Henry Burden's Horseshoe-Making Machine

Let's Talk Rusty Iron: Henry Burden was a prolific inventor, but it was his horseshoe machine that made a mark in history as a key factor in the Union's victory during the Civil War.

Horseshoe machine

Patent drawing of Henry Burden’s improved horseshoe machine of 1843.

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For want of a nail, the shoe was lost; For want of the shoe, the horse was lost; For want of the horse, the rider was lost; For want of the rider, the message was lost; For want of the message, the battle was lost; For want of the battle, the kingdom was lost, And all for the want of a horseshoe nail. 

Most of us are familiar with that little rhyme. It points out the importance of the small, insignificant things we usually take for granted.

Today, we worry about tires and the price of gas for our cars. Horseshoes and horseshoe nails never cross our minds - unless we happen to own a horse. In the first half of the 19th century, however, as more and more horses and mules were used for farming and transportation, horseshoes (and horseshoe nails) were on a lot of people's minds.

Prior to the 1830s, horseshoes were handmade by the local blacksmith. He heated a bar of iron and hammered it, bending it around the horn of his anvil. He hammered out the calks, then grooved and punched the nail holes - all by hand. This slow and laborious process presented a challenge to an inventive Scottish immigrant in Troy, N.Y.

Henry Burden was born April 22, 1791, on a small farm near Dunblane on the River Forth in Scotland. The boy was a natural mechanic who tinkered with and repaired his father's and the neighbor's farm machinery. He studied in the evenings under a local scholar and then, when he'd learned all that worthy knew, went to Edinburgh where he continued his studies in math, drawing and engineering.

Hearing glowing stories of the opportunities in the colonies, Henry sailed for America in 1819 and soon found himself working at a machine shop in Albany, N.Y., where " … he could make a better piece of work than any man (in the) shops (and) he could strike a heavier blow with the sledge than any of (the) strikers at the forge." While at that shop, Henry reportedly invented the first cultivator used in this country, although I have yet to find a patent for it.

Three years later, the Troy Iron & Nail Factory across the Hudson River from Albany hired Henry as superintendent. He invented a machine to make spikes. When the fledgling B&O Railroad began to lay flat iron rails westward from Baltimore in 1830, he designed a machine to make the rail spikes needed for the project. When H-shaped rails were adopted in 1835, Henry again came through with a machine to make the hook-headed railroad spikes necessary for the new rails.

In 1833, Henry built a twin-hull steamboat with the paddle wheel between the hulls. Named Helen after his wife, the boat ran at the then-unheard-of speed of 18 mph. Unfortunately, the Helen was soon wrecked when it ran into a dam on the Hudson River. Henry built at least one other improved steamboat and made plans to start a transatlantic steamship service. Those plans never amounted to anything, but supposedly the Cunard line adopted some of his ideas when that company established steamship service to Europe.

Henry apparently had long thought about a machine to make horseshoes. In 1835, he patented such a device. He continued to improve the machine, which took a red-hot iron bar and cut off a correct length before a series of dies pressed the bar into shape, thinning the inner edge and pinching and thickening the heels, while forming the grooves and punching the nail holes. Henry began to manufacture horseshoes at his shop, which was capable of turning out 60 finished horseshoes every minute.

At the start of the Civil War, Henry Burden & Sons (Burden had bought and renamed the Troy Iron & Nail Factory in 1848) was in a position to supply Union Armies with millions of horseshoes. It has been written that, without Henry Burden & Sons, the Northern Armies would have been unable to mount the several large-scale invasions of the South that eventually resulted in a Union victory.

Nineteenth century armies were highly mobile. Although the infantry still mostly traveled on the old reliable "shank's mare," (their own legs) thousands and thousands of horses and mules were required by armies of both sides. These animals carried the vital cavalry and scouts, without which the commanding generals would have been blind, as well as most of the field grade and general officers. The essential field guns of the artillery, which caused so much death and destruction, were moved by horse power. Then there were the thousands of wagons that carried the food, tents, forage, ammunition and all other supplies needed by a military force in the field.

A couple of stories from the war point out the importance horseshoes had on the fortunes of the opposing armies. Any time Union soldiers were operating in enemy territory, they were instructed to find and destroy Southern blacksmith shops, and confiscate or destroy the precious anvils and horseshoe nails. The Confederates, on the other hand, devised an apparently unsuccessful plot to infiltrate the Burden factory and steal the design for the horseshoe machine.

Henry built an immense water wheel in 1851 to power his factory, which had previously been run by five smaller wheels that proved inadequate. The overshot wheel was 60 feet in diameter, 22 feet wide and produced 1,200 hp. Constructed of iron, except for the wooden outer rim and buckets, the wheel had a total of 264 2-inch iron spokes in tension, similar to a bicycle wheel.

George Washington Ferris was a student at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy and reportedly visited the Burden factory. Some people believe Ferris got his idea for the Ferris wheel, which he invented in 1893, from Henry's water wheel.

After Henry's death in 1871, his descendants ran the firm (later called the Burden Iron Co.) until 1940, when it was sold to Republic Steel. The plant was shut down in 1968, but the fancy office building is still in use as headquarters of the Hudson-Mohawk Industrial Gateway.

If I ever get to Troy, I plan to look it up. FC 

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at letstalkrustyiron@attnet