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Nathan Read (1759-1849) Papers

Nathan Read (1759-1849) Papers

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NATHAN READ (1759-1849) PAPERS, 1679, 1709-1915


Processing and conservation of this collection were funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Collection Summary

Repository:The Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum 161 Essex Street Salem, MA 01970 Phone: 978-745-9500 Fax: 978-948-6012
Creator:Read, Nathan, 1759-1849
Title:Nathan Read (1759-1849) Papers
Dates:1679, 1709/1915
Quantity:4.75 linear feet (7 boxes)
Abstract: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.
Collection Number:MSS 148

Series List

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.

Biographical Sketch

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 in Salem.

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 Beings."

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.

Index Terms

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
Fitch, James
Goodhue, Benjamin, 1748-1814
Newcomb, Hannah
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
Talmadge, Benjamin
Wadsworth, James, 1730-1817
White, Daniel Appleton, 1776-1861
Harvard College (1780- )
Salem Iron Factory Company
United States Congress--House
Agricultural implements
Iron industry and trade
Justices of the peace
Medicine--Formulae, receipts, prescriptions
Nail makers
Belfast (Me.)
Salem (Mass.)


Restrictions on Access

This collection is open for research use.

Administrative Information


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 Museum.

Preferred Citation

Nathan Read (1759-1849) Papers, MSS 148, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.


This bulk of this material was donated by Mrs. Mary J. Low on October 16, 1916. Five deeds (Box 5, Folder 6) were purchased in 2010 (accession #2010.014).

Processing Information

Collection processed by Caroline Preston, October 1984. Updated by Tamara Gaydos, January 2016, and September 2019.

Related Material


Bradlee, Francis B. C. "The Salem Iron Factory". Essex Institute Historical Collections, Vol. 54. Salem, Mass.: Essex Institute, 1918: 97-114.

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: 184.

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. Giles, 1845.

Smith, George, and Sidney Lee. The Dictionary of National Biography. London: Oxford UP, 1953.

Related Collections

Salem Iron Factory Records, MSS 149

Joseph Bowditch Papers, MSS 156

Crowninshield Family Papers, 1727-1891, Acc 2011.052

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