Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2624
SAUGUS ALCHEMY

by John H. Lienhard

Today, iron and alchemy in the Plymouth Colony. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

John Winthrop, Jr. The Pilgrims reached America on the eve of a scientific revolution. Interest in alchemy was rising in England, just as it was about to be transmuted into modern chemistry. This was also a time of rising need for iron -- for an chemical understand of iron-smelting. Iron ore was heated in a kiln by burning charcoal. A fluxing agent, usually limestone, was mixed in with the ore to help liquefy the slag so it could be drawn off more easily.

Of course our new Plymouth Colony had a great need for iron. And here enters John Winthrop Jr. Ten years after the Mayflower, Winthrop's father arrived with eleven ships and 700 new immigrants. John, then 24 years old, came a year later. He'd had studied law, then travelled widely in Italy and the Mideast studying alchemy.

The Winthrops were Puritans. John practiced so-called Christian alchemy -- pursued as a means of Christian service. The successful alchemist had to be pure of person. Never mind transmuting base metals into gold; he wanted the useful fruits of the practice -- like finding the alkahest to cure all sickness.

Winthrop also worked in metallurgy. He urged the Pilgrims to use their local mineral resources. Back in England in 1641 he formed an iron production company which soon built two New England smelting operations. The first was in the township of Braintree, just south of present-day Boston. It didn't do as well as the second in Lynn, on the Saugus River to the north.

The Saugus works was a complete state-of-the-art ironworks -- all the way from ore to pig iron and finished cast iron products. When the works couldn't locate limestone for fluxing, they discovered that a very low-grade ore called gabbro would serve instead, even yielding a bit of iron.

The Saugus River Ironworks kiln
The old Saugus Ironworks kiln

And so practical alchemy had put New England on the road to industrialization 24 years after Plymouth Rock. The work force, by the way, was mostly indentured craftsmen, not part of the Puritan theocracy. Some went back to England when they'd finished their indenture. A few converted to Puritanism and stayed. And some migrated elsewhere in New England and set down their own roots.

As for Winthrop, he gained permission to form a new colony in what is now Connecticut and later served twice as governor of Connecticut. And here his alchemy once more became a positive force: Connecticut clergy had emerged as the most virulent witch persecutors. Then Winthrop, the scientist, stepped in.

His alchemy taught him that he did magic only by dealing with nature's complex forces. He realized that none of the poor social outcasts being hanged as witches had that ability. In a short time, he'd done away with the practice. And Connecticut became the most enlightened Puritan settlement -- something to remember as we work our own scientific magic, and as we persecute our own witches. We can only admire John Winthrop's deep-seated ability to tell the difference.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


W. W. Woodward, Prospero's America: John Winthrop, Jr., Alchemy and the Creation of New England Culture, 1606-1676. (The University of North Carolina Press, 2010). My thanks to Pat Bozeman, UH Library, for calling this book to my attention.

E. N. Hartley, Ironworks on the Saugus: The Lynn and Braintree Ventures of the Company of Undertakers of the Ironworks in New England. (University of Oklahoma Press, 1957 ... 1990)

Some years ago, I did this episode about a visit to the Ssugus River Ironworks

Images: Winthrop painting courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Photos by J. Lienhard


The Saugus Ironworks as it is reconstructed today. Click here for the National Park website for this historic park.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2010 by John H. Lienhard.