In the new United States that emerged from the American Revolution, being a mechanic meant being a person of importance, influence and considerable power.
In that new country, a generation of young people – the sons and daughters of patriot rebellion – were forging a new society of innovation and enterprise.
In the east, where most Americans still lived in the early 1800s, there were young inventors, such as Robert Fulton, with his steamboat, and Eli Whitney, with interchangeable parts for firearms. But for many Americans, the future lay to the west.
The unsettled part of the country attracted inventors and new business ventures – and it attracted mechanics.
To us, a mechanic usually is who repairs our cars. But in the early 1800s, mechanic had a broader definition. It referred to anyone who had specialized training in the work they did – usually with their hands. That included carpenters, brick layers, painters, plasterers, plumbers and even blacksmiths.
Columbus had been founded in 1812 to be the new capital city of a new state. The village housing a few government buildings, and the inns and hotels to serve them grew slowly at first.
By 1830, the borough of Columbus, with about 2,000 people, was looking to a successful future with the imminent arrival of the National Road and the Ohio and Erie Canal. The new modes of transportation would open Columbus to the world and double the population within a few years.
It was in this world of rapid growth and change that the mechanics of Columbus decided to organize. In early 1831, a few local men came together and organized “a society in the town of Columbus for advancing the best interests of the mechanics, manufacturers and artisans ...”
The Mechanics Beneficial Society elected officers in the following month and began to hold regular meetings. A later history noted that “until the society was provided with its own hall, it held its meetings in the engine house on State Street. A regular meeting was held on the first Monday of each month.”
The meetings apparently were successful. By the early 1840s, the society accumulated enough money to build its own home:
“On June 26, 1843, the Mechanics Beneficial Society, of Columbus, met for the opening of its new hall. The occasion was important. The Society was the first enduring association of industrials organized in the city.”
The society president was A.G. Hibbs:
“On behalf of himself and four others the president presented to the society a portrait by William Walcutt, which he described as a likeness ‘of our distinguished fellow citizen and mechanic, Mr. James Russell, the inventor of the matchless planetarium.’
“Mr. Russell commenced life in the State of New Hampshire without the advantages of wealth; his trade was that of a cabinetmaker. At something above the age of twenty years he moved to Ohio, and for the last thirty years he has been extensively known as a machinist of almost unparalleled ingenuity. During all of this time he has been originating and perfecting the peculiar and apparently complicated, yet simple machinery by which a little child may be made to exhibit, with unerring fidelity, the motions and positions of the solar system.”
Th machine was not what we today would call a planetarium. It was a mechanical device now referred to as an “orrery.”
It was a massive machine:
“It is that of a large circular table, the table part having a circumference of thirty-six feet. ... Above the table are the globes representing ... planetary bodies. All the revolutions and movements here described are received from the turning of a crank.”
The device weighed more than a ton.
Russell’s “planetarium” was displayed in Columbus and then went on a national tour. The original planetarium eventually was bought by Wesleyan University in Hartford, Connecticut, for use as a teaching tool.
Russell then made a second, even larger planetarium, which went on a national tour until it was destroyed in a fire in 1844.
However, he apparently made little money from his invention. He was described by one newspaper in 1844 as being “poor, feeble ...” After living much of his life with his family in Worthington, he moved to Columbus and ran for mayor in 1844. He lost that race to Alexander Patton and died thereafter.
Mechanics Hall is gone, as is the Mechanics Beneficial Society. The Wesleyan orrery was taken apart and reportedly discarded as the university expanded in 1876.
In 2014, several ceramic planets were found in a storage box and now are on display at the school. They are a fitting memorial to a remarkable man and his creativity.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.