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American Technology in Finland before World War I

Reino Kero

At the turn of the century, there appeared in Europe a whole series of books on the subject of "the American invasion". The authors expressed concern at the emergence in Europe of a number of American enterprises of apparently greater competitive ability than their European counterparts. It appeared that this competitive edge was based primarily on American technological development. The more fanciful accounts even reflected fear that the Americans would soon make of Europe some kind of colony of their business world.1

These European writings about the pre-eminence of American technology were not simply idle imaginings, since the generation of American technical knowledge truly flourished and even accelerated at the end of the 19th century. This fact is supported, for example, by the number of annual patented inventions in the United States. Their volume rose to over 4,000 per year in the 1850's, 23,000 were recorded during the best year of the 1880's and nearly 40,000 on the eve of World War I.2

Mira Wilkins' study of the origins of multinational enterprises shows that the centers of activity for American multinational enterprises in turn-of-the-century Europe were in Germany, France and England.3 The Nordic countries were secondary areas of activity for these enterprises, and seen from the United States, Finland was then on the extreme far periphery. Finland's population was so small that for this reason alone marketing opportunities in Finland were negligible. Furthermore, Finland was so remotely situated that it could not even serve as a bridgehead from which business activity could be conducted elsewhere in Europe.

Indeed, there were so few Finns that they could not constitute a significant consumer group from the American perspective, and American entrepreneurs could not be very interested in Finnish markets. On the other hand, it is worth noting that the educational level of the Finnish population was very nearly as high as that of even the most developed states and that Finns were not exactly poor either, since Finland had abundant forests, the value of which increased rapidly toward the end of the 19th century. Finland thus had the potentialities to develop into an industrialized state. Industrialization did begin with the advent of the wood processing industry as early as the 1860's and 1870's. At the turn of the century, other kinds of industry began to emerge in volume. Finnish agriculture began to mechanize at the same time. The technical knowledge needed for increasing industrialization and for the mechanization of agriculture was domestically generated to a limited extent, but as is generally the case in small countries, the bulk of this knowledge had to be obtained from abroad.

What significance did knowledge from the United States have for Finland's industrialization and agricultural mechanization? By what method did American technical knowledge come to Finland? How long was the interim from the creation of an invention until its practical utilization in Finland? What was American in the mechanization of agriculture? Were there certain areas of Finnish industry which made primary use of American technical knowledge? Put in the form of a single question: What was the nature and significance of the importation of technology from the United States to Finland before World War I?

As the importation of technology from the United States to Finland is considered in what follows, the concept of importation of technology will include the following elements of importation: importation of farm machinery to Finland from the United States, Finnish copies of American machinery in agriculture as well as other areas of production, and the acquisition of technical knowledge from the United States either through sojourns of students or of immigrants.

From surprisingly early on, at least a few Finns regarded the United States to be a technologically-developed country. This becomes very obvious from an article appearing in a Finnish newspaper in the mid-1850's. This article confirms that "everything is tried and conceived in North America", that "novelties for the pleasure and benefit of mankind" are invented there and that "North Americans and all Englishmen in general are amazingly ingenious and inventive men".4

Awareness of America's "inventive men" came unexpectedly early, because, the Paris World's Fair, for instance, which made American agricultural technology known, was held only in 1855. Nearly as unexpected is the fact that the first American farm machinery was in evidence in Finland by the end of the 1850's.5

Farm machinery developed in the United States was apparently the first area in which Finland benefitted concretely from American technological development. Of the American farm implements to be put to use in Finland, the most important were the moving machine in the 1870's, the hay rake in the same time period and the disc and spring tooth harrows and turn plow in the 1890's. Moreover, American treshing-machines were used in Finland as early as the 1890's, and it appears to be the case that the first American tractors made it to Finland as early as the eve of World War I. Importation of the seed drill from the United States to Finland was probably quite limited, since these machines came primarily from Sweden. Swedish seed drills had, however, likely been developed from American prototypes; hence, the importation of these machines was also in fact an example of "the American invasion". Furthermore, such American farm tools as shovels and pitchforks were also imported in some number to Finland.6

It is impossible to say precisely how much American farm machinery was imported to Finland. Conversely, it is easy to verify that from the 1870's those interested in American farm machinery could acquire it quite readily. This conclusion can be drawn from the advertisements appearing in farm publications and newspapers.

