The history of science and technology in New Jersey has been primarily influenced by the nature of the state's geography and geology. The effort to understand and exploit the state's natural resources dominated much of the scientific work that took place in New Jersey and those resources were extremely important in determining the kinds of technology and industry that took root in the state. New Jersey's position on the Atlantic seaboard, poised between two of the nation's principal cities proved equally important as an influence.
The Native Americans who populated the region were skilled farmers and passed knowledge of indigenous plants to the European settlers. In time, the fertility of the soil and the ready markets of the nation would earn New Jersey the nickname, "The Garden State." Even today the state remains a leading producer of fresh market produce output for the United States. It is second in blueberries and eggplant, third in cranberries, peaches, spinach, and bell peppers, fourth in asparagus, and fifth in head lettuce.
Food has been an important focus of New Jersey innovation. Commercial canning began in the 1840s when Harrison Woodhull Crosby of Jamestown started selling his canned tomatoes. Dr. John T. Dorrance later invented condensed soup, which became the mainstay of the Campbell Soup Company of Camden. In Jersey City, Peter Henderson industrialized horticulture, building huge technologically sophisticated greenhouses. By 1890 he had five acres covered by glass. His contemporaries called him "the father of horticulture and ornamental gardening" in the United States. Forty years later, the frozen-food industry got its start at Seabrook Farms. The New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station at Rutgers University.
The first important industrial technology introduced into New Jersey was the watermill, which was used for a variety of purposes. The rivers and streams in the northern part of the state are better suited to water power than those of the coastal plain and for this reason manufacturing centered in the north. Colonists built the first grist mill in 1667 and by the 1830 census there were 864 such mills in the state. Other watermills were used for products such as linseed and castor oil, tanbark, iron, and nails. The first new national technological enterprise in New Jersey was the Paterson mills, built in the 1790s to take advantage of the 77-foot falls on the Passaic River. Although this enterprise ultimately failed, Paterson became an important textile center, especially for silk and it became known as "The Silk City."
Iron was the most important early technological enterprise in New Jersey. Although the Lenni Lenape knew of iron deposits, they seem not to have used the metal themselves. Iron was a mainstay of European culture, and colonists built ironworks as soon as they could. New Jersey had significant iron deposits near the surface and the first forge appeared in 1674 at Tinton Falls (Monmouth County). Iron mining in the Jersey Highlands began shortly after the turn of the eighteenth century and became a major industry. Seth Boyden's development of a means to make malleable iron in Newark in 1826 helped to boost the iron industry in New Jersey. Because iron forges used so much wood for fuel the Highland forests were soon denuded. This gave a spur to bog iron industry in the Pine Barrens in the early nineteenth century. By mid-century, however, the arrival of anthracite coal, delivered via the Morris Canal, revived the Highlands iron industry and doomed the southern mines. Iron remained an important industry in northern New Jersey until the end of the century by which time most of the state's high-grade ore had been mined. The Morris Canal, built to connect the New York metropolitan area with the northern Delaware River, was a marvel not just for its size but for the way boats were cranked up inclined planes to scale the northern heights of the state.
One of the most important early iron enterprises was the Speedwell Iron Works founded by Stephen Vail near Morristown. It was here that Vail's son Alfred assisted Samuel Morse in developing his electric telegraph in 1837-38. Even more significant was the Trenton Iron Works, established by Peter Cooper and Abram Hewitt in 1845 and which was the industry leader in America until the 1880s. One of the most important uses of iron was for railroads. The Stevens family—Colonel John and his sons Robert and Edwin—were in the vanguard of inventors and promoters of steam railroads. They imported the famous ten-ton English locomotive "John Bull" for their venture. Among their many innovations, Robert devised the T-rail design still in use, the spike to hold it, the plates and rivets to join it, and the use of wooden ties with crushed stone for a roadbed. The Stevens Institute of Technology was founded in 1870 by a bequest in the will of Edwin A. Stevens. Another important iron enterprise was the Roebling Wire Rope works established by John Roebling in Trenton. Roebling's innovations lay behind the nation's great suspension bridges as well as the elevators that made skyscrapers possible. Iron helped to make Trenton, which also became a noted pottery center, one of the important industrial cities of New Jersey.
