Orange County
Historical Society


Carol Siri Johnson

[Editor's Note: This article appeared in the 2003 Issue of the Journal of the Orange County Historical Society. It is being republished on the website as part of the ongoing activities surrounding the 250th Anniversary of the Revolutionary War. The footnoted version is contained in the 2003 Journal which is available for purchase. JAC]

There are many different ways of looking at history. This is an examination of the history of technical communication just before and during the American Revolution in the lives of three engineers, Robert Erskine, who was the first Surveyor General to the American Army, Thomas Machin, who fought in every major battle of the Revolution and planned and built many of the major fortifications, and Rufus Putnam who, even though he was a simple carpenter, became a trusted advisor to George Washington and was later appointed the first surveyor General to the United States. Paul Walker’s wonderful book, Engineers of Independence: A Documentary History of the Army Engineers in the American Revolution, 1775-1783, inspired much of this essay.

Technical communication is how people teach each other how to do things. Technical writing is, by its very nature, teaching others how to do something and usually includes human acts that go beyond writing: drawing, demonstrations and verbal communications. As the technological aspects of our society have intensified, more of what one needs to know must be written, if only because one could not possibly remember it all. But technical communication has only evolved toward written communication gradually.

Technical writing became widely significant with the invention of the printing press in 1475. Elizabeth Tebeaux, in The Emergence of a Tradition: Technical Writing in the English Renaissance, writes “Pollard and Redgrave’s A Short-Title Catalogue of Books Printed in England ...1475-1640, provides that best, most accessible record of the prevalence and popularity of technical books."

As soon as the printing press was established, how-to books were printed and sold. These included pamphlets on medicine, accounting, farming, animal husbandry, gardening, household management, cooking, navigation and military science, to name a few.

Throughout the eighteenth century, Europe was moving toward formality in recording and relaying technical information. For instance, the seminal work on warfare, A Manual of Siegecraft and Fortification, by Sebastien le Prestre de Vauban, written between 1667 and 1672, was circulated as a manuscript until it was finally published in 1740.

In Scotland, Robert Erskine attended the University of Edinburgh, although there was no formal degree. Machin, the son of a mathematician, learned surveying and business management from a renowned civil engineer and inventor, James Brindley, who worked for the Royalty. In Europe, there were formal methods of technical communication, schools of engineering and printed documents of warfare.

In Rag, Tag, and Bobtail, Lynn Montross notes that the Revolutionary War “ranks as one of history’s most literate wars” because of the immense amount of writing surrounding it. J. B. Harley writes, In Mapping the American Revolutionary War, that “It might also be called one of the most ‘carto-literate,’ in view of the considerable number and diversity of surviving military maps from the period…” There was also a considerable number of textbooks used for engineering information on the tools and techniques of building fortifications. Harley quotes John Muller, a professor of artillery and fortification at the Royal Military Academy in England, who had written A Treatise Containing the Elementary Part of Fortification, Regular and Irregular, with Remarks on the Constructions ... of Marshal de Vauban and Baron Coehorn ... For the Use of the Royal Academy of Artillery at Woolwich, (in which his technical explanations are as wordy as his title) regarding the tracing of a fortification on the ground:

“When a plain table is used, the plan must be drawn on a large scale, at least of 30 fathoms to an inch, which is fastened with sealing wax to the table, so as to lay quite smooth and even; then, by means of a ruler with sights, the angles are laid down on the ground, and the lengths of the lines measured by a chain and rod: but when the theodolite is used, the lines and angles must be found by trigonometry, in the manner given in our Elements of Mathematics.”

This explanation was followed by six pages of complex instructions and contains the ultimate technical writing sin in that it refers the reader to another volume.

