in the city where they were executed, divided among two separate institutions where they are available to researchers. Viewed as a kind of visual narrative, they offer in a way not available in any other graphic form a unique window into the physical development of an unprecedented social experiment that included the recruitment of young women to work in the mills, a kind of Yankee paternalism that would earn the approbation of Charles Dickens when he visited the city in 1842.

Three hundred of the earliest drawings are held by the Center for Lowell History, the special collections library of the University of Massachusetts Lowell located in what was once a boarding house for “mill girls” that abuts the Boott Canal. The far larger concentration is maintained by the National Park Service just a five-minute walk away in the Cultural Resource Center of the Lowell National Historical Park, established in 1978 by an act of Congress.

The very survival of these materials is a fortuitous curiosity unto itself, a circumstance made possible by the remarkable longevity of a business enterprise incorporated in 1792 for the express purpose of building a narrow transportation canal around a treacherous stretch of the Merrimack River known as the Pawtucket Falls. Once the Boston merchants decided that the falls had the potential to provide all the power they needed for their new mills—the Merrimack drops thirty feet in less than a mile before it merges with the Concord River—they began to buy up large blocks of land in the area.

For the plan to succeed, however, they needed unrestricted rights to the water, which they secured in 1821 with the acquisition of the Proprietors of the Locks and Canals on Merrimack River, the formal name of the company that had been established twenty-nine years earlier. More commonly known as Locks and Canals, the newly reorganized corporation proceeded to build a revolutionary system of channels that would provide power on two descending levels. Nathan Appleton described the arrangement succinctly. “The Locks and Canals were thus the owners of all the land and water power in Lowell. They made the necessary new canals to bring it into use.”

By 1850, nearly six miles of freshly dug waterways snaked their way through what by then was the state’s second largest city, turning turbines designed and fabricated by Locks and Canals machinists, driving the wheels, pulleys and belts of forty multi-story brick mills built by Locks and Canals construction workers, equipped with 225,000 spindles and ten thousand looms made by Locks and Canals mechanics.

It is a fascinating chapter in the industrial heritage of the United States, and a good deal of it has been richly examined from a variety of compelling perspectives, but what few of the histories explore in substantive depth are the detailed plans prepared by the company during its most dynamic years of activity. It was only in 1960, in fact, when Locks and Canals was moving to another building that the first batch of drawings was given to what was then the Lowell Technological Institute, now part of the University of Massachusetts Lowell, along with a considerable engineering library and photographic collection (finding aid).

Of principal interest in that deposit were materials attributed to James B. Francis, the brilliant engineer who developed numerous methods to deliver, measure, and most importantly, bill for water. His 1855 book, Lowell Hydraulic Experiments, outlined many of the principles he developed; what is known as the Francis turbine, an inward flow reaction design that combines radial and axial flow, is still very much in service throughout the world.

A talented draftsman and surveyor, Francis began working in Lowell in 1834 as assistant to George Washington Whistler, the chief engineer, and also father of the artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler. When Whistler accepted an offer to supervise construction of the Moscow to St. Petersburg railway in Russia three years later, Francis took over the top position, and remained a major figure in Lowell until his death in 1892.

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