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.

| October 2007

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.