As considerable as these texts may have been, they were not widely available to the American Army or engineers during the Revolution. American engineers had to adopt a more investigative and inventive way of getting things done, and this is true of their technical communications as well. Early American technical communication was haphazard, born of necessity, very much like our country. From the start, Americans used resourcefulness to overcome lack of information. During the Revolution, people communicated any way they could, by letters, drawings, maps, explanations and physical demonstrations. It was, from the first, a practical community of discourse in which ideas could move very quickly, and that is still true today.

The paths of these three engineers may have crossed; they may have met each other; but one thing is for certain: their communications formed part of a web that transmitted the knowledge for the necessary acts to happen that would win the war.

Robert Erskine

As the last son of a clergyman, Erskine had no expectation of inheriting money. He had some training as an engineer at the University of Edinburgh, and was barely able to earn a living by specializing in Hydraulics. One of his early business ventures left him bankrupt, and it was partially this motivation that caused him to accept a challenging position to rescue Peter Hasenclever’s ironworks in America, owned by the London Syndicate (also named the American Company, depending on one’s point of view). Just before he left London, his “Centrifugal Engine for raising water” was exhibited before the Royal Society and he had “personally read a descriptive paper thereon, on which occasion ‘both engine and paper were universally approved.’” He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and one of the signatories of his certificates was Benjamin Franklin.

While in London, Erskine had the time to write and print circulars for his inventions. An example of the technical writing he did there, of the “Continual Stream Pump,” is similar to the manual pumps still used in rural America today. Erskine patented, advertised, and demonstrated this pump, doing all of the writing, financing, and marketing. Nevertheless, neither it nor his election to the Royal Society enabled him financially to stay in England.

Illustration and description of Robert Erskine’s pump.

When Erskine took the job as Ironmaster, he was moving into an undocumented field. Robert Gordon wrote that “Books published before 1800 offered little practical advice; they were unlikely to have been of much use to working ironmakers.” Erskine needed to understand this industry and therefore he spent two months touring and inspecting forges and furnaces in England before he sailed for America. The result of this information gathering was a series of letters written to the American Company in which he recorded technical and mechanical details connected with the mines, forges and furnaces. He describes his writing style thusly:

“That I may not omit particulars which hereafter may be useful, I hope you will excuse me, in this and all my future letters, for giving a detail of my observations, in the same order in which they occurred; by following this rule, tho I may mention some things trivial and of no avail, yet I shall run the less hazard of overlooking things of importance."

He recorded everything in the same order as he saw it. He arranged to have these letters returned to him before leaving for America. As a result, these letters are among the only records documenting the working of the eighteenth century iron industry.

Four things were essential to the iron industry: iron in the ground, water for power, trees for charcoal, and roads to move the iron to market. Anyone who has lifted a piece of iron ore knows that the transportation had to be streamlined so Erskine began making maps as soon as he arrived at Ringwood. Although his primary training was not as a mapmaker, his rough drawings drew the attention of General Washington who had been aware that maps were a necessity in warfare. Washington wrote:

“As an accurate knowledge of the Country is essential to a good defence, and as the Enemy’s approach may be sudden and we may be called to act, without having time… it would answer a valuable purpose, to have it immediately carefully reconnoitered, and sketches taken of all the landing places, great roads, and bye-paths, encamping grounds, heights, Rivers, creeks, morasses, and everything that it can be of any importance to know.”

Washington asked Erskine to become Geographer and Surveyor General to the American Army. Erskine responded with an extremely long letter describing the surveying process and finally stated his primary responsibility was to the London Syndicate. Therefore, he could only devote half his time to this job. Within a few months, that half time became full time, but Erskine balanced his commercial and home responsibilities with his war responsibilities throughout the rest of his life. Harley notes “The very selection of Robert Erskine, a surveyor of British civilian background, as the first appointee to this post is proof of Washington’s gift for improvisation and nearly points to the hybrid character of much of Revolutionary mapmaking."