How much time elapsed from the genesis of an agricultural invention in the United States to its appearance in Finland? It appears that information rapidly found its way to Finland. The dissemination of information was rapid, since American farm inventions began to be introduced in expositions in Europe as early as the 1850's. Moreover, it is possible that as early as the 1870's American agricultural enterprises might have had their own representatives who sought to market the already renown American agricultural technology.

It is possible that in certain cases information about American inventions made its way to Finland within two to three years of the time the product had been first marketed. In most cases, however, American machines were not in common use in Finland until 20 to 30 years after the invention was made in the United States.

As early as the mid-19th century, machine shops were established in Finland to turn out various machines for agriculture. It is obvious that domestic techniques were used in their construction, but the knowledge necessary for the mechanization of agriculture at the end of the 19th century was principally of foreign origin. To what extent did the prototypes come from the United States? And how were the prototypes obtained?

The first mowing machines were most likely manufactured in Finland as early as the 1870's. They were probably copied from machines imported from the United States. The manufacture of mowing machines along lines of American prototypes was not successful, however, and the first Finnish mowing machines were "lemons". The American plow seems to have been copied in Finland in the 1890's. Even in this case the copying was very difficult, since the imitators did not have at their disposal steel alloys suitable for the manufacture of moldboards for the plows.

The construction of disc harrows began in Finland in the 1890's, at first under very modest circumstances in Ylihärmä, and a little later in the machine shops of Pietarsaari and Tikkakoski. The protype of the disc harrow was of American origin, but Jaakko Vassi, who had brought the idea to Finland after having been an immigrant in the United States, developed his own version, which was better suited to Finnish conditions than the American harrows. The exportation of this harrow from Finland to several other countries may be an indication that this Finnish-American model was considered good not only in Finland but elsewhere. In addition to Vassi's harrow, a Hankmo-brand disc harrow was manufactured in Finland in the early 20th century, and this too was developed from American prototypes. In the early 1900's, the quality of the Hankmo harrows was also considered to be very high.

The spring tooth harrow is an American invention, and its manufacture in Finland began in the early 1900's. The advent of this model in Finland is not known as precisely as that of the disc harrow. From all appearances, the machine shops that constructed spring tooth harrows simply purchased prototypes from the importers, and since these harrows had no patents in Finland, no formal licenses for production were needed, not even in principle.

Combines were also manufactured in Finland at the turn of the century. Good models for this piece of equipment were easily obtainable from Sweden and England, but it is known that a particular Turku machine shop turned out copies of American combines in the early 1900,s.7

It thus appears that when Finnish machine shops began to make American-type farm machines, they made no effort to obtain licenses from the American enterprises that had developed the machines. Instead, they simply acquired a prototype, which they copied as closely as possible. In some instances, the imitation succeeded, since most farm machines were put together from comparatively few parts and since practical application of principles from the prototype was comparatively simple.

To some extent, the spread of American farm machinery was probably facilitated by the fact that comparatively extensive emigration from Finland to the United States occurred at the turn of the century and that a portion of the return emigrants from the United States to Finland had worked on American farms and had thus become familiar with modern farm machines. Acquaintance with American machines likely provided the impetus for some to acquire up-to-date equipment for their own farms in Finland. As has been indicated, expertise picked up in the United States led in at least one case to the creation of a business to manufacture farm machinery.

Jaakko Vassi left for America as an emigrant in the early 1890's and returned to Finland after a few years away from home. He spent his immigrant years there in a farm equipment repair shop, where he is likely to have become quite familiar with American farm machinery. Upon returning to Finland, he began to make American-model disc harrows. The imitations were so good that Vassi succeeded in selling them. Since Vassi felt that American model disc harrows were, nevertheless, not completely suitable for conditions in Finland, he experimented with steel, which replaced the disc-like wheels with numerous shovel-shaped steel segments. This became a genuine success, and so Vassi patented his invention in Sweden, Norway, Russia and the United States, as well as Finland. The harrow was first turned out only in his own shop in Ylihärmä, but increased demand led him to sell production rights to machine shops in Pietarsaari and Tikkakoski. Exports went at least as far as the United States, Germany, Australia and Russia. This type of harrow began to be manufactured abroad in England and Switzerland if not elsewhere.8

It may be said that American technical knowledge had great significance for the development of Finnish agriculture at the turn of the century. This influence is probably not possible to measure in percentages however, and it is further useless to speculate how the mechanization of Finnish agriculture would have proceeded had there been no American prototypes. It is, however, reasonably clear that the mechanization of Finnish agriculture was not solely dependent upon American prototypes, but that in the abscence of American models, European ones would have been used.

