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Pioneering on the Technical Front:
A Story Told in America Letters
By Kenneth Bjørk (Volume XIV: Page 227)

An official publication of his alma mater says of Hans Peter Herman Krag Hougen that he graduated in 1879 from the mechanical division of the Trondhjem Technical School; that for a short time thereafter he worked in the Catherineholm's machine shops at Frederikshald; that, beginning in 1881, he served for several years as draftsman and engineer in the American East; and that in 1886, barely launched on a brilliant engineering career, he died at Philadelphia. That is about all. His record is one of hundreds of emigrants important enough to have their names listed in the books of some European school but not sufficiently impressive for more than a passing thought on the part of the American student. What snatches Hougen from obscurity is the chance preservation of his letters from America -- letters full of courage and charm, telling a story of youth that is replete with energy, hope, and ambition. These America letters, {1} written in the 1880's to Hougen's family in Norway, have the added virtue of throwing light on certain phases of pioneering the technical front, and suggest anew the magnitude of the task of those who would write the history of a transplanted people.

We learn, for example, that Hans accepted work in the Catherineholm's shops because he desired to gain practical experience with metals and machines. At the age of twenty, in the spring of 1881, he set out in a sailing vessel for Baltimore, there further to broaden his technical knowledge during a temporary residence in the New World. After finding a position as draftsman at Malster and Reaney's Dry Docks, he wrote to his father, a cantor (klokker) in Kragerø, "As soon as one can push a drafting pen and have a bit of luck with him, one is worth $8 or $10 here; theories one seldom has a chance to use; the chief draftsmen are shockingly incapable and disgustingly clever at getting by without using theory."

The day after Christmas and New Year's Day he worked from 7:30 in the morning until 5:30 in the evening; "but to tell the truth, I am so crazy about working that I would be at a loss without something to do. To stand at my board, whistling and designing, singing and figuring, rooted in my drawings and in old memories, is so pleasant, father." During the Christmas season of his first year in Baltimore, Hougen met a number of school friends, about twenty-five of whom were in the New World.

In 1883, when Hans moved to Philadelphia and took work with a cable street railway company, his letters expressed misgivings; he disliked conditions in the Baltimore firm, but his chief interest continued to be in ships. In August he wrote:

I did not, in changing, get into the branch that I like best -- the science of shipbuilding; but I had no invitation in my favorite field, and since the new position was much more educational, broadening, and remunerative than the old (somewhat detested) job, I moved. . . . I am beginning to think that Whitton (the Scotchman who brought me here) {2} can get me into a good position (in charge of one of the cable railroad stations). That I will remain as a "road-man" is unlikely; such was never my destiny; but if I can use an easy position to learn a little about practical work and the giving of orders, I do not think I shall regret the last step.

The same letter explains his work with the cable railroad company:

The method of operating cable cars that I am now working on has been used for about 12 years in San Francisco and it made so good an impression at the Chicago exposition in the fall that a company in Pittsburgh, another in New York, and one in Kansas City, if not more, at once began to think of laying such a drum and cable line. (The electricity-driven cars can in time ruin these railways.) U.P.R.W. Co. and Philas had already laid a short piece. . . . and is now going to lay about 7 English miles, naturally with changes made in portions where the old was not good. . . . It was natural that Whitton and I should get into the Buissiness [sic] and we are working now for "the Cable Propulsion Co." as it is called (with 5 million dollars in stock), a company that is willing to build a cable road for any who can pay and who first build 7 miles for themselves. As I have said, I hardly believe that I will be a "road-man" all my life; I think I must learn to work with my hands -- and think England is the best place to learn that; I can get into a workshop there. . . .with Whitton's help; but Whitton advises against going; I should work up into an independent position, he thinks, and not cross over to Europe when things are going so well.

