Technical Innovation and Responses to Deforestation in the United States, 1904-6

Technical Innovation and Responses to Deforestation in the United States, 1904-6

Paul Andreas Fischer


Professor McCollough


Technical Innovation and Responses to Deforestation in the United States of America, 1904-6

The importance of two technical innovations will be described as component to the development of American communities can be seen in the development of early modern forestry, analyzed in this first of a two part series spanning the time period from 1904 to 1934. The United States prevented the expanding economy at the beginning of this span from turning the landscape into a barren wasteland such as had been seen historically through technical innovation which also made this development possible. This will be seen in the span of production of on a qualitative level, an analysis with profound implications for the economic horizons at the time.

Some segmentation and disambiguation will be necessary as attention will be offered to technical innovation in forestry and to reforestation efforts, providing a cycle from the origins of deforestation and reforestation in the glimmer of the mirror of a prospector’s hypsometer through the measuring and production process with the hypsometer and back to the seed trees which allow reforestation. The seeds of the conservation movement can be found here, and this will be touched upon in summation, but will await further investigation in the subsequent paper on the topic. Research covered but not included in this synopsis of certain importance will include the prevention of forest fires and pathogens, which at the time also played roles in reforestation as well as deforestation efforts.

Addressing Problems in Forestry and Assembling Individualized Response Systems

Among the earliest efforts to organize forestry efforts in the United States was the establishment of a bureau for efforts in forestry that predated other federal efforts in related fields. Review of literature from Forestry Quarterly in February, 1904 provides a succinct description of the organization of the bureau, authorized and explored in 1903, which proceeds as follows:

Organization of the Bureau:

Forest Measurements and Forest Management – 24.4%

Dendrology (Forest Investigation) – 9.5%

Forest Extension – 14.4%

Forest Products – 14.4%

Records – 30-7%

This bureau was necessitated by a failure of state and local enforcement such as fire departments, not yet fully formed, as well as police responsibilities which were not established as the primary method of prevention (Forestry Quarterly Volume 2, 77-85). Indeed, constitutional protection of endangered forest fire zones at the time only applied to disaster areas after incidence, and were frequently inadequate in nature. This failure was described fully in a report of the Superintendent of Forests to the New York State Forest, Fish and Games Commission after forest fires consumed 12% of state lands, costing over 75,000 days of labor in clean-up costs.

State responses to forest fires and other dangers were not limited to New York, however, and two case studies are offered which endeavor to measure the results on states both farther east and west. In Massachusetts for the first time the unique nature of forests in relation to property is being addressed at this time. Simply prosecuting and investigating the fires and inadequate control of the land as matters of property destruction were proving futile, and the necessity to involve other departments, or establish such divisions as necessary had become apparent (Forestry Quarterly Volume 2, 59). One unique approach was the expansion of insurance companies’ corporate presence in the field, other suggestions include tax reform, though ultimately the report acknowledged that at the time Massachusetts had premier standards for forest care, which it was not wont to dismiss (74). The impact of neglect turning profitable woodlands into barren wasteland is well summarized, as, “neglect breeds neglect, carelessness induces indifferences; thriftlessness is our neighbor may sometimes stimulate by bad example to increase activity and thrift on our part, but when a whole community is slovenly, the character of the best is endangered by contagion” (54). The concern to intruding pathogens is addressed at this time, a field pioneered at the time, as fungal infection would be a primary concern for foresters in the coming decades. With the power of the newly innovated microscope this was a challenge that could be finally tackled, though this is a development which will be cited in the subsequent installment to this series.

In Michigan, concerns over the flames arising over groves of young pines gave rise to prevention of forest fires, and was a relatively new concept and will come into play as intrinsically tied to reforestation efforts. This will be discussed in nature with the results from a Minnesota experiment that was released subsequently, also in relation to pine trees, and would prove a critical seed source for early reforestation efforts. Firstly, however, it would be advantageous to take a look at some of the technological innovations making this expansion of the academics and industry behind forestry possible.

Hypsometer: A Glimmer in the Forester’s Eye Removes Trial and Error From an Industry, and Enforces the Scientific Method

The hypsometer was a device used to measure the height of trees, and a new design by Henry Donald Tieman described in May 1904 increased the efficacy of the device by double over the former model known as a Faustman, to around 45 trees an hour (Forestry Quarterly Volume 2, 144-7). The layout for the device can be seen below in figure 1 and a short description of its methodology will be provided. An example of how this device increases efficacy is the way it removed the necessity to calculate the slope of the ground into an equation to find the height of the tree, an extraneous piece of work, by virtue of a hanging weight. This 9.6 ounce device would transform the nation’s understanding and utilization of the scope of extant natural forest resources.