He notes that Washington’s requirements for mapmaking were “short term objectives, such as the need to map the environs of a new encampment, to survey terrain through which movement was to take place, or merely to update his ‘pocket map’ in a particular area” but also notes that Erskine had a broader view of his mapmaking with a grander design and that the whole group of maps awaits a proper study of its technical significance. These maps are an example of the make-it-up-as-you-go-along school of American engineering, warfare and technical communication.

A small drawing in the Albert Heusser papers at the Passaic County Historical Society illustrates the point.

When one looks closely at this small drawing, calculating the distance across the Hudson River at Dobbs Ferry, one sees that it is covered with thousands of tiny, needle-thin raindrops. On the back of the drawing is a handprint made by someone with a very dirty hand. Those two details of the drawing point again to the thesis that American technical communication, like the war itself, was done on the spot and that it was resourceful, rather than organized. It is also significant in that the making of this drawing was a part of the process of exposure to the weather and terrain that led to Erskine’s death. After this surveying trip in the Hudson Highlands in 1780 (when this map was executed), Erskine caught pneumonia and died at age 45.

Thomas Machin

Machin had already distinguished himself in battle and studied engineering before he migrated to America. He had worked under James Brindley, a well-known civil engineer, as his surveyor, paymaster, and business manager. There is no full biography of Machin, so one does not know why he traveled to the West Indies before coming here, but it is known that he came in the service of investors to locate a fictitious copper mine. Machin was probably present at the Boston Tea Party, was wounded at Bunker Hill, and was in every major battle of the Revolutionary War. His “military service encompassed the entire eight years of hostilities and vigilance” and “[he] served the cause of liberty from start to finish.” Very little has been written about him and it may have something to do with the fact that, unlike Erskine, he left almost no paper trail. Machin accomplished incredible engineering feats and the communications he used to do them were (conjecturally) verbal and demonstrative. There are a few maps and letters by him, but there are many letters about and to him. It was not that Machin was unable to write or draw, but there were other forms of communication that were faster. Some of Machin’s most notable work during the Revolution was in the Highlands. His work as a builder of fortifications was already well known when “In July 1776, Machin received a letter from George Washington requesting that he proceed to Fort Montgomery, in the Highlands, on the Hudson River to act as engineer in completing works already started and to start new works that were deemed necessary to secure the passage of the Hudson River against the enemy.” He designed and built Fort Clinton, he altered and fixed the great chain, he planned and created a Cheveaux-de-Frise, and he was also wounded in the battle at Fort Montgomery.

The lives of Erskine, Machin and Putnam may have crossed at many points; their communications certainly did. All three were involved with the creation of Fort Montgomery and the Great Chain, but Thomas Machin was essential to the effort. From the beginning, when there was a secret committee to “devise and carry into Execution such Measures as to them shall appear most Effectual for Obstructing the Channel of Hudson’s River,” Washington and Rufus Putnam visited the site together. Washington wrote to Machin and ordered him to immediately go to Fort Montgomery to act as Engineer. Putnam wrote to Machin and asked him to create a map, which was used immediately by Washington.

Machin produced this map in 1777 and it was one of the finest drawn of the Highlands. ”While civilian mapping in colonial America was usually a contemplated, professional activity, military maps were many times a product of the exigencies of the moment. There was (as already noted concerning some fortification plans) a constant need to improvise because of a lack of suitable men, instruments, or materials: several cartographers complained of a shortage of paper and pencils during the Revolution.” This map was one part of an ongoing web of communications among the Army engineers, a web that shared the intelligence needed to survive. It was immediately sent on to Rufus Putnam to show to Washington.

This photo gives an indication of the size of the 1777 map of the Highlands produced by Machin (30x115cm). This map is in the Cornell University Kroch Library Rare Manuscript Collection.