New Jersey's most important industrial city through most of the the nineteenth century was Newark. The city's leading industry was shoemaking, which was advanced by Seth Boyden's 1818 invention of patent leather; by 1860 Newark manufactured 90% of America's patent leather. By the eve of the Civil War Newark had a larger percentage of its population engaged in manufacturing (73.5%) than any other city in the nation. Newark's industrial development, however, came at a significant cost. Newark was also the nation's unhealthiest city. Industrial, human, and animal waste created a major public health crisis in the city. Industrial pollution of the Passaic River, which was Newark's primary source of water, was a particular problem in the 1880s.
Newark's growing pollution problems led the young inventor Thomas Edison to abandon the city. Newark's supply of skilled mechanics and its proximity to New York had attracted him to the city in the early 1870s when he established his first telegraph manufacturing shops in which he developed important inventions for that industry. By 1875 Edison had established a full-scale laboratory in Newark but soon decided to escape the city and built a new laboratory in bucolic Menlo Park. Here, at the world's first industrial research and development laboratory, Edison invented the phonograph, the carbon telephone transmitter, and the first system of incandescent electric light and power. In 1887 Edison opened an even larger laboratory in West Orange, where he worked improved the phonograph and helped establish the sound recording industry. By the early twentieth century Edison's major competitor was the Victor Talking Machine Company, which was located in Camden and produced disc records that customers preferred over Edison' cylinder recordings. Edison also made important contributions to the development of motion pictures and storage batteries at his laboratory. During the 1890s his energies were devoted to mining and processing the remaining low-grade iron ore in the northern part of the state but the opening of large rich deposits in the Midwest doomed this enterprise to failure. So Edison took much of the technology he used for crushing ore and employed it in the manufacture of Portland cement manufacturing at a large automated plant he built near Stewartsville.
Edison's laboratories provided a prototype for other inventors, including Edward Weston, an important pioneer of the electrical industry, whose factories and laboratories were located in Newark. Edison's laboratories were also important in preparing the ground for the modern industrial research laboratories developed by such companies as General Electric and AT&T. During the second half of the twentieth century advances in telecommunications technology were almost monopolized by Bell Laboratories, which moved from New York to Murray Hill, New Jersey. RCA established its laboratories near Princeton University and it was in these labs that much of the development work on television took place.
In the nineteenth century Princeton University was home to one of America's leading American scientists, Joseph Henry, later the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, who did important work on electrical science, including the discovery of the principles underlying the operation of electromagnets that made possible Morse's telegraph. Beginning in the 1930s the newly established Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University became home to Albert Einstein.
The most important scientific work in nineteenth century New Jersey centered around the state's natural resources. In 1836 the state's first geological survey was conducted by Henry Rogers, geology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. A more detailed survey was begun in 1854 under the direction of state geologist William Kitchell. On Kitchell's staff was George Hammell Cook, who headed a more complete survey between 1864 and 1868. This last and most important of the early state surveys included a significant section on what was known as economic geology, including information on fertilizers, building materials, ores, manufacturer's materials and other useful products. It also included appendices of railroad surveys.
As a professor of chemistry at Rutgers College, George Cook was instrumental in having Rutgers made the recipient of the federal Morrill Act land-grant funds and helped found the Rutgers Scientific School in 1864. Scientific agriculture was centered at Rutgers, especially in the agricultural experiment station established in 1880 with Cook as its first director. Under Jacob Lipman the school investigated soil microbiology in the early twentieth century. Lipman was followed by Selman Waksman, discoverer of streptomycin and other antibiotics (a word he coined), and founder of the Waksman Institute of Microbiology at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. The pharmaceutical industry, which already well-established in the state, was bolstered by his work.
From from malleable iron and canned tomatoes to the transistor and antibiotics, New Jersey has a remarkable record of achievement in science and technology. It remains today a center of innovation, with the highest concentration of scientists in the nation and a ranking of fourth among states in the amount of money spent on research and development.