The earliest American technical hand books
Edward P. Hamilton was president of John Wiley & Sons in the 1940s. He was also a Civil Engineer. In 1949 he delivered a presentation at the First Pan-American Engineering Congress in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The title of his talk was "Engineering literature and its role in Pan-American Development." It seems that the only remaining full copy is in the NYPL Research Library. Fortunately, I was able to get a copy. In it, Hamilton makes some interesting comments on handbooks, noting:
"I have mentioned the distribution of technical books throughout the hemisphere as an influence in internationalizing science and technology. I should like to dwell longer on this subject because I am more familiar with it than with others. All you engineers who are listening to me recognize the value of technical books. You were taught from them; you are teaching the next generation with technical books. Books are your professional tools, and reflect your progress and achievements. The distribution of such books as we are speaking about -- and naturally other printed technological information -- has hastened the spread of science and technology in a way that can hardly be matched by any other form of of communication." (unpaginated but on the leaf 3).
He also notes some important early technical books, notably the texts published by Wiley for D.H. Mahan at West Point and Dana's "System of Mineralogy." The various books of the D. Van Nostrand Company also get praise as early technical works. A corporate paean is available at my local library -- A century of book publishing, 1848-1948 Z473.V3C7 -- and the Matthew Edwards Crane archives are at Princeton. Hamilton also notes some other important early works including the books of Henry Sturgis Drinker (who has such an interesting story that I can't get into it here) and Squire Whipple. Incidentally, Van Nostrand became Van Nostrand Reingold and was acquired by Wiley in 1997.
A 1948 history of the company -- The house of Wiley -- also discusses handbooks. I'll quote at length (pg.21-25:
Comprehensive handbooks and field manuals for the day-to-day use of engineers, technologists, and researchers have played an important part in the development of engineering technology. We are proud of our contributions to the evolution of such books.
The "Handbook of Engineering Fundamentals," one of the most successful volumes in the Wiley Engineering Handbook Series, marked the emergence of an entirely new conception of the basic handbook's place in engineering literature. First appearing in 1936, the handbook was prepared by a staff of outstanding contributors under the editorship of Ovid W. Eshbach. By covering the fundamental theