Isaac Doolittle

History - Biography - Reproducton of a Charles Mills painting - 1914 - of Frankling at the Press

Benjamin Franklin at work on a circa 1720 printing press. Charles Mills painting by the Detroit Publishing Company 1914, curtsey Library of Congress.  Doolittle’s 1769 press was probably similar to this one, imported from England; Franklin himself started a press in England, probably to employ his nephew Benjamin Mecom.

Isaac Doolittle (1721 – 1800) was New Haven’s first “ Ingenious Mechanic”, one of its most successful entrepreneur’s, and one of the many patriots among its church members.  He is best known as the first person to build a printing press in America in 1769, which was a major milestone in American publishing. He was founding member of Trinity Church New Haven, one of the two founding wardens (Enos “Bishop” Alling  was the other), and was perhaps the wealthiest and most important of the founders who helped build the first or wooden Trinity Church in 1752-3.

Isaac Doolittle ClockHe was variously a silversmith, a brass founder who manufactured the first brass wheel clocks in America – including hall or “grandfather” clocks – and who cast high-quality brass church bells, a silver watch maker, an instrument maker who created brass surveyor’s instruments and mariner’s’ compasses, a printer, a “sealer of weights and measures”, a “collector” of New Haven, and a gunpower miller. He was a fervent patriot and member of the New Haven Committee of Correspondence, who built two gun-power mills in New Haven during the Revolutionary War to support the Connecticut’s state militia.

Born in Wallingford in 1722, Doolittle moved to New Haven at an early age, residing for most of his adult life in a house on Chapel Street. He married Sarah Todd of New Haven on 10 Nov 1743 in Wallingford, Connecticut.  He operated a clockwork and engraving shop at 1198 Chapel Street, and was the first silver-craftsmen in Connecticut colony. He built the first printing press for general sale in America; built the first one for William Goddard, the  Philadelphia printer who had worked in New Haven earlier in life. Trinity co-member Able Buel cast the fonts for the press.

Doolittle also forged doorknobs, andirons, tongs and shovel handles. He engraved stone and silver for seals and jewelery. He cast bells, turning out church bells which he cast at his Chapel Street shop and at a foundry on Bell Street. The casting became a public spectacle. New Haven citizens assembled to view the molten metal pouring into the molds.

In 1776, Doolittle, built a powder mill in Westville for the purpose of manufacturing gunpowder for the patriot army; according the Records of the Town Meeting of New Haven, 1769-1807,  Gov. Jonathan Trumbull authorized them to “deliver 1,000 pounds of powder to the selectman of New Haven as town stock, and take their receipt to account from same.”  Doolittle served as surveyor of highways for a number of years, a sealer of weights and measures and town tax collector.

Doolittle died on February 13, 1800 at age 78.  His estate inventory, taken by James Bradley and Thomas Punderson on June 27, 1800 (the original is in the Connecticut State Library, Hartford) lists among other items, hammers, beaks, “2 pr spoon moulds” and a number of other silversmith tools. This limited list, according to John D. Kernan, “is perhaps a result of his having disposed of most of his tools because of ill health and inability in use then, in his old age.” Examples of his  clocks of his making are extant in New Haven. His son, Isaac Doolittle, succeeded in business as a clockmaker. His wife Sarah died on March 10, 1814 in New Haven CT.

While we have a number of Dollittle clocks, no bells or presses survive.  We do know something about Doolittle supplying a bell for Trinity First Church.  Here is an excerpt from Here Will I Dwell, a History of Trinity on the Green, by Ed Getlein, Editon 2, describing the first bell for Trinity chuch.

Colonel Drake was directed to procure 200 pounds of black tin from Boston for making the bell, most likely cast by Isaac Doolittle in his foundry on Chapel Street. Later in the year the proud new instrument was installed, appropriately, in the belfry of Trinity. A contemporary wag claimed the bells to be theologically attuned if one listened carefully: North Church chimed invitingly, “Free Grace, Free Grace!” Trinity tolled of “Bishops, Priests and Deacons!”; while Center Church knelled “To-tal De-pravity!”

It was the Puritan’s custom to ring their bell at nine o’clock in the evening, a curfew one supposes. This was done daily, except for Saturday. Since the Sabbath commenced on Saturday evening it was assumed there was no need to remind the faithful to cease their work, or pleasure if that was the unlikely case. Soon after Trinity’s new bell was in place some zealous partisan decided that Saturday night was no time to let this lovely new bell hang silent and, accordingly, let himself into the tower and proceeded to shatter the quiet of the Sabbath eve. The disturbance caused no little furor in town, particularly when it was repeated the following Saturday. Complaints were sufficient to warrant a special Vestry meeting on September 26, 1793 at which it was voted: “That in our opinion the ringing of the bell at the above-mentioned time was very improper and irregular, and that we do not countenance the same; and that no person in the future be permitted to ring the bell on Saturday or any other nights, unless ordered by the Society at large,” Church bells were a very personal accouterments for each of the churches. In 1796 the Center Church bell was temporarily out of order and Trinity graciously offered the use of the Episcopal bell. It was a most ecumenical gesture but, as Dr. Croswell wryly observed in writing of the incident years later, “about as valuable as borrowing your neighbor’s knocker.”