Inventor Cyrus Chambers Transformed the 17th Century Milling Industry
The Kennet Square native was motivated to make his father proud.
Sometimes, a man just wants a good word from his father. And that might be particularly so if there was an earlier moment when he, um, didn’t get it.
Perhaps that’s how it was for Cyrus Chambers of Kennett Square, a self-described mechanic who started out winding bobbins in his father’s woolen mill and went on to invent machines that changed their industries. “I think I succeeded,” he told the boys of Friends’ Central School in 1910, a year before his death, “because, first, I was industrious; second, because I made a study of the subject that was before me.”
At least once, Chambers’ Quaker parents, John and Hannah (Thompson) Chambers, might’ve labeled the ninth of their 13 children as possibly too industrious and too focused.
Chambers was born near the present location of Kennett Square’s borough waterworks, in a house called Bloomfield. During the War of 1812, about 3,000 troops commanded by Brig. Gen. Joseph Bloomfield had camped on the site, and the name stuck.
Men in the Chambers family worked with their hands. “I am a mechanic,” Chambers also told the Friends’ Central boys, “because my ancestors were mechanics. In fact, they have been mechanics from the time of William Penn, both on my father’s and mother’s side. One member of our family was induced to come over with William Penn and built the first mill for grinding grain in the colony. And so I come by the love of machinery honestly.”
The Penn-era miller to whom Chambers referred was his third-great-grandfather, Caleb Pusey, who built Penn’s mill in Upland and whose 1683 house still stands nearby.
One family story concerned the time that John Chambers Sr. cut his own saw to make the most of a pile of sawmill scraps. “Father had read of circular saws, but had never seen one,” recalled Chambers’ youngest brother, John Jr. “He thought he could construct one if he had a proper disc of steel.”
So, one Saturday, he came home with a disc from a nearby rolling mill and immediately got to work notching teeth into the rim. “They do say father did not go to [Quaker] meeting the next day,” wrote John Jr. “The saw was in successful operation within the week, cutting the slabs into stove lengths, which found a ready sale in the village.”
Formal education happened around the margins. “All the schooling I got was between Christmas, the time the factories closed down for the season, and in the springtime, which was about three months,” recalled Chambers. “So, while my fellow students had the whole year to go to school, I had but three months, yet I had to keep up and did keep up with the rest.”
At age 7, Chambers went to work in his father’s mill. His job was to monitor bobbins—wooden spindles around which thread was wound—and to remove and replace them as they became full. “There was no child labor law at that time,” he recalled. “I was too little to reach from the bobbin wheel to turn it and wind the thread at the same time, so my father fixed up the bobbin wheel to go by a slipping belt … so I could wind the bobbin and regulate the winding by the foot, and thus produce as many bobbins in a day as my elder brothers used to do.”
At age 10, Chambers was assigned to weaving satinettes (a type of fabric), but was too small to reach from one side of the loom to the other. His solution: He put wheels on a bench and laid a short track on the floor. “I could push myself from side to side,” he recalled, “and thus was enabled to reach that which the bigger boys reached.”
On the side, Chambers—at age 11—built a telegraph after he “absorbed the idea” in a newspaper description of Morse’s new line between Baltimore and Washington. Chambers’ line ran only between the upper and lower floors of a Kennett Square schoolhouse. But, according to John Jr., it worked quite successfully.
As time passed, young Chambers became absorbed by the workings of all machinery and even cut his meager classroom time to spend more hours in the mill’s repair shop. There, the staff allowed Chambers the time to putter, making miniature water wheels, trip hammers, sawmills and threshing machines.
About this time, Chambers built a model of his father’s water-powered mill, “complete in every detail.” It was all there: the overshot water wheel, the machinery, and the drive shaft that ran the length of the building and from which power was transferred from the water wheel to the machines with leather belts.
“In nosing around for leather for belts, he came across father’s Sunday boots,” recalled John Jr., “and proceeded to cut them into strips for his purpose. The leather was well tanned, and so was the boy.”
At age 16, Chambers was sent to learn dentistry. An older brother, already in the field, was willing to take him on as an apprentice, and Chambers was clearly talented at working with small parts. But Chambers wasn’t done with machinery: He used his brother’s dental instruments to build a miniature high-pressure steam engine of silver, for which he melted some of his mother’s spoons. It ran 3,000 revolutions per minute and weighed less than a half-ounce. “At that time, [it was] the smallest engine that had ever been constructed,” he said.