Machin’s first tasks were to construct Fort Clinton, overlooking Fort Montgomery, and to fix the Great Chain, which had already sunk twice. The chain was made of iron and stretched across the river at the present site of the Bear Mountain Bridge. At this point, the Hudson “river is 1,800 feet wide, 120 feet deep, and subject to strong tides.” According to Rufus Harte, in a paper presented in 1946 to the Connecticut Society of Civil Engineers,

“Securing and fabricating the material for the great chain at a time when such material was both scarce and in much demand for other uses, while facilities for doing the work were almost nonexistent, and then transporting, assembling and placing the completed device under the existing conditions, were most remarkable and outstanding industrial and engineering achievements."

Even though this was a very complex task,at which others had already failed, Machin succeeded and he did so without written specifications. The few documents surrounding the construction of the great chain are the bill for iron from Robert Erskine, who was still producing iron at Ringwood, and a few letters from Governor George Clinton to Machin, in one of which Clinton chastises him for allowing the workers work short hours:

“I think the artificers neither go out early enough in the morning, or continue late enough in the evening, at work. I was surprised this day to see many break off a little after three in the afternoon."

These fragments of letters illustrate that Machin was a master of getting things done. He allowed his workers to work short hours; in return he gained their trust and their knowledge of what mistakes had previously been made. This is a good use of knowledge gathering of verbal information to devise improvements and put them in place.

Machin was also responsible for constructing a Chevaux-de-Frise (underwater obstructions) to protect the Hudson. Erskine had designed a Chevaux-de-Frise and sent the specifications to Benjamin Franklin, among others. His plan was used eventually, but not by Machin. Erskine’s plan was complex; any carpenter could build the plan that Machin eventually adopted. Chevaux-de-Frise, or, the Horses of the Friesland, were originally land obstructions made of pointed logs that were placed in front of earthwork fortifications. Their purpose was to slow the advance of the enemy’s forces. Erskine’s design was so complex that it had to be accompanied by a model and by directions that were several pages:

Robert Erskine’s design for a Marine Chevaux de Frise.

“There is but one right way of putting the model together, which makes it necessary ... to observe it attentively and comprehend its construction before it is taken to pieces; when the construction is well understood, its putting together is very easy; if the pieces are all of the same dimensions and the notches alike – which they should be. But to give a true practical idea of taking it to pieces and joining it up again, please observe that the Tetrahedron has four horned corners, numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, and three horns to each corner. Place corner No. 1 uppermost…”

Erskine’s technical instructions for this construction were lengthy. The design Machin used was most likely created by a carpenter named Robert Smith, even though it has been attributed to both Benjamin Franklin and Robert Erskine. The 1775 Pennsylvania Committee of Safety records states:

“Mr. Robert Smith, carpenter, appeared at this Board with a model of a Machine for obstructing the navigation of the River Delaware, and explained the construction of it, which was approved of."

It was much simpler. No description has been found of Smith’s “Machine,” but none was needed because Smith also offered to demonstrate the construction of it and to oversee the manufacture of the obstructions, which he did. It was this design that Machin sank in the river near West Point. It was a simple case: the technical directions for Erskine’s version were too complex and intellectual. Ordinary people could complete Smith’s plan, chosen by Machin, in less time.

A drawing depicting the Chevaux de Frise placed in the Hudson from Plum Point to Pollepel Island, north of West Point. Courtesy New-York Historical Society, New York City.

Rufus Putnam

At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, Washington knew that an army corps of engineers was necessary to build fortifications. However, there were very few trained Engineers in the Colonies so the American Army had to try to recruit engineers from France. The French were well versed in siegecraft and warfare. Entire schools were formed around the theories of Sebastien le Prestre de Vauban and it was said, “ville assiégée par Vauban, ville prise, ville défendue par Vauban, ville impregnable” (“a city besieged by Vauban is a city taken; a city defended by Vauban is a city free”). Vauban included many drawings with his methodical descriptions of warfare. He described strategy, tools and types of fortification. However, the effort to recruit French engineers took time, and when the engineers finally arrived, they immediately began to argue about status and pay which rendered many of them ineffective.

