Jacob Perkins and His Amesbury Nail Factory
by Ron Klodenski
Member, ACM Industrial Survey Team
Jacob Perkins (1766 - 1849) was a man who never stopped inventing, refining and thinking about all things mechanical. Today we might call him obsessive. Even before he arrived in Amesbury in 1795 at age 29, he had done well for himself by minting coins for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, making popular jewelry and cleverly mass-producing iron nails at a factory in Byfield near his hometown of Newburyport.
Perkins had three good reasons to move his nail factory from Byfield to the falls on the Powow River in Amesbury. One was the abundant water power for operating his about-to-be-patented nail machines. Another was a nearby supply of iron sheets, the raw material for his nails. An iron mill was already operating at the Powow River falls (today’s Upper Millyard) and it meant Perkins would no longer need to transport iron to his factory by water or wagon as had been necessary in Byfield. The third was easy access to tide water and the Merrimack River for shipping and receiving.
As described by Greville and Dorothy Bathe in their comprehensive 1943 biography, Perkins’ Amesbury nail factory was located on the hillside between Friend Street and the Powow, a spot now occupied by a municipal parking lot. A channel (or raceway) from the upper dam supplied water to turn a 30-foot-diameter water wheel inside the mill. A 90-foot-long driveshaft attached to the wheel transmitted rotational force to multiple nail-making machines in the factory.
Perkins’ nails became popular, used in great quantities in construction throughout the region. Unlike wrought iron nails of the period, which were hand-made by blacksmiths and home artisans, Perkins’ nails were inexpensive and uniform. Carpenters seemed to like them. In the years the nail factory operated, tons of these nails were used to build and repair buildings in Amesbury, Newburyport and places farther away. Who knows how many still hide in old buildings around us?
Unlike round-headed nails of today, Perkins’ nails had a distinctive t-shaped head. The head could be driven flush with the wood surface while still holding the board securely in place, similar to the way a modern finish nail works.
After setting up production in Amesbury and obtaining the patent for his machinery, Perkins continued to pursue improvements to his manufacturing process. He just wasn’t satisfied with the speed or reliability of his new machines. But his business partners, Samuel Guppy and John Armstrong, were losing patience. They thought Perkins should direct more of his attention to business matters and less to tinkering with machinery. This, the Bathes speculate, was the reason for a falling out between Perkins and his partners. Whatever the reason, Perkins left the partnership after only three years and took up other projects such as anti-counterfeiting printing methods, pumps and fire engines. Meanwhile, his former partners had retained ownership of Perkins’ patent and the nail factory continued to operate in Amesbury for several more years, despite devastating fires in 1805 and 1811.
Being easily distracted from business interests by technical challenges and curiosity was a trait that followed Perkins throughout his life. As the Bathes put it, “Fundamentally Perkins lacked the persistence of purpose to pursue any one thing to a logical conclusion. ...At times so much of his efforts were wasted upon intriguing enterprises which temporarily afforded him the exciting stimulus of some hoped-for momentous discovery.”
Perkins eventually went to Boston, New York and Philadelphia, building his reputation for engraving counterfeit-resistant printing plates for banks and governments. In 1818 he moved to England where he worked with partners to produce currency and postage stamps. During all this time, he worked on many side-projects. In his lifetime, he was granted 40 patents for inventions in the U.S. and England. He died in London in 1849 and is buried there.
Outside of Amesbury, Perkins is best remembered, not for his nail making machinery, but for his 1834 patent for mechanical refrigeration with a vapor compression refrigeration cycle, the principle still in use in today’s refrigerators and air conditioners.
Source: Jacob Perkins, His Inventions, His Times, & His Contemporaries by Greville Bathe and Dorothy Bathe, 1943.