The engine was displayed at the 1876 Centennial and is now in a permanent collection at the Franklin Institute.
Chambers’ big moment came from reading that school teachers made less than the young girls employed to fold book pages as they came off the press. “Why,” he asked, “could not books be folded by machine?”
Bayard Taylor, the writer, was a neighbor, so Chambers asked him. Taylor, in turn, asked his publisher friends and was told that no such thing existed. “My first effort was to make a machine that would fold newspapers,” said Chambers.
He demonstrated his device in Philadelphia publishing circles. Then, with a letter of introduction from Taylor, he went to New York to meet New-York Tribune publisher Horace Greeley. Greeley listened, then said, “When you have a machine large enough to fold the Tribune, bring it to me, but you’ll never make a machine to fold books.”
Annoyed, Chambers went home and built a full-size book-folding machine. In less than a year, it was installed at J.B. Lippincott, folding pages for the Comly speller. “It was the first successful book-folding machine I ever made,” said Chambers, “and it ran for 25 years, until the place burned down.”
An explanation of its workings—a dull knife striking the printed page in the center, thus pushing it between rollers—sounds simple but really isn’t. Chambers subsequently turned his attention back to newspapers and mastered that, too.
A partnership with a brother, Chambers, Brother & Co. produced its news- and book-folding and pasting machinery at a plant in Philadelphia. Now, observed Chambers in 1910, “you hardly get a periodical or newspaper, you do not have a single book in your library of recent publication that has not gone through my inventions.”
That was no brag, just fact.
Chambers was apparently close to his family because—while working on the folder—he took seriously a brother’s desire that he invent a machine to make bricks. “He was a young man about 21 years of age and wanting to go into business [but] too much of a mechanic to undertake to do the work by hand,” said Chambers.
A potter told Chambers that it couldn’t be done. At the time, brickmaking involved manual labor—workers got into clay-filled pits and tramped it with their bare feet to “temper” the material. “In the course of a day or so, they got enough clay tempered to make 2,000 bricks,” said Chambers.
Then, it was pushed into molds by hand, put up to dry, turned on edge when half dry, and finally wheeled into sheds to finish drying. “I made up my mind that any machine whose principles of operation followed process by hand would not save any money,” said Chambers. “The molding was a very insignificant part of brickmaking.”
His first machine put 600 pounds of pressure on the brick, but it fell apart when fired—the clay was not sufficiently tempered. Chambers switched to higher-moisture clay, but that material was more stiff, and the machine broke. “I smashed it down. I built a second, and it broke; built a third, and finally I got a machine that was capable of working this stiff clay and producing brick one-third rapidly and continuously,” he said.
Chambers and his brother attempted to patent the machine, but a patent examiner rejected the application. It wasn’t the drawings or the language; the man just didn’t think such a machine practical. “My attorney said to the examiner, ‘I thank you for the interest taken and your frankness,’” said Chambers, “‘and as for the practicability, I will refer you to the firm of W. and M. Chambers of Pea Shore, N.J., who have turned out 2 million bricks by this process.’ The patent was issued without the alteration of a single word.”
Lastly, said Chambers, “I sent for my old father.”
The elder Chambers came to Philadelphia, where son Cyrus had set up his brickmaking machine at the Sherman building at Seventh and Arch streets. “I fed the clay into it, and my father sat and sat and sat,” said Chambers. “He did not say anything and did not do anything but sat with his chin between his hands, his elbows on his knees, watching the process.”
Chambers ran the machine for an hour, until everything there was to see had been seen, then shut it down and asked, “Father, what does thee think of it?”
John Chambers Sr. sat up in his chair, looked at the boy who once ruined his boots, and said, “Cyrus, I will risk all I am worth on that machine.”
As Chambers told the story, his father’s words were the encouragement he needed to build a full-scale machine, for which the largest casting weighed 5,000 pounds. More tinkering followed, but Chambers’ machine eventually went into production, making 40 bricks per minute. By the end of his life, improved versions made in excess of 400.
Boots or not, Chambers died knowing his father was proud of his boy.