There were many military texts published, mainly in France and Germany, but in America “After the start of hostilities, ... the supply of imported books tended to dry up and was supplemented by editions, including new digests and translations, from American presses."

These texts were not always available to the armed forces on the move. Rufus Putnam, acting as Washington’s engineer, was a carpenter by trade. He is an excellent example of the American resourcefulness: his lack of formal training was compensated for, many times over, in his common sense and his ability to follow a problem to its conclusion. In the following passage from his memoirs, he demonstrates that, even when technical documentation is rare, it is still valuable and useful:

“I was invited to dine at head Quarters, and while at diner General Washington desiered me to tarry after diner - and when we were alone he entered into a free conversation on the Subject of Storming the town of Boston. That it was much better to draw the enemy out to Dorchester, then to atack him in Boston no one doubted, for if we could maintain our selves on that point or Neck of Land, our command of the town and Harbour of Boston would be such as would probably compel them to Leave the place. But the Cold weather which had made a Bridge of Ice for our passage into Boston, had also frozen the earth to a great depth, especially in the open country Such as was the hills on Dorchester Neck. -So that it was impossible to make a Lodgment there in the usual way, however, the General directed me to consider the subject and if I could think of any way in which it could be don, to make report to him imediately. And now mark those Singuler circumstances which I call providence. - I left head quarters in company with an other Gentleman, and in our way come by Genl. Heaths. I had no thoughts of calling untill I came against his door, and then I Sais, let us call on Genl. Heath, to which he agreed. I had no other motive but to pay my respects to the general. While there I cast my eye on a book which Lay on the table, Lettered on the back, Mullers Field Engineer. I imediately requested the General to lend it me. He denied me. I repeated my requst. He again refused, and told me he never Lent his books… After some more excuses on his part, close pressing on my part, I obtained the Loan of it. The next morning as Soon as oppertunity offered I took my book from the Chest, and looking over the contents I found the word, Chandilears. What is that thought I. It is Something I never heard of before, but no sooner did I turn the page where it was described with its use but I was ready to report a plan for making a Lodgement on Dorchester Neck- (infidels may Laugh if they please). In a few minuts after I had for my Self ditermined Colo. Gridley ... [and] Colo. Knox ... arrived. They fell in with my plan. Our report was approved of by the Genl and preperations imediately Set on foot to cary it into effect and every thing being ready for the enterprise, the plan was put into execution… Such were the circumstances which Led to the discovery of a plan which obliged the enemy to Leve Boston."

The fortifications were completed and the British, realizing that they could not successfully attack, abandoned their post in Boston. It was not just Putnam’s intuition and diligence which achieved this goal for he was only one in a series of others working as best they could with the knowledge they had.

Although American technical communication was influenced by the Scottish, British and French schools of engineering, it rapidly gained its own character, the character of “imperative immediacy,” of getting things done fast. During the Revolutionary War, “It was often the message rather than the medium that took precedence in the conveyance of urgent information…” Time and methods of codification were in short supply in a nation of wilderness struggling to be free. In fact, even though technical descriptions and drawings were used whenever possible, they represented a minority of the communicative interactions. In fact, the engineering documents of the Revolution flew from hand to hand so fast that, if American technical communication was more primitive than that in Europe, it lost nothing in performance. It was all part of a network of information that sped the information to its target.

Colonial America relied on more primitive communication methods than Europe and a result of this is that the system of knowledge codification was more experimental and less tied to procedure. In industry today, companies are rated by CMM (Capability Maturity Model), from 1-5, as to how well they systematize and document their procedures (among other things). Companies in the defense industry, pharmaceutical companies and medical manufacturers often get a rating of 4 or 5. Technical communication in early America would probably receive a 1. However, this very flexibility and inventiveness aided in the winning of the Revolutionary War and still aids us today in that it is a mindset that enables change, such as the worldwide web to happen. It is an intellectual strength.

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