Article: What I Did on My Summer Vacation--The Uriah Boyden Papers :: Smithsonian Lemelson Center
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Kim Kennedy, Lemelson Center Archival Intern

Uriah Atherton Boyden. From the Uriah A. Boyden Papers, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

When I began my Lemelson Center archival summer internship in June, I had no idea who Uriah Atherton Boyden was. But while his may not be a household name, I learned that he was an important contributor to the development of turbines that powered New England mills and manufacturing companies during the 19th century. Boyden's advances in civil and mechanical engineering are illustrated in the notebooks, correspondence, patents, legal materials, oversize drawings, and notes that comprise the Uriah A. Boyden Papers--the collection that I processed this summer--in the Museum's Archives Center.

Boyden, the son of Susanna and Seth Boyden, was born on February 17, 1804, on the family farm in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Inventing ran in the family: Uriah's father invented a machine to split leather, while his brother, also named Seth, became a noted inventor in Newark, New Jersey (he invented patent leather, among other things).

Uriah joined his brother Seth in Newark in 1825 to work in Seth's leather and sheepskin bookbinding business, but returned to Massachusetts three years later. Like many budding engineers during this period, he took a position with a railroad company. Boyden conducted surveys for the Boston and Providence Railroad and was the chief engineer for the Nashua and Lowell Railroad from 1836 to 1838. During the 1830s, he also became interested in hydraulic systems that powered textile mills in the growing industrial center of Lowell, Massachusetts, and other riverside manufacturing towns in New England, and he designed a hydraulic power system for the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company in Manchester, New Hampshire, around 1840.

Boyden's design for a differential galvanometer. From the Uriah A. Boyden Papers, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Uriah Boyden is best known, however, for inventing the Boyden turbine in 1844, while working for the Appleton Company in Lowell. Modeled on the outward-flow turbine invented by Benoît Fourneyron in France in the late 1820s, Boyden made improvements based on experimentation, not theory, and calculations worked out with arithmetic since he had not learned calculus. His invention quickly became the most popular turbine in the United States because it was more efficient than waterwheels. He assigned his patent rights to a number of mills and manufacturing companies in New England in exchange for royalties and provided them with plans and specifications for turbines, although he did not personally oversee construction.

However, in 1849 Boyden's design was superseded by the more efficient inward-flow Francis turbine developed by James B. Francis and still in use throughout the world. Francis and Boyden were associates, and the Boyden Papers contain letters to and from Francis and drawings from Francis's book Lowell Hydraulic Experiments. It is unclear how closely Boyden was involved in the development of the Francis turbine; this relationship could be of interest to future researchers studying the Boyden Papers.

After 1850, the income from Boyden's patent assignments freed him to spend more time on scientific exploration and experimentation in the areas of chemistry, physics, and meteorology. For instance, in 1874 Boyden gave $1,000 to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia to be awarded to any North American who could "determine by experiment whether light and other physical rays are transmitted at the same velocity." Boyden also did research on tobacco's negative effects on health, including mental illness. However, he rarely published the results of his findings and did not receive much recognition for his scientific investigations.

Boyden's business card. From the Uriah A. Boyden Papers, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Boyden's other interests indicate a somewhat quirky personality. For example, he recorded all the fires in Boston, including how they started and how quickly the fire department responded. He had a reputation for being reserved and secretive; he was not a member of any professional associations, and lived alone in a hotel near his office. In addition, he was concerned with his health--he never drank alcohol, tea, or coffee, and he was a vegetarian.

Uriah Boyden died on October 17, 1879, in Boston. In his will he bequeathed approximately $250,000 to Harvard University, which was used to build an observatory in Peru in 1889. The Boyden Observatory moved to South Africa in 1927 and continues to operate today.

When I first faced the twelve boxes and six drawers stuffed full of Boyden's engineering papers, I was intimidated and unsure that I could make sense of this technical material. However, once I became immersed in the collection (and did plenty of Google searching) it became less overwhelming. I found myself learning a lot, not only about Boyden and his turbines but also about a fascinating period of change in America. I want to thank the Lemelson Center and the Archives Center for giving me this amazing opportunity, and especially my supervisor Alison Oswald for answering my many questions and providing much-needed guidance in processing the collection.

For further reading:

The 102-Inch Boyden Hydraulic Turbines at Harmony Mill No. 3, Cohoes, New York. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers, 1975. Accessed 5 August 2010:

"Turbine." Encyclopædia Britannica Online 2010. Accessed 5 August 2010:

Terry S. Reynolds, "Boyden, Uriah Atherton." American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
Accessed 5 August 2010:

A. H. Jarret, "Boyden Observatory [A Concise History]." Acta Academica No. 12 (1979). Accessed 5 August 2010:

From Prototype, August 2010

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