creator of the first American-made map of the United States
Abel Buell was born in Killingsworth, Connecticut, in 1742. As a youngster he was apprenticed to a goldsmith, where he quickly gained a reputation as a very skilled goldsmith. By the age of nineteen he had become financially secure enough to marry his long-time sweetheart.
Buell first gained "exposure" for his skill as an engraver when he was discovered making money in his home, literally. To be specific, he was caught altering the engraving plates for five-pound notes into plates for larger denominations and then printing the notes -- on a homemade press no less. The quality of Buell's work was so superb that had a nosy neighbor not spied on him late at night and then turned him in he may never have been caught. Even then, it wasn't until the authorities checked Buell's notes against the stubs on the colony book that they were convinced his notes were counterfeits -- the number of large currency notes Buell possessed exceeded the number of notes the colony book showed being in circulation at the time. Although counterfeiting was a serious crime in colonial New England (just as it is now in the United States), Buell's youth, demeanor and previously unblemished record earned him a relatively light sentence -- his hair was cropped and he was branded with an "F" (for "forger"). He was also sentenced to time in a Norwich prison, but influential friends were able to get the prison sentence commuted to "town arrest."
In 1765, Buell became the first Connecticut resident to receive a patent -- for a lapidary machine. One of the first items he produced with his machine was a beautiful ring set with a large central stone surrounded by smaller gems. He presented that ring to the prosecuting attorney who had convicted him of forgery, and "by coincidence" Buell was pardoned a short time later. In 1769 he designed and cast the first American-made printing type.
About 1770, Buell moved to New Haven, Connecticut, where he was employed by Bernard Romans, the first American map-maker. In 1784, Buell published the first American-made map of the United States, for which he had to cast his own type in America's first type foundry.
After the close of the Revolutionary War, Buell used a minting machine he had invented (which was capable of turning out 120 copper coins a minute) to create the first official pennies for the State of Connecticut.
In 1800, Connecticut sent Buell to England to buy copper for the state mint. While there he also managed to gather information about new textile machinery which had been developed for British mills. In addition, he helped one town solve its problem with an iron bridge which had been rendered useless due to faulty construction, for which he was awarded a few hundred guineas. After returning to New Haven, Buell used his new-found information on weaving machines and his reward money to establish one of the first cotton mills in Connecticut.
Although Buell's mastery of the arts of goldsmithing, jewelry design, engraving, surveying, type manufacture, mint master, and textile miller should have made him an extremely rich man, he managed to squander and/or give away almost every penny he made (including those he literally made himself). When he died in 1825, he was living in the New Haven almshouse.
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This page was last updated on 02/28/2014.