Hougen's hunger for further education of a practical kind and his passion for ships were temporarily forgotten in his efforts to take out patent rights on an improvement of the driving machinery for the cable railway. Before leaving Baltimore he had received a letter from his friend Whitton, with whom he had worked in perfecting the mechanical improvement; the letter asked that he find out how things were with the patent for "pulling streetcars." Hans in one of his letters described the "model," which they kept in a steam laundry; it consisted of an entire cable line, with a miniature car drawn by a steel band that went up and down at full speed. An exhibition of the primitive model at Baltimore led to the enthusiasm and head shakings that usually accompany a new idea. There were cable-car men present, men who "belonged to the old school" and were "surprised" at the general principles involved in the mechanism after only a superficial inspection. Also present were engineers, sent from a railroad company, "who of course thought, and for a long time had thought of using a motor instead of a horse." One engineer from Boston "smiled a little" at the invention and pontifically informed the naive ones present that "the theory was sound but the practical execution almost impossible." Another said, "A brilliant idea for an elevated railroad but hardly suited for the streets."

Hougen also told of a visit to the patent office in Washington, where he saw a great number of "good and crazy ideas." He added, "You may well wonder why, in spite of such models, I am in the patent game. . . . My idea was found to be good. . . . and now a proper model has been worked out. . . . My superior Rice says that my idea is used in velocipedes." The idea for the invention, as a matter of fact, had come from an axle joint used in Germany and described in one of Hans's schoolbooks, and from a wheel mechanism used in the spinning machine. He had put the two principles together and applied them to the problem of pulling streetcars; an old mechanism was thus applied to a new use. The drawings and descriptions in his letters of the patented mechanism are as exact as a scientific treatise.

Later in the same year, 1888, Hougen wrote explaining why he had not left for the British Isles:

What, despite everything, has kept Whitton and me for a year in the cable-road business is, first of all, the joy of seeing our large railway system develop to everyone's pleasure (so we can call ourselves cable railroad engineers); and, secondly, the fact that we will have our patent tested by the firm; and if it works and we get the patent from the great men in Washington, we will be sitting pretty. To overcome "slip" is a very great problem in cable propulsion. Much is written about this from San Francisco to New York, in fact all over America, but no means has yet been found to prevent it except ours. Will ours do it? Several engineers think so; they think it so definitely that our invention has been recommended for use in Union Line's (our company's) new road. Designs for the models are all ready; the preparation and casting of all the wheels that belong to the mechanism will cost $1200 if not more -- But the mechanism will be used -- a patent in Whitton's name has been applied for.

Then follow detailed explanations of the invention. An answer from Washington was expected in February of the next year. "How exciting the first attempt will be!"

In his next letter, Hans excitedly and somewhat incoherently told of having received word from his chief, George Rice, who at the time was out on the west coast:

He has mentioned our discovery to one of the biggest inventors out there (San Francisco) and he, Mr. Lawe, has said that we have solved the riddle that he has racked his brain for a long time trying to solve -- that is to say, I have solved it -- hm -- I like to say I have solved it, for it will never be known either in writing or in daily life; but it is recognized, in fact all recognize, that I am the one who proposed the idea; but no one says it. Am I not vain? . . . All right, Lawe also says that it is the best idea he could think of and that it will certainly have a strong influence on hoisting machinery in general (in mines, etc.).

Finally the long-awaited letter arrived from Washington; the patent was granted. {3} Rice got Whitton, in whose name the patent was taken out, to surrender one-third of his rights to Hougen and another third to himself. The three then entered into a partnership to exploit the new mechanism. Rice, who had already put up $350 in cash, agreed to have a new model made and to take out patents in England, Belgium, and France. Hougen spoke glowingly of Rice, a civil engineer about fifty years old, and a member, he continued,

Of one of the best families around here; his father, who built Memorial Hall for the Philadelphia Exposition and was chief engineer for the Reading Steam R. R., was once so prosperous that he drove his carriage with four horses. Rice himself has traveled about the world. He has not yet spoken to the president about the patent. . . . It is not only for cable roads that our patent can be used -- for all hoisting contrivances in mines it has great value; and it is especially here that Rice thinks the patent has a future. A mining engineer who was recently in the office was quite enthusiastic at seeing so much done with so simple a mechanism. The chief thing is -- there is no more expense with our methods than with the simplest lifting arrangement used up to now.