The wood processing industry was the forerunner of Finnish industrialization, and during the entire period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries it was far and away the most important element of Finland's export industry. A sizeable portion of the machines needed for the wood processing industry were products of domestic shops by the early 1870's. Prototypes were obtained from Germany for the most part. The first information regarding reliance on American technology is, however, also from the 1870's, when the Ames' Wood Barker was purchased in Finland. The production rights for this machine were secured in Finland. Nonetheless, the extent to which these production rights were used in Finland is unknown. In any case, the breakthrough of American technology in this area can probably only be said to have come on the eve of World War I. It was then that one of the largest of Finland's wood processing enterprises, Kymi-Osakeyhtiö, bought from America the Green Bay Barker Company's wood barking machine. This machine was also the prototype for many wood barkers brought to Finland at the same time from European countries.9

The area of the wood processing industry to benefit most from American technology was most likely wood pulp production, which used the "thermal-mechanical process" from the 1890's. This method was probably brought to Finland by an engineer named Georg Holm, who had worked at the end of the 19th century in Massachusetts pulp and paper mills. Upon returning to Finland, he served as a technical director in at least two paper mills, one of which began at his initiative to produce pulp according to the thermal-mechanical process by 1897. It is known that "nearly all the machines were American" in this factory and that the pulp machines were purchased from the Pusey & Jones Company in Wilmington, Delaware.10

Thermal-mechanical processing became common in Finland in the early 20th century. However, modern pulp machines did not necessarily have their origin in the United States, although the technology they employed was American. In the late 1890's, at least one Finnish shop constructed machines for the thermal-mechanical process. A little later their production was extended to many Finnish shops, which competed with German, Norwegian and Swedish shops for the Finnish market in this area.11

American paper-making machines were known in Finland from the 1890's at the very latest. Most importantly, the previously-mentioned Engineer Holm praised them in an 1890's magazine called Teknikern. Holm had actually become familiar with these machines during the time he was an immigrant in America, but after his return to Finland he made at least one other trip to the United States expressly to become more familiar with developments in the field. He travelled to the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and there became acquainted with achievements in American paper technology. The sale of American paper-making machines to Finland was, however, likely to have remained quite limited, although at the turn of the century, at least two American enterprises sought to sell their machines in Finland.12 Information has been preserved regarding the selling of only one paper-making machine to Finland. The Pusey & Jones Company sold a paper-making machine to Finland in 1906.13

The production of cardboard also became americanized in the 1890's. When the cardboard industry began in Finland in the 1870's, manufacturing was done by the sheet. About 1890, however, the United States began to produce cardboard in the same way as paper. Cardboard in production circulated through the machines as a continuous, thick, fibrous layer. In other words, the cardboard production line came into use. The first such American-style machine was assembled in Finland in 1897. Although the machine was American in design, it was nonetheless, manufactured by a German company. Later, these American machines were brought primarily from Germany to Finland. Just one occasion is known when an American company succeeded in selling its machine to Finland: the Black-Clawson Company of Ohio delivered a carton-making machine to Finland in the early 20th century.14

The pulp industry needed abundant energy, which Finland obtained from either water power or steam engines. A very significant portion of the energy was generated from rapids through turbines. American technology also had importance for the generation of energy in Finland. American steam engines were rarely used in Finland, but greater significance seems to have attached to the American turbines that came into use in the 1890's; the advent of American turbines in Finland is likely to have been largely to the credit of the previously-identified Georg Holm. Following his return from the United States he was, namely, the representative for America's McCormick turbines in Finland and functioned actively until the early 20th century when he also became the representative in Sweden and Russia. Like many other American products, the turbines were said to be "the best in the world";15 in any case, it is clear that the power generation figures for these turbines were very impressive. The same could apparently be said of another turbine available for purchase in Finland and made by the Dayton Globe Iron Works Company.

It was possible to use turbines for energy generation without transmitting power in the form of electricity. Electricity was one of the great inventions at the end of the 19th century, and in that regard, it is clear how quickly an invention that was found to be beneficial could spread from the United States to a region like Finland, on the periphery but in many ways developed. The Finlayson textile mill in Tampere adopted electrical lighting in March of 1882, or only a good two years after Thomas Edison had succeeded in making an incandescent lamp suitable for mass production. It was during the same year that Rosenlew & Co. in Pori began to use electrical lights in one of its sawmills.16 Helsinki acquired its first power station by 1884 or the same year as Berlin.17 It was, however, not until the late 1890's that industry began to use electricity for purposes other than lighting.

