John McMullen (1791-1870) and Joseph Hollen, Jr. (1798-1874), both of central Pennsylvania, patented a machine for knitting stockings in 1831. This was not the first machine of the sort, but it did promise a greater facility in shaping the work, the production of firmer and more even fabrics, and “the employment of children” to attend the operation.
Niles’ Weekly Register described the new machine as inexpensive and “very desirable, as affording employment, at home, to females dependent upon it for subsistence and the support of their families.” Each machine could make one or two pair of long men’s stockings in a day. Each was, moreover, so small and easily cranked by hand that a girl 12 or 15 years old “might give motion to” and attend three or more machines at the same time. The Western Christian Advocate reported that the machine “does the work of six expert knitters” and “can be worked by any intelligent child after a few minutes instruction.” Workingman’s Advocate expressed sorrow “for the old ladies, who will have to give up a favorite occupation, and resort to something more modern and fashionable than knitting.”
The New England Farmer saw it as a small neat machine “by which persons in indigent circumstances, and children may be employed to great advantage,” and which “opens a good field for the investment of capital.” It then added that the overseers all public institutions were particularly invited to examine the machine “as it may be very advantageously employed by them, and is within the means of the poor generally.”
A few observers recognized the human costs of automation. The Salem Observer, for instance, wrote: “We sincerely hope that modern inventions in mechanics will not supersede wholly the necessity of hand labor; for if we arrive at that period when labor shall become superfluous, we shall be a worse off set of mortals than we now are.”
The National Museum of American History may not have a McMullen-Hollen machine. But it does have the John Scott Medal given to McMullen for this achievement. John Scott was an Edinburgh pharmacist who, though he never set foot in the New World, bequeathed $4,000 to the City of Philadelphia, the interest of which was to be used to reward “ingenious men and women, who make useful inventions.”
John McMullen received two more patents. One, in 1846, described a machine for producing fish netting (US Patent 4,608, with an improvement in US Patent 15,245). The other, in 1854, described a mechanical means for preventing incrustations in steam boilers (US Patent 10,964).
Hollen received subsequent patents for knitting machines in 1850 (US Patent 7,509; the Museum has this patent model), in 1854 (US Patent 11,995), and in 1859 (US Patent 25,827). The Hollen Knitting Machine Company of Pennsylvania was incorporated in 1867, its aim being to manufacture and sell these machines.
“A Very Desirable Machine,” Niles’ Weekly Register 44 (1833): 113.
“Knitting Machine,” Western Christian Advocate (June 19, 1835): 31.
“Knitting Machine,” Workingman’s Advocate (Oct. 24, 1835): 1; copied from Boston Transcript.
“Knitting Machine,” New England Farmer (April 15, 1835): 318.
“Knitting Machine,” [St. Louis] Commercial Bulletin and Missouri Literary Register (Oct. 16, 1835); copied from Salem Observer.
Deborah Warner is a Curator in the Division of Medicine and Science, National Museum of American History, who blogs about the history of science, technology, and culture.