Confident that with Rice and one of Philadelphia's best attorneys to prevent others from taking away the patent rights -- a possibility that had given Hougen many sleepless nights -- the young Norwegian draftsman-engineer turned his thoughts once more to working with ships -- this time in Scotland. "If everything goes well," he wrote in January, 1884, "then I will be at the workshop in Scotland next summer and let the cable road take care of itself." But before he could leave, changes took place within the Philadelphia Traction Company which made it inconvenient to carry out his plans. Writing in September, he explained: "Mr. Rice, 'the chief,' has left us. He does not see eye to eye with the president; we were all ready to go when Whitton was chosen as Rice's successor, and Rice urged him strongly to stay until the railroad was completed."

So the two friends remained at their posts but were ready to leave when the street railway project was finally liquidated. Whitton was to go where Rice went, probably to Washington or Baltimore to do similar work, if the Philadelphia railroad was a success. Hougen mentioned having seen a number of his Norwegian friends: Holth, who liked the patent very much; Heidenreich, who had been recently married; and two other Trondhjem men, both of whom were soon to be married in Chicago.

Whitton and Hougen finally sold their shares in the patent to a man named Whetherill. Hans, after a trip home to Norway in the summer of the same year, at last set out for Glasgow, where he found work with J. and G. Thomsen Clydebank in "a worker's position." The work was heavy and he once wrote that his body "is tired from tip to toe, and yet as healthy as it can ever be while working." While in Scotland he also met several of his friends from the technical school.

Hans had thought of remaining at Glasgow, learning the art of shipbuilding from the bottom up, but suddenly he had word from his friend Whitton in Philadelphia, together with a tempting offer for employment which he felt he could not reject. So in the spring of 1886 Hougen returned to Philadelphia. The reception given him by his friends is described in a March letter: "Whitton welcomed me as if I were his brother. . . . All (workers and engineers) have received me in the warmest manner; yes, here everything has been cheerful since my return. The railroad works brilliantly; all are satisfied with it, and the president not least. . . . I surprised all the Norwegians here; all were glad to see me. . . . All is warmth and sunshine."

Cheerful, happy, full of plans during the spring of 1886, intensely interested in his work and looking forward to another visit to Norway in the near future, Hougen suddenly contracted typhus and died on Easter Eve, at the age of twenty-five.

The funeral service was held in Philadelphia's Seamen's Church. The sermon was preached by a Swede. Members of Svea-Nor, a Scandinavian singing society, were pallbearers, and a double quartet from the same group sang Scandinavian songs. Among the many who attended the service was Consul Westergaard. Hans was buried in the church cemetery a short distance from the chapel.

A friend of the Hougen family, one Oscar Johannessen, was present at the service. From his description of the event we learn more about the deceased and the milieu in which he had moved:

On the 15th I went to a burial and was thus among the many Scandinavians who followed Engineer Hans Peter Hougen to his grave. This young man was the pride of the Scandinavians and particularly of the Norwegians; a Finn said of him that he was a real Norwegian. . . . He was popular among all he came in contact with, and it was moving to hear such eulogies over one so young from persons of various ages and positions. He was helpful to needy countrymen, among whom he had many good friends, and in the society of which he was a member he was looked to as an arbiter; in short, all respected him and liked him. I did not know him personally but followed him to his grave because I know the Hougen family in Tønsberg and wanted his poor parents at Kragerø to know that here in this strange place among the many who went with him to his last resting place was one who could one day tell his uncle in Tønsberg of the end to a life that was so well begun and which so many of his friends here had extolled so often. He had a proper burial. The procession was varied, for Norwegians, Swedes, Danes and, I think, Finns. . . .as well as Americans were in it, showing that in addition to being a good Norwegian he must also have been a true cosmopolitan.


<1> O. E. Rølvaag, seeking to show the subtle changes that attended the process of Americanization in the West, made delightful use of America letters in an early novel, Amerika breve, which unfortunately has not been translated. Genuine America letters were used as a chief source by Theodore C. Blegen in writing his distinguished two-volume Norwegian Migration to America. The letters quoted in this article are from a selection made by Mr. J. Hougen of Oslo, Norway, and sent to the archives of the Norwegian-American Technical Society at Chicago.

<2> Andrew W. Whitton.

<3> Number 295,701 (March 25, 1884); device for transmitting power. "This invention relates to certain improvements in the class of apparatus which has been proposed from time to time for driving machinery for cable railways, and its object is to prevent slip and consequent wear and tear of the pulleys and wire rope or cable."

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