Processing and conservation of this collection
were funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum 132 Essex Street Salem, MA 01970 Phone: 978-745-9500 Fax: 978-531-1516
Read, Nathan, 1759-1849
Nathan Read (1759-1849)
4.75 linear feet (7 boxes)
The Nathan Read papers contain
correspondence, invention papers, and financial, legal and congressional records of
Nathan Read, a Massachusetts inventor, jurist, farmer, apothecary, and
SERIES I. Correspondence SERIES II. Invention Papers SERIES III. Salem Iron Factory Records SERIES IV. Financial Papers SERIES V. Personal Papers SERIES VI. Family Papers
Scope and Content Note
The Nathan Read papers contain correspondence, invention papers, and financial, legal
and congressional records of Nathan Read, a Massachusetts inventor, jurist, farmer,
apothecary, and educator. The bulk of the collection is comprised of Read's
extensive drawings, specifications, and notes for his various inventions. The papers
have been organized into six series.
Series I. Correspondence coves the many different
phases of Read's life and reflects his many interests. It is arranged
chronologically and contains both incoming and copies of outgoing letters.
Correspondence prior to 1800 pertains primarily to Read's inventions and often
concerns his attempts to obtain patents. These include letters testifying to the
originality and usefulness of his inventions, memos from his lawyers, letters from
other inventors, and correspondence regarding the controversy surrounding the
invention of the first steamboat. Letters pertaining to particular inventions and
letters attached to patent applications have been filed in Series II.
Correspondence dating from Read's term in Congress, 1801 to 1803, contains
letters from constituents and from fellow Federalists voicing their objections to
Jefferson's policies. After Read's move to Belfast, Maine, in 1807, he corresponded
with Salem friends who kept him informed about Essex County news. Items of
particular interest include a letter from the Shoemakers of Lynn protesting the
import of British shoes (March 1, 1802), and Read's letter to D. A. White describing
Nathaniel Bowditch. The collection contains letters to and from many notable
correspondents: James Wadsworth, Benjamin Talmadge, James Renwick, Parker Cleveland,
Samuel Putnam, Benjamin Pickman, Nathaniel Bowditch, Benjamin Goodhue, Timothy
Pickering, Joseph Peabody, and Manassah Cutler.
Series II. Invention Papers includes specifications,
patent applications, drawings, and notes for Read's numerous inventions. Multi-page
booklets providing detailed descriptions of several of Read's inventions may be
found in Box 2, Folders 1 through 5. Documents pertaining to individual inventions
are arranged alphabetically by invention and include notes, drawings, invention
specifications, patent applications, and correspondence. Box 7 contains larger, more
detailed drawings for many of the inventions. See Appendix I for a detailed list of
the contents of Box 7. Many specifications in the folders of individual invention
papers correspond to drawings in Box 7. Of interest in the threshing machine records
(B5 F9) are several versions of John R. Penniman's engravings of Read's machine.
Series III. Salem Iron Factory Records dates from
1795 to 1801, when Read was treasurer and agent of the company. The four folders of
records include Read's original proposal for the company, an estimate of profits,
Read's correspondence while treasurer, inventory accounts, bills, and receipts.
Later records of the company can be found in MSS 149,
the Salem Iron Factory Records.
Series IV. Personal Papers contains Read's legal and
Congressional papers, and his writings. The writings and notes include examples of
his political, scientific, judicial, and religious writings. Of interest in the
folder of political and judicial writings (F10) is Read's autobiography, an 1844
Maine protest against trade restrictions, and patriotic toasts written by Read for
Washington's birthday and the 4th of July. The religious writings include several
versions of Read's essay "Creation, Annihilation, and Future Existence," published
in 1845. Of interest in the miscellaneous articles are "Letters Written by a Spy at
Paris, 1640" and "Predictions of James Visher, Archbishop of Ireland."
Series V. Family Papers includes Hannah Newcomb's
1796 estate papers and David Read's correspondence pertaining to his attempts in
1858 to gain recognition for his father's inventions.
Nathan Read is best known as an inventor. During his long
life, however, he pursued many different careers: member of Congress, jurist, iron
manufacturer, farmer, apothecary, and educator. Read was born on July 2, 1759 in
Warren, Massachusetts, the son of Rueben and Tamsin (Meachim) Read. He entered
Harvard College in 1777, specialized in Hebrew, and graduated valedictorian of his
class in 1781. After his graduation, he taught school in Beverly and Salem until
1783, when he was elected tutor at Harvard. He remained at the College until June
1787, when he resigned to study medicine in Salem under the tutelage of Dr. Edward
A. Holyoke. In 1788, he abandoned his medical studies and opened an apothecary shop
As early as 1788, Read began to experiment with the mechanical arts, and became
particularly interested in the application of steam power to land and water
transportation. When Congress passed the "Act to Promote Progress in the Useful
Arts" in 1790, Read petitioned for patents on several of his inventions. These
included a light multi-tubular boiler, an improved double acting steam engine, a
paddle wheel operated steamboat, and a steam driven land carriage. Read subsequently
learned that the use of paddle wheels was not an original idea and presented a new
petition to Congress in 1791 for a steamboat propelled by a chain wheel. He also
withdrew his plans for a steam rod carriage when Congress ridiculed the idea. Read's
son, David, and other defenders subsequently maintained that Read should be
considered the original inventor of both the paddle wheel operated steamboat (his
invention predated Robert Fulton's 1807 steamboat) and the automobile. Read's career
as an inventor was partially stymied by an inability to secure financing to build
his inventions, in particular a full sized steamboat. In 1791, in recognition of his
interest in the mechanic arts and natural science, Nathan Read, was elected a member
of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
By 1795, Read had given up his apothecary shop and moved to a farm in Danvers.
