Gustavus Weissenborn’s American Engineering, in parts as issued and with spectacular lithographs

G[ustavus] Weissenborn, Civil Engineer, AMERICAN ENGINEERING Illustrated by LARGE & DETAILED ENGRAVINGS embracing various branches of MECHANICAL ART… New York: G. & E. Weissenborn’s Engineering Office, 1857-1858.
8 parts (of 26) in unbound fascicles, each with original pictorial wraps. Each with 1-3 large uncolored lithographs (ca. 20”h x 34”w at sheet edge), 16 in total (of 52), and most with one or two gatherings of uncut letterpress text. Including Parts I:I ([1]-8,17-24pp, 2 lithographs), I:III (49-56, 2 lithographs), II:VII (81-96, 3 lithographs), II:IX (65-72, 2 lithographs), II:X (73-80, 2 lithographs), II:XI (no text, 2 lithographs), II:XII (105-112, 1 lithograph), III:XIV (no text, 2 lithographs).

Eight parts (of 26) of a monumental work of superb lithographs celebrating American engineering, most unusual for being unbound and with the original pictorial wraps intact.

Civil engineer and lithographer Gustavus Weissenborn first issued this ambitious series of lithographs in parts, beginning in 1854, when it was advertised in May with “parts one and two now ready,” and continuing perhaps as late as 1861. In the latter year it was published in its complete form as a quarto text volume (4,212pp.) accompanied by 52 plates in a folio atlas. It is rare on the market in any form, but the 16 plates in eight original parts offered here, complete with their wrappers, are a remarkable find.

The introduction states that the work was conceived to give

“…scientific men, inventors, young engineers, students, mechanics, and machinists, who may not be practical draughtsmen… clear views of mechanism and mechanical relations . . . and to enable them to apply those principles as well to the structure as to the laboring force of machinery.”

Each part is largely devoted to a single important contemporary engineering project and includes between one and three double-folio lithographs of detailed engineering drawings and, in most cases, one or two gatherings of uncut text, all housed in the extremely fragile pictorial wrappers. The group includes 16 lithographs in all (of which eight are pictured here), many after drawings by Weissenborn himself. All are detailed, elegant and impressive. Even the pictorial wrappers are marvelous, featuring two allegorical figures (including Prometheus, holding aloft a bowl bearing the divine fire) set against a coastal landscape crowded with steam vessels and a locomotive, and in the right foreground an architectural setting adorned with patriotic imagery, a bust of Robert Fulton, and books bearing the names of other great American mechanical engineers.

The sixteen unbound lithographs depict a beam engine for the New York Steam Sugar Refinery, an oscillating engine for the steamer Knoxville, the locomotive Talisman built by the New Jersey Locomotive Machine Company, a beam engine for the steamboat Francis Skiddy, the steam fire engine Missouri, the geared screw propeller engines of the steamship Caroline of Havana, and a patent mill produced by Trenton Iron Co.

Though this set is partial, significant gatherings of material from American Engineering are very rare on the market, though individual plates are occasionally seen on offer. ABE lists only modern reprints, while according to Rare Book Hub the last copy to appear on the market (the two-volume complete set) was offered by Charles Wood in 1989. I find no record of the original parts offered for sale.

Gustavus Weissenborn: a first biographical sketch
Weissenborn was born in Dogern, Baden–Württemberg, on 20 July 1825, second child of  Heinrich Friederich Weissenborn and Maria Anna Probst. He arrived in the United States not later than the early 1850s, married one Emma Remington Powell in 1856, and became a naturalized citizen in 1866. He seems to have spent most of his career living and working in Manhattan and died there in 1894.

It is not known where Weissenborn received training as an engineer, but—aside from the 1854 release of American Engineering–the first mention I find of his activity in the field is an 1855 patent for a “water purifier for steam boilers,” which merited a cover story in the Scientific American for December 23 of that year. Following the patent, an advertisement for “Weissenborn’s Patent Boiler Incrustation Preventer” appeared in the New York Tribune for October 22, 1856, with one Stewart Kerr listed as his agent. Weissenborn also received patents in 1866 for an “apparatus for drying peat,” in 1867 for “new and useful Improvements for the Purpose of Pressing Dry and West Peat,” and in 1892 for “Improvements in Varnishing Frames or Holders” for the manufacturing of pencils. In 1867 an Edward Weissenborn of Hudson City, New Jersey, whom I believe to be Gustavus’ brother, received a patent “for improvement in machines for polishing wood.”

Based on the first publication of American Engineering, Weissenborn set up as a lithographer at 131 Fulton Street no later than mid-1854, and he occupied this address for at least the next several years. In 1855 he was credited as the lithographer of Diagrams Showing the Production, Consumption and Prices of Iron Prepared and Presented by Cooper & Hewitt, New York, bearing the imprint “Lith. of G. Weissenborn, 131 Fulton Street N. Y.” In 1856 the G. Weissenborn imprint appeared on another lithograph, La Mothe’s Life Preserving Car. Patented April 4, 1854, Reissue March 18, 1856. The following year he placed this advertisement in the American Railroad Journal for April 11, 1857, p. 239:

“Lithographic and Draughting Office 131 Fulton st., New York. G. Weissenborn, Civil and Mechanical Engineer, employs Draughtsmen, and is at all times prepared to execute his work with promptness. He will furnish Architectural an[d] Mechanical Drawings, Linear and Perspective, and if desired they will be lithographed in the Highest Style of the Art.” (p. 239)

American Engineering seems to have occupied much of Weissenborn’s attention in the mid-late 1850s, as I find no other record of his activity at that time. At some point he may have become connected with ironclad developer John Ericsson, for there exists at the Stevens Institute of Technology an 1862 drawing by him titled “U.S. Iron Clad Steamer/Monitor/Transverse Section through Turret” dated to mid 1862. In 1864 he entered into a partnership to manufacture lead pencils and globes, which dissolved in litigation.

Weissenborn seems to have achieved some level of professional prominence, for an announcement in the New York Daily Herald for Jan. 10, 1869 describes him as “Acting Manager in Chief” of the General Association of the Engineers of America. He was at the very least successful enough that in 1871 he felt confident enough to try another major publishing venture, American Locomotive Engineering and Railway Mechanism, issued in 24 parts with a format similar to American Engineering.

From 1870 on the limited evidence provided by New York City directories suggests a puzzling professional arc: In 1869 he is listed as an “engineer” at 381 Pearl Street and in 1871 as a “mechanical engineer” at 269 Pearl. By 1875 he is still at 269 Pearl though now as an “editor” while in 1879 he is an “engineer” back at 381 Pearl. He remained at 381 Pearl at least until 1891, though in 1887 he is described as a “publisher”—now resident in Jersey City–and in 1891 as an “editor.”

In all, these eight original parts of American Engineering, while incomplete, constitute a considerable rarity in an unusual format, exhibiting a very high degree of artistic and lithographic skill in the service of celebrating American technological prowess.

Hitchcock, American Architectural Books, #1363. OCLC lists numerous holdings, though as usual it is not possible to assess how many are paper rather than digital, much less the completeness of the paper copies.


Wraps toned to varying degrees with some minor foxing and soiling and edge wear, and some separations along spines. Text uncut and excellent. Lithographs with vertical centerfold as issued and occasional foxing.