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Automated salmon cleaning machine developed in Seattle in 1903.

HistoryLink.org Essay 2109 : Printer-Friendly Format

In 1903, Seattle inventor Edmund A. Smith (1870-1909) develops a machine that guts and cleans salmon for canning, 55 times faster than human workers. Most Northwest cannery workers are Chinese immigrants, and Smith, with "unselfconcious racism" in the words of historian Carlos Schwantes, calls his invention the Iron Chink. The innovation increases cannery profits, but forces thousands of people to find other forms of work.

Smith was a small investor in fish canning and brick making ventures who was obsessed about finding a way to automate the cleaning of fish. He worked for months in his Seattle waterfront workshop at the foot of Connecticut Street (renamed South Royal Brougham Way) to find a solution.

In a classic flash of inspiration, he awoke at 3:00 a.m. one day and shouted to his wife that he "had it." He emerged from his workshop 10 days later with a workable design and then borrowed money to go to Washington, D.C. to obtain a patent. Cannery operators were at first skeptical, but the economics were unavoidable. The new device had to be adjusted for different sizes of fish but it could clean 110 fish a minute versus two fish a minute by an experienced worker.

Smith became wealthy and he arranged to display his invention at the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition at the University of Washington. However, he died in an automobile accident on his way to the fair's opening.

Sources:
Adam Woog, Sexless Oysters and Self-Tipping Hats: 100 Years of Inventions in the Pacific Northwest, (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1991), 52-54; Polk's Seattle (King County, Wash.) City Directory, (Seattle: R. L. Polk, 1903), 963; Carlos Schwantes, Columbia River: Gateway to the West (Moscow, Idaho: University of Idaho Press, 2000), 47.
Note: Edmund Smith's birth year was corrected on December 18, 2013.


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Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tschawytscha), also known as king, tyre, or spring salmon
Courtesy 13th Annual Report of State Fish Commission, 1902


 
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