Henry Burden
Henry Burden

Information on this page is from History of Rensselaer Co., New York by Nathaniel Bartlett Sylvester, published in 1880.

HENRY BURDEN was a native of Scotland, where he received a practical education in engineering and drafting. He came to the United States in 1819, with commendatory letters to Senators Benton and Calhoun and the Hon. Stephen Van Rensselaer. At Albany, N. Y., he was engaged in making agricultural implements. In 1820 he invented the first cultivator used in this country. In 1822 he went to Troy, where he assumed the charge of the iron and nail factory. His inventive genius was at once taxed with the construction of a machine for making spikes, hitherto the result of hand-labor. He succeeded, securing a patent therefor May 26, 1825. He invented, and patented Dec. 2, 1834, a new and useful machine for manufacturing wrought countersunk railroad-spikes for the flat rails then used by the various railroads of this country. The following winter, while on a visit to England, he learned that the flat rails would likely be superseded by the "T" and "H" rails being introduced, and for which a different spike would be required. Returning home, he reconstructed his machines, began the manufacture of the new hook-headed spike, and supplied (in 1836) the Long Island Railroad Company with ten tons of the same. In 1840 he was granted a patent for the machine which made them.

His mind took an even higher flight - from spikes to steamboats. He aspired to construct a vessel which, with less draft of water than the boats then plying on the Hudson, should attain to greater speed. Accordingly, in 1833, he constructed the steamboat "Helen," named in honor of his wife. Its deck rested upon two cigar-shaped hulls, three hundred feet in length, with a paddle-wheel amidships thirty feet in diameter. A trial trip was made Dec. 4, 1833, and the following July her speed tested, developing the rate of eighteen miles per hour. (The "Helen" was shortly after rendered worthless by being accidentally run against the Castleton dam). Another vessel, launched in 1837, had many improvements upon the first boat, for all of which Mr. Burden procured patents. He was "the first advocate of the plans at present adopted by English and American ship-builders in the construction of long vessels for ocean navigation. As early as 1825 he laid before the Troy Steamboat Association certain original plans whereby the construction of steamboats for inland navigation could be greatly improved, and which some years later were adopted in the building of the steamer 'Hendrick Hudson.' Besides increasing the length of the boats, he wisely suggested, for the convenience and accommodation of passengers, the erection of sleeping-berth-rooms on the upper decks, being a decided change from the holds of vessels, where they had previously been placed. In 1846 he conceived the gigantic plan of a transatlantic steam-ferry company. His prophetic ideas again were shown in the prospectus of "Burden's Atlantic Steam-Ferry Company." Although the company was never organized, the salient points advanced by Mr. Burden were subsequently copied by the Cunard and other ocean lines. He was also among the first to suggest the use of plates for iron-clad sea-going vessels, and sent specimen plates of his own manufacture to Glasgow for examination.

One of his greatest achievements, however, was the immense water-wheel, characterized by the poet, Louis Gaylor Clark, as the "Niagra of Water-Wheels," constructed in 1851, designed to enhance the power for his nail-factory, for which the five separate wheels had been inadequate. It is an overshot wheel of twelve hundred horse-power, sixty feet in diameter and twenty-two in width, containing thirty-six buckets, each of over six feet depth. The axis is composed of six hollow cast-iron tubes, keyed into flanges, from which diverge iron rods of two inches thickness, to the number of two hundred and sixty-four, which terminate at the outer edge of the wheel. By a lever its revolution may be governed to a nicety, and its power regulated to any required degree. "Looking upon the trains of rolls, the rotary-squeezers, the furnace-blowers, the horseshoe-, rivet-, and punching-machines, and the other appliances in motion for manufacturing iron, one sees more appreciatively the immense power furnished by this huge wheel constructed by the master-mind of Henry Burden."

Scant space have we to even enumerate the many valuable inventions of this son of genius, so many of whose efforts have directly and so greatly benefited the home of his adoption. By his persistent efforts the water-supply of the Wynantskill was largely increased; by his "rotary concentric squeezer," patented in 1840, may be found in all the leading iron manufactories of both continents; and in 1835 he invented the famous "Horseshoe Machine," to which in subsequent years he added valuable improvements. Inasmuch as Trojan skill and wonders-working machinery were important factors in outfitting our armies during the late civil war, so Henry Burden's lightning-made horseshoes were instrumental in conferring important political benefits upon the nation. Scarcely a civilized country on the glove but has availed itself of the benefit of this invention. "It is no little fame for Troy that at these works, now in possession of the sons of Henry Burden, were manufactured the first ship spikes, the first hook-headed spikes, and the first horseshoes made by machinery in the world."

In 1848 he became possessed o the company's entire interest in the iron-works, since which time it has been wholly controlled by him or (since his death, Jan. 19, 1871) his sons, James A. and L. T. Burden, under the Title of Henry Burden & Sons. "The little wooden mill which he entered as a superintendent, long ago disappeared to give place to his larger works, which today, were they to stand in one alignment, would occupy a tract of land a mile in length. This immense establishment comprises two works, - the 'upper works,' or water mills, on the Wynantskill, a short distance east of the Hudson River, and the new works, called the 'lower works,' or steam mills, located on the 'farm company' property and the Hoyle farm, embracing about forty-five acres of land between the Hudson River Railroad and the river, extending from the Wynantskill to the Clinton Foundry." These works, embracing several score of buildings, contain sixty puddling furnaces, twenty heating furnaces, fourteen trams of rolls, nine horseshoe machines, twenty-five engines, seventy boilers, etc. - acres of machinery; while about the buildings is a network of railroad tracks, upon which daily are moved trainloads of iron ore, kaolin, sand, etc., for shifting which the firm's own locomotive is ever ready. The ground upon which these buildings stand was formerly low and overflowed by freshets, while the water in the river adjacent to their works was shallow and full or bars. At great expense the grounds have been filled up, and the river dredged, so that the company's docks are accessible to the largest vessels of the Upper Hudson. Their steam derricks, used for unloading coal, are the ingenious contrivance of the late William Burden. Each consists of two lofty frames, placed on at the dock and the other at the rear of the coal heap, three hundred feet distant; a strong wire cable is stretched over these frames, on which an iron carriage travels to and fro, carrying a self-dumping bucket, of the capacity of a ton of coal. A team engine hoists the filled bucket to the cable, along which it travels to the point where the tilting apparatus overturns its contents upon the pile. Alongside the coal heaps are vast deposits of iron ore, mostly the brown hematite and magnetic varieties of Lake Champlain. There are also piles of the Hudson, N. Y., limestone, used as "flux" to aid in the fusion of the ores.

The capacity of these works in the line of horseshoes alone is 60 shoes a minute, or 51,000,000 annually. In boiler bolts, 80 per minute are the work of the twelve rivet machines. In the spacious rolling mill (421 by 96 feet), devoted to merchant iron manufacture, is a splendid Corliss engine. 1400 workmen are employed, to whom $500,000 are annually paid in wages. The fruits of their labor are 600,000 kegs of horseshoes and 42,000 tons of iron, exclusive of pig, annually. Their yearly sales of horseshoes average about $2,000,000. Fifty horses are used, and 90,000 tons of coal consumed annually by this establishment.

A memorable case in the history of American jurisprudence was the twenty years' litigation to protect the Burden patent on the spike machine, engaging the talents of Chancellor Walworth, Governor Seward, David L. Seymour, Nicholas Hill, and others of equal note.

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