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American Technology in Finland Before World War I

Reino Kero

In studying the extension of American firms to foreign countries and the birth of multi-nationals in the 1800's and the early 1900's, Mira Wilkins calls the period between 1865 and 1892 "The Appearance of Modern International Business". The period 1893-1914 is, according to Wilkins, marked by "the growth of American business abroad". Undoubtedly, it is quite reasonable to identify these periods in such a manner, since many an American firm still operating in Europe today established a sales organization, subsidiaries and factories in Europe at that time. Examples of such include the Singer Manufacturing Company, the International Harvester Company, Eastman Kodak, Standard Oil, Ford, General Motors, General Electric, the Westinghouse Air Brake Company, the Edison Electric Light Company of Europe and the International Bell Telephone Company.

The coming of American firms to Europe was, in part, facilitated by their superior production and sales techniques, in part also by the fact that many American companies had large amounts of capital at their disposal. From the European vantage point, the situation seemed actually alarming: "the American invasion" was spoken of in negative terms. This term was probably first used by the foreign minister of Austria, but within a few years, the use of the term increased so much that in the early 1900's, there appeared in England no less than three books whose titles referred to the "American invasion".

Was the "American invasion" somehow evidenced in Finland? Did the Americans establish companies in Finland? Were American machines brought here? Did the Finnish economy use American technology?

The Finnish-American Mining Company, established in the early 1900's. was probably the only significant production facility with American shareholders. Most of its shareholders were, however, either Finnish Americans or Finns. The company attempted to mine in many locations in Finland with little success. Certain American sales organizations presumably operated in Finland, but they were not particularly active. Among these were at least Ford and General Motors. Limited Finnish markets seemed not to have been of interest to American business.

Industrial development was considered important in Finland in the late 1800's. Foreign countries provided models, and thus America was of interest. As early as the 1840's, obtaining American farming machinery was discussed in Finland and as early as the 1850's, there were persons in Finland who admired the technological development of the United States. Along these lines, the editor of a Finnish daily wrote that in North America "everything was tried and thought of", that "innovations for the joy and use of mankind" were developed there and that "the North Americans, and Englishmen in general" were "wonderfully inventive and resourceful men".

The breakthrough of American agricultural technology probably happened in the 1870's, when farming machinery was initially brought to Finland. Importation of farming machinery likely continued to be fairly common. It is not possible to determine the number of imported American farming implements from import statistics, since importation could take place through Germany, for instance, and American machines were included with German ones. In addition to machines imported from the United States, a great number of farming implements around the turn of the century were copies of American ones. A typical farming implement imported to Finland from the United States was a mower; a typical copy, on the other hand, was a harrow which was produced in Finland according to American models.

Industry received machine technology from the United States a little later than agriculture. There were, however, as early as the 1890's and the beginning of the 1900's, a number of factories that at least partially obtained their machinery from the United States. Thus, the above-mentioned Finnish-American Mining Company obtained moist of its machines from the Allis-Chalmers company in Wisconsin. As early as the beginning of the 1900's, machines from the United Shoe Machinery Co. were used in Finnish shoe industry, and one of the largest machine shops used the "world famous Babcock and Wilcox" boilers. Engines, machines for paper industry, tools, transmission equipment, certain finishing tools, motors and motor pumps were brought to Finland from the United States around this time.

Lengthy transportation probably made some American machines expensive. For this reason, and also because of trade barriers, American companies established subsidiaries and factories in Europe. Thus, a number of goods brought to Finland from the rest of Europe were actually American. In addition, it should be remembered that European industry imitated ideas borrowed or stolen from American industry. As an example a Finnish company manufactured sailing boats and sails with American design.

Hence, it seems as though we can speak of an "American invasion" even in connection with Finnish industry, but the term should not contain any negative connotations. Finnish industry obviously obtained many prototypes, models and machines from the United States, but on the other hand, the American business world had no ownership rights in Finnish industry.

American sales organizations in Europe had something to do with the arrival of American technology in Finland, but so did the Finns' own desire to obtain reputable American machines. Return emigrants had some - not necessarily very great - influence in the matter. Before World War I, over 300.000 emigrants moved to North America. and out of them, 50-60,000 returned before World War I. The most able of the returnees established firms in Finland that were modeled after American examples. The Finnish-American Mining Company, which attempted to refine nickel in Kisko, was one of them. The great Wickström Motor Works was another. A brick works established in Kurikka belongs to this group. Helsingin Sementti & Asfalttiliike (The Helsinki Cement and Asphalt Company) - one of the largest construction firms in Finland in the early 1900's - was a venture owned by a return emigrant from the United States, and, to a great extent, it utilized American know-how. Certain American influence is visible in the names of clothing businesses, such as "The American Pressing Company Ameri ...." "Suit and Hat Pressing Company Amerikkala", "Americano" and "America", all established in the early 1900's. It is possible that they were established by return emigrants from the United States. Even if these businesses had no connection with emigration. it is clear that the models provided by the American clothing industry became fashionable in Finland rather early.

In addition to the machines used by industry and agriculture, there were some American consumer goods available in Finland in the early 1900's; most of them were so expensive, however, that only a few could afford them. Ford and General Motors sold their cars in Finland. There were also American typewriters, bicycles, Kodak cameras and certain photography equipment. Also an American record player and a small organ were known in Finland. Oy Bee Electric Ab marketed vacuum cleaners in Finland.

Record players, cameras and vacuum cleaners were goods that did not make their way to Finland until the turn of the century. A much more common and earlier imported machine was the Singer sewing machine; as early as the 1870's, it was advertised in the dailies. And although Singer was the basic trademark in sewing from this time on, it still was not an everyday appliance in the pre-War years. Few Finnish households had enough means to purchase this machine.

Factors like the steamboat, train, telegraph, newspaper, development in book printing technology, increasing prosperity and prevalence of travel, development of schools and emigration "shrunk" the world at the end of the 1800's. In kilometers, America was as far from Finland as ever, but in the consciousness of people, it was much closer than during the days of horse-and-buggy and sailing ships. Therefore, it is no surprise that the agricultural and industrial technology utilized in the United States spread very quickly to Finland, especially in fields where the small Finnish markets were sufficient to make business profitable.

Published in The Impact of American Culture. Publications of the Institute of General History, University of Turku, Finland 10(1984), p. 106-110.

© Reino Kero

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