The next year, he built a dam on the Water's River bordering his property and in
1796, founded the Salem Iron Factory on this site. The factory manufactured anchors,
chains, cables, nails, and other iron materials used in shipbuilding. While
treasurer and agent of the iron works, Read invented and put into operation at the
factory a nail machine, which cut and headed nails in a single operation. Read's
nail cutting machine was patented in 1798, and was his most financially successful
and widely produced invention.
In 1800, Read was appointed a member of Congress for Essex South District, a
position which was left vacant by the death of Judge Sewall. Read was elected to an
additional term in Congress and in 1803, upon his return to Danvers, was appointed a
justice of the Essex County Court of Common Pleas.
In 1807, Read moved to a larger farm in Belfast, Maine, where he also presided
as Chief Justice of the Court in Hancock, Maine. He spent the remainder of his life
in Belfast, dividing his time between farming and the development of new inventions.
Many of Read's later inventions were agricultural implements designed for use on his
farm. In 1817 and 1818, Read received patents for a threshing machine.
Read had always been interested in education and was instrumental in
establishing a high school in Belfast. In 1815, he was elected an honorary member of
the Linnaean Society of New England. In addition to his other activities, Read was
interested in philosophical and religious issues. In 1845, he published an "Essay on
Creation and Annihilation, the Future Existence and Final State of all Sentient
In 1790, Read married Elizabeth Jeffrey, the daughter of William Jeffrey, Clerk
of Essex County, and the granddaughter of Joseph Bowditch. They had five children:
Elizabeth Holyoke (1793- ), Nancy (1795- ), William Jeffrey (1800- ), George (1803-
), and Edward (1806- ). Read died on January 20, 1849 in Belfast, Maine.
This collection is indexed under the following headings in Philcat. Researchers desiring materials about related topics, persons,
or places should search the catalog using these headings.
Bowditch, Nathaniel, 1773-1838
Cleaveland, Parker, 1780-1858
Cutler, Manasseh, 1742-1823
Goodhue, Benjamin, 1748-1814
Peabody, Joseph, 1757-1844
Penniman, John Ritto, 1782 or 3-1841
Pickering, Timothy, 1745-1829
Pickman, Benjamin, 1763-1843
Read, David, 1799-1881
Read, Nathan, 1759-1849
Renwick, James, 1792-1863
Rumsey, James, 1743?-1792
Wadsworth, James, 1730-1817
White, Daniel Appleton, 1776-1861
Harvard College (1780- )
Salem Iron Factory Company
Iron industry and trade
Justices of the peace
Medicine--Formulae, receipts, prescriptions
United States Congress--House
Restrictions on Access
This collection is open for research use.
Requests for permission to publish material from the collection must be submitted in
writing to the Manuscript Librarian in the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex
This material was donated by Mrs. Mary J. Low on October 16, 1916.
Collection processed by Caroline Preston, October 1984. Updated by Tamara Gaydos,
Bradlee, Francis B. C. "The Salem Iron Factory". Essex
Institute Historical Collections, Vol. 54. Salem, Mass.: Essex Institute,
Burstyn, Harold L. "The Salem Philosophical Library: Its History and Importance
for American Science". Essex Institute Historical
Collections, Vol. 96. Salem, Mass.: Essex Institute, 1960: 169-206.
"Our New Domain". Essex Institute Historical
Collections, Vol. 24. Salem, Mass.: Essex Institute, 1887: 258-271.
Patch, Ira J. "Sketch of Nathan Read". Essex Institute
Historical Collections, Vol. 1. Salem, Mass.: Essex Institute, 1859:
Read, David. Nathan Read His Invention of the
Multi-tubular Boiler and Portable High-pressure Engine, and Discovery of the
True Mode of Applying Steam-power to Navigation and Railways ; a Contribution to
the Early History of the Steamboat and Locomotive Engine. New York: Hurd
and Houghton, 1870.
Read, Nathan. An Essay on Creation and Annihilation, the
Future Existence and Final State of All Sentient Beings. Belfast: C.
Smith, George, and Sidney Lee. The Dictionary of National
Biography. London: Oxford UP, 1953.
Salem Iron Factory Records, MSS 149
Joseph Bowditch Papers, MSS 156
Crowninshield Family Papers, 1727-1891, Acc