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Those Inventive Aikens: Models, Machines and Mechanic-Inventors of 19th-Century New Hampshire

Celebrating a legendary family of Yankee inventors from Franklin who created gadgets ranging from knitting machines to the common hole punch, the Museum of New Hampshire History featured an exhibition, sponsored by the Mount Washington Cog Railway, called Those Inventive Aikens: Models, Machines and Mechanic-Inventors of 19th Century New Hampshire. The traveling exhibition, organized and produced by the Belknap Mill Society, was on view from April 10 through June 13, 1999.

In 1837, the Aiken family contributed to the bustling textile industry of the Franklin area by inventing and manufacturing one of the first knitting machines. Over the next century, generations of Aikens came up with ideas for high quality hand tools, household conveniences, and even aeronautics. They invented a carrier for fire hoses and a 600 pound breech-loading cannon. "They were a classic Yankee inventor family," said Dr. Richard Candee, a Boston University professor who guest curated the exhibition.

The exhibition looks not only at the creative genius behind the Aikens' inventions, but the family's many challenges in dealing with the American patent system. Part of the Aikens' success lay in their ability to patent their inventions and bring them to market. Edmund Burke, former U.S. Commissioner of Patents, in 1865 described Herrick Aiken as a man of "true genius." Herrick had learned leather tanning from his father, and by 1823 he had patented nine improvements in tools for that trade. In 1837 he moved to Franklin, NH, where he continued to invent in a rented machine shop. Over the next 30 years, he requested 60 patents, only a dozen of which were granted.

Herrick's sons also had a knack for mechanical innovation. His oldest son Walter helped improve the knitting machines. He manufactured latch needles and an ironing machine. A second son, Jonas, became the most wide-ranging of the Aiken inventors. He moved to Manchester, NH, and on to New York City to market the family inventions.

In 1847 a spectacular mechanical project was underway in New Hampshire. The Mount Washington Cog Railway was the first in the world to use cog technology to run a train up a mountain, and it tackled the highest peak in the northeastern United States. Even today, the Mount Washington Cog Railway is considered the second steepest cog railway in the world. Walter was very involved in the Mount Washington Cog Railway project, manufacturing four new engines for the railway. He completed the railway to the top, in 1870 built the Summit House, and eventually controlled the company. Walter claimed that his father came up with the idea for the cog railway on Mount Washington, a claim the Aiken family still stands by, even though Sylvester Marsh of Campton, NH, is generally credited with the invention. The railway's original model, used to persuade investors to back its construction, also is on display at the Society's museum.

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New Hampshire Historical Society - Founded 1823