Figure 1. Hypsometer

A: Foresight, viewpoint B: Sliding Arm C: Rotary Mirror PD: Vertical height

PAD, PBC: Triangle measured TCS & PCD: 2 similar triangles W: Weight WD: Swinging Scale Rod

The impact of this invention on forestry in America can be imagined in two ways. Firstly, the process of tree prospecting was transformed. Vast areas of woodland were suddenly able to be quantified and prepared in value before lumbering operations were even deployed, this would feed the maturing railroad industry into its final stages of transportation dominance. More importantly, one only needed a basic set of calculations, generally prepared, in order to use this, transforming the investment and education needed to perform the otherwise costly process of prospecting for timber. That was a device which certainly increased the supply of timber, one that was met with an unflinching demand as industrial and corporate interests continued to boom. A tandem nature to the innovation creating a positive influence in the process of reforestation would be shared with another device that would prepare a log for use with unprecedented efficiency.

A New Xylometer Increases Production But Reduces Waste In the Lumber Industry

A similar paradox in engineering for the early conservationists of the time was found in the development of the xylometer. Profitability of the lumber manufacturing process was increased and greater supply of railroad ties allowed while waste in the production process was reduced, introducing an economic shift similar to a declining demand, as a result of the technical progress. The new design is pictured in figure 2 and can be found originally in the November, 1905 issue of Forest Quarterly, increased the number of ties, or pieces of lumber, that could be effectively quantified to twenty per hour (Forest Quarterly Volume 3, 335-8). The new technology developed in explicit co-operation with railroad corporate interests was of greater centrality to understanding the true benefit of the advance and yielded an indisputable increase in efficiency.

In order to evaluate this latter advantage, it will be first critical to examine some of the technical details behind previous attempts at the considerably important task of weighing and volumetrically categorizing lumber (Forestry Quarterly, 335). The most successful and widespread was the use of a water tank in order to weigh lumber, using a gauge to measure the displaced water and there-by find an estimate, though inaccurate, of the amount of lumber provided. Efforts to industrialize the process of timber harvest presented a problem with the former method, however, similar to the investigation at the time in the halls of academia with invasive fungi and insect species rotting standing groves of white pines, but instead induced rot in logs already prepared for production. Rather than rotting on the hills as they lived, this occurred as a result of the minutes it would take to load and unload a series of logs from a water tank in an efficient manner. Entire forests would then be wasted.

The new device relied on railroad technology for use and could weigh an individual log. Both of these removed much of the necessity for manual labor and increased precision of smaller operations (Forestry Quarterly Volume 3, 336-7). In addition to saving labor, the winch also provided a diameter of the log and allowed calculation of the specific gravity of the wood being prepared for the production process, generally in housing or transportation concerns. An interesting sidenote is the raw mathematical power making the progress possible, Humphrey’s or the Vermont Rule and Constantine’s Rule, gave individual loggers and companies the capability of making scientific work out of what would have been previously a rude game of guessing or estimation. Once again, the process would have required an educated individual and a significant amount of waste but was successfully replaced by someone who only had a general literacy, or capability of applying a chart to their manual labor (338).

Figure 2. Xylometer

Conclusion: How American Innovations Built the Land and, Ironically Enough, Saved the Landscape

The time period addressed in the periodical review from Forestry Quarterly demonstrated a period of significant research into forestry in the United States. Industrial expansion was massive, and these clutch bits of innovation and their mass-production allowed it to continue. This research would also prove necessary to allow the continuation of the American landscape, and establish conservationism as an environmental movement which remains enshrined by federal statutes, organizations, and cultural behaviors today.

Some of the aspects of forestry described work together, such as with the dual-utility of the hypsometer in deforestation as well as reforestation, and it will subsequently be necessary to evaluate what political and economic changes were made. This will be accomplished through a localized approach. In Vermont these technical innovations will be seen to radically change the nature of America’s relationship to the land. The techniques and inventions developed and described above provided stimulus behind the 1920s, and achieved maturation along with a fresh generation of timber, a president from the Green Mountain State, Calvin Coolidge, would be elected president and the legal structures of the renewed vision of American forests as more than resources but as crops will be seen in action. With the Great Depression looming, it may also be possible to make some conclusions about how the enormous growth of these efforts, which can now be confirmed to have occurred in Vermont, may not have spread to other states quickly enough to prevent what was definitively the greatest economic crisis in American history, though this will not be the purpose of further work in this field.


Fernow, B. E, New York State College of Forestry, and Ingentaconnect. Forestry Quarterly, 1902.

New York State College of Forestry. Forestry Quarterly, 1905.

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