Originally, the know-how necessary for the use of electricity may have come from Germany and Sweden. By the late 1880's, an American concern, the Thomas Houston International Electric Light Company, functioned in Finland, having had a representative there since 1887. Because of this company, American technical knowledge, skill and availability of equipment were of great importance to the electrification of Finland. The Thomas Houston International Electric Light Company was at one time the major builder of electrical power stations in Finland; it built most of the power stations in the nation's cities.18

Around the turn of the century, Finland gave birth to numerous new industries whose markets were mostly domestic. These kinds of enterprises procured most of their machinery from abroad, however. It was also fairly common for the machine dealers to send to Finland their own technicians, who were responsible for the installation of the machines and for the training of the personnel necessary to operate the machines. It is likely that a segment of industry serving the domestic market relied on German technology, but there were certainly fields where the necessary know-how and machinery came from the United States. Such was the case with shoe manufacturing.

In 1897, there was only one shoe factory in Finland, and it was very insignificant. By 1913, there were 12 factories, and by the beginning of World War I, the shoe industry had increased to the extent that the sale of domestic shoes exceeded that of imported footwear. It appears that manufacture was based on the use of the most modern technology of the time. The American United Shoe Machinery Company was even prepared to lease its machines in Finland.

The United Shoe Machinery Company had achieved a near monopoly in the construction of machines for the shoe industry. This company did not sell machines, but rather leased them; the system was the same both in the United States and in Europe. In the Nordic countries, activities were centered in Copenhagen, judging by the fact that the registration of trademarks for the company and the application for patents from Finland occurred in Copenhagen. It appears that operation of the company was highly successful even in Finland, since it is known that at least five of the 12 factories in the industry used the machines of the United Shoe Machinery Company by the outset of World War I. Moreover, it is very likely that the company had also leased its machines to some of those enterprises about which nothing is known except that their machines were modern.19

It is evident that knowledge about machines suitable for various segments of industry moved quite rapidly from the United States to Finland. And it is obvious that the time-lapse between an American invention and its deployment in Finland may have been as short as two to three years. This was at least partially due to the fact that a great many American businesses had representatives in Europe, and they naturally attempted to market technology that was as modern and competitive as possible. Some American businesses even had representatives in Finland. Such was the case with the Thomas Houston International Electric Light Company and the Pusey & Jones Company. Although there were representatives of American enterprises in Finland, it should be noted that American companies were not particularly active in seeking markets in Finland. Thus, the rapid dissemination of technical knowledge was largely the result of the Finns' own initiative.

Obtaining technical knowledge and education abroad was considered important in 19th century Finland, and the study tours made by Finns were a sure indication of where knowledge was sought. Studies of the various recipients of technical scholarships show that German institutes were preferred by Finns, and Germany was generally the country of origin of technical experts who had worked in Finland. A number of study tours were made elsewhere in Europe, principally to Austria-Hungary, Switzerland, France, Sweden, Denmark and England. Study tours to the United States were rare, but not totally unknown.

The most far-reaching results were undoubtedly produced by the abovementioned Holm's studies in Massachusetts in the late 1880's. During the 1890's he was technical director of two Finnish factories, evidently stayed in continuous contact with American enterprises in the field, visited the World's Fair in Chicago, and then represented various American paper industry machines in Finland and in Russia. In addition to Holm, three other prominent Finns were known to have sought learning in the United States regarding the developing paper industry. The first of these, Axel Sumelius, an engineer who owned the Näsijärvi cardboard factory, first studied at the Technical College in Helsinki, but continued his studies in Germany and the United States. His study tour to the United States took place in 1901-1903.The director of the G. A. Serlachius concern, Gösta Serlachius, was one of those who had direct experiences in the paper industry in the United States. Gösta Serlachius first studied in the Vienna "paper institute" and then studied a year in North America in 1904.21 The third person to seek training from the paper industry in the United States was Birger Boström, an engineer, who, after having completed his studies, worked at the Hammermill Paper Company factories in Pennsylvania around 1910.22 It might, then, be said that the American paper industry and its technology were known in Finland, but that due perhaps to geographic factors, the Finnish experts in the field received their training principally in Central Europe. The study tours of the shoe industry were made primarily to Germany, although machine leases were made, at least in most cases, from the United Shoe Machinery Company. It can only be said with certainty that one shoe factory owner ever familiarized himself with this field in the United States.23

It has been noted above that Jaakko Vassi, an immigrant, became acquainted with American farm machinery in the United States in the early 1890's, and that he began to manufacture American-style harrows after his return to Finland. There are many other immigrants who indicate that the skills learned in the United States led to the creation of new factories in Finland. The most consequential of the known cases was the emigrant trip of John Wickström from Koivulahti.

