Boy’s Diary Tells of Water Wheels in the Early 1800s

For centuries, water wheels provided power for a variety of uses. Eric Sloane’s book "Diary of an Early American Boy" looks at the impact of a mill powered by an overshot water wheel in the early 1800s.

| November 2012

I recently found a book titled Diary of an Early American Boy by Eric Sloane. Published in 1962, it’s based on an old diary with leather-covered wooden covers that, along with a hand-fashioned stone inkwell bearing the carved initials N.B., was found by Sloane in an old, old house in Connecticut.

The original owner of the diary, a 15-year-old boy named Noah Blake, was given the diary by his parents on his 15th birthday, and he began to make entries in the little book immediately, with his first being: “Noah Blake, my book. March the twenty-fifth, Year of Our Lord 1805. Given to me by my Father Isaak Blake and my Mother Rachel upon the fifteenth year of my Life.” 

Noah’s parents settled on a stream called Red Man Brook somewhere in New England in 1789 and Noah was born the following year. A crude log cabin with pounded dirt floor and bark roof, along with a temporary barn and a shed to house the forge, were constructed first.

Over the years, as Noah grew more able to help, buildings were improved and a proper barn was built. The house received a wooden shingle roof and two expensive glass windows imported from England. At last, during 1805, the year of the diary, Isaak realized his twin dreams of building a proper bridge across the creek on the road to the nearby village, for the use of which the Blakes charged a toll, and diverting part of the creek into a mill pond, with a sluice or millrace leading to an overshot water wheel powering a new mill. Water power would run a sawmill, a small gristmill, the forge bellows, a trip hammer for the anvil and a lifting winch.

Sloane fleshes out Noah’s brief diary entries with an imagined narrative based on his vast knowledge of early American tools and machinery, and illustrates it with exquisite pen and ink drawings. The book particularly piqued my interest in early water wheels. I found that water wheels have been around since the ancient Greeks.

Overshot water wheels

In an overshot water wheel, water was led by a sluice or trough from a water supply to a point just past the top center of the wheel where it fell onto paddles or into buckets between the two wheel rims. The force of the falling water and its weight in the buckets caused the wheel to turn in the same direction as the water flow, providing power to turn the mill machinery. For an overshot water wheel, the height of the water’s fall must be greater than the wheel’s diameter. The overshot wheel’s efficiency (how much of the energy in the moving water was used) was rated at 65 to 70 percent.