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Fitch, John (21 January 1743–June or July 1798), inventor and craftsman, was born in Windsor, Connecticut, the son of Joseph Fitch and Sarah Shaler, farmers. His father came from neighboring Hartford and his mother from Bolton. His mother died before he was five; his father married Abigail Church of Hartford two years later. Most of what is known about Fitch comes from an autobiographical sketch written between 1790 and 1792, when he was alone and embittered, convinced that he had been cheated by life. Although he had by then put aside the Calvinistic Presbyterianism of his upbringing and replaced it with a rationalistic deism, he still tended to pass judgment on those he felt had failed him. His memories of childhood were few and unhappy. He described his father as uncaring, even tyrannical. Unjust treatment by an older brother “forbode” his “future rewards,” he reminisced—with the irony intended ( ...

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Robert Fulton. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-102509).

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Fulton, Robert (14 November 1765–23 February 1815), artist, engineer, and entrepreneur, was born on a farm in Little Britain (later Fulton) Township, south of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the son of Robert Fulton, a Scotch-Irish tailor and tradesman, and Mary Smith. Fulton’s father had left the prosperous market town of Lancaster to establish his family on the land, but like so many others with the same goal, he failed. The farm and the dwelling were sold at sheriff’s sale in 1772, and he took his family back to Lancaster. He died two years later....

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Huntington, Henry Edwards (27 February 1850–23 May 1927), urban developer, railroad executive, and book and art collector, was born in Oneonta, New York, the son of Solon Huntington, a merchant, land speculator, and farmer, and Harriet Saunders. His father was conservative by nature, and it was his uncle, railway magnate ...

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Johnston, John Taylor (08 April 1820–24 March 1893), railroad president and art patron, was born in New York City, the son of John Johnston, a banker, and Margaret Taylor. His parents, who had come from Scotland, took Johnston on one of their periodic visits to their homeland; he studied briefly at Edinburgh High School and was named “dux” (top pupil) of his class. He graduated from the University of the City of New York (now New York University) in 1839 and proceeded to study law, first at the Yale College law school (1839–1841) and then in the New York office of Daniel Lord. Admitted to the New York bar in 1843, Johnston soon found that the profession did not engage his interests fully. He traveled abroad for two years, before returning to the United States and commencing his career in the field of railroad development....

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Plumbe, John ( July 1809– July 1857), railroad advocate and photographer, was born in Wales. Little is known about his early life. His family immigrated to the United States in 1821. After completing his education, he turned to railroading for employment. American railroads were in their infancy in 1831, with less than 100 miles in operation in the nation. In 1831–1832 Plumbe was an assistant to Moncure Robinson, a civil engineer who was surveying a projected rail line across the Alleghenies in central Pennsylvania. In 1832, upon Robinson’s recommendation, Plumbe was appointed superintendent for the southern portion of a railroad that was being built between Petersburg, Virginia, and the Roanoke River in North Carolina. Though happy in his position, he left the South in 1836 and moved to Dubuque, Iowa, which remained his principal residence....

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Scull, Robert Cooper (1917–01 January 1986), art collector and patron and business executive, was born on the Lower East Side of New York City, the son of Mayo Scull, a tailor. His parents were Russian immigrants whose name, originally Sokolnikoff, was changed to Scull at Ellis Island. Upon his arrival in New York, his father took a job sewing and designing with the fashionable department store Bergdorf-Goodman. Eventually the Sculls moved to the Upper West Side, where Robert attended DeWitt Clinton High School for advanced students. Unfortunately, he was forced to drop out of high school because of the Great Depression, and it was another nine years before he actually earned his diploma. In order to help his family during those trying times, he refinished furniture, made and sold his own soap, and even hustled pool. He was motivated to complete high school because of his interest in business, but at the same time his grandfather was broadening his horizons by taking him to museums and to the opera. Scull became increasingly fascinated by art and began taking classes at the Art Students League, the Pratt Institute, and the Textile High School on a part-time basis. Meanwhile, he worked at a wide assortment of day jobs—artist’s model, appliance repairman, and retail salesman—to pay the bills. Peter Wild, an artist for whom he occasionally modeled, gave him drawing lessons in return for his services, and in a short time Scull added commercial illustration to his résumé....