Biography of Jacob Perkins

Inventor of the Bathometer and Pleometer

Jacob Perkins (1766 - 1849), American inventor
Jacob Perkins. Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images

Jacob Perkins was an American inventor, mechanical engineer, and physicist. He was responsible for a variety of important inventions, and made significant developments in the field of anti-forgery currency.

Jacob Perkins' Early Years

Perkins was born in Newburyport, Mass., on July 9, 1766, and died in London on July 30, 1849. He had a goldsmith apprenticeship during his early years and soon made himself known with a variety of useful mechanical inventions. He eventually had 21 American and 19 English patents. He is known as the father of the refrigerator.

Perkins was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1813. 

Perkins' Inventions

In 1790, when Perkins was just 24, he developed machines for cutting and heading nails. Five years later, he earned a patent for his improved nail machines and started a nail manufacturing business in Amesbury, Massachusetts.

Perkins invented the bathometer (measures the depth of water) and the pleometer (measures the speed at which a vessel moves through the water). He also invented an early version of the refrigerator (really an ether ice machine). Perkins improved steam engines (radiator for use with hot water central heating - 1830) and made improvements to guns. Perkins also invented a method of plating shoe-buckles.

Perkins' Engraving Technology

Some of Perkins' greatest developments involved engraving. He started a printing business with an engraver named Gideon Fairman. They first engraved school books, and also made currency that was not being forged. In 1809, Perkins bought the stereotype technology (prevention of counterfeit bills) from Asa Spencer, and registered the patent, and then employed Spencer. Perkins made several important innovations in printing technology, including new steel engraving plates. Using these plates he made the first known steel engraved USA books. He then made currency for a Boston Bank, and later for the National Bank. In 1816 he set up a printing shop and bid on the printing of currency for the Second National Bank in Philadelphia.

Perkins' Work with Anti-Forgery Bank Currency

His top-notch American bank currency received attention from the Royal Society who were busy addressing the massive problem of forged English bank notes. In 1819, Perkins and Fairman went to England to try to win the £20,000 reward for notes that could not be forged. They pair showed sample notes to the Royal Society president Sir Joseph Banks. They set up shop in England, and spent months on example currency, still on display today. Unfortunately for them, Banks thought that "unforgeable" also implied that the inventor should be English by birth.

Printing English notes ultimately proved a success and was carried out by Perkins in partnership with the English engraver-publisher Charles Heath and his associate Fairman. Together they formed the partnership Perkins, Fairman and Heath which was later renamed when his son-in-law, Joshua Butters Bacon, bought out Charles Heath and the company was then known as Perkins, Bacon. Perkins Bacon provided banknotes for many banks and foreign countries with postage stamps. Stamp production started for the British government in 1840 with stamps that incorporated an anti-forgery measure.

Perkins' Other Projects

Also concurrently, Jacob's brother ran the American printing business, and they made money on important fire safety patents. Charles Heath and Perkins worked together and independently on some concurrent projects.

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Bellis, Mary. "Biography of Jacob Perkins." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Bellis, Mary. (2020, August 27). Biography of Jacob Perkins. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "Biography of Jacob Perkins." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).