About 1890, an emigrant by the name of John Wickström left Koivulahti for the United States, where he first began to build engines during his spare time and perhaps obtained a few patents for his inventions. In 1898, Wickström established an automobile factory in Chicago, but its productivity was low. In addition to cars, the factory also made motors for boats. The first motors manufactured by Wickström chugged along Lake Michigan and Lake Superior.24

John Wickström returned to Finland in the early 1900's, and together with his brother established a motor works in Vaasa. Wickström manufactured kerosene engines specifically for use in threshers and fishing boats. The best indication of the quality and extent of production was the fact that exportation of the motors spread all the way to Canada, Iceland, Brazil, Turkey, Russia and Japan.25

Wickström was undoubtedly technically-gifted, and the Vaasa motor works probably utilized many of Wickström's own ideas. The concept of a kerosene engine and perhaps even its basic adaptations reflected American know-how obtained during his immigrant experience. That know-how scarcely came to Finland from Wickström's memory, since he must have either himself made or had made for him drawings and descriptions of his engines when patenting his inventions.

In the early 1900's, Finns patented domestically a few inventions every year. In the United States, the number of patents granted to inventors was approximately a thousandfold. The percentage of significant patents of the total granted was likely no lower in Finland than in the United States, but there is no cause to believe that it was higher either. As a producer of technology in international use, Finland was then a midget and the United States a giant, which obviously meant that one would have to search with a magnifying glass in the early 1900's to find Finnish inventions in the United States. Furthermore, if something were found with the magnifying glass, it would have been the work of Finnish immigrants living in the United States. On the other hand, it is easy to find examples of American technological imports: they were found in the fields, factories, power stations, carpentry shops and on the shelves of hardware stores. Even more visible in Finland, however, was that other technological giant of the period, Germany.


1 Fred A McKenzie, The American Invaders (New York, 1901) (This book was published earlier in England.); B. H. Thwaite, The American Invasion (London, 1902); W. T. Stead, The Americanization of the World (London, 1902).

2 Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970, 958.

3 Mira Wilkins, The Emergence of Multinational Enterprises: American Business Abroad from the Colonial Era to 1914 (Cambridge, Mass., 1976), 35-69.

4 Suometar, April 7, 1854.

5 Esko Heikkonen, The Coming of Foreign Agricultural Technology to Finland, The Impact of American Culture, University of Turku, Institute of General History, Publication 10 (Turku, 1983), 112.

6 Heikkonen, 111-114.

7 Information regarding copies of American machines has been provided primarily by Esko Heikkonen. Heikkonen is currently at work on a study of the importation of agricultural technology to Finland.

8 Reino Kero, Siirtolainen tuo tekniikkaa. Pohjois-Amerikasta palanneet suomalaiset teollisuusyritysten perustajina, Turun Historiallinen Arkisto, 38 (Turku, 1982), 340-341.

9 Ingwald Sourander and Erik Solitander, Suomen puuhiomoyhdistys 1892-1942. Lisävalaistusta Suomen hioke- ja kartonkiteollisuuden historiaan (Helsinki, 1943), 39, 47.

10 Sourander and Solitander, 36.

11 Sourander and Solitander, 39-47.

12 Teknikern, 1896, 15; Mercator, 1908, advertisement section.

13 Mercator, 1906, 259.

14 Sourander and Solitander, 75-82.

15 See, for example, Teknikern, 268 and 273, 1902, advertisement seetion.

16 Jaakko Auer and Niilo Teerimäki, Puoli vuosisataa Imatran voimaa. Imatran Voima OY:n synty ja kehitys 1980-luvulle (Helsinki, 1982), 11-12.

17 K. O. Alho, Suomen uudenaikaisen teollisuuden synty ja kehitys 1860-1914 (Helsinki, 1949), 214.

18 Alho, 215.

19 Kotimaisen teollisuuden albumi (Helsinki, 1913), 245-272.

20 Kotimaisen teollisuuden albumi, 450.

21 Kotimaisen teollisuuden albumi, 436.

22 Teknikern, 1912, 191-298.

23 Kotimaisen teollisuuden albumi, 245-272.

24 Kero, 339-340.

25 Kero, 339-340.

Published in Turun Historiallinen Arkisto 42(1987), p. 157-169.

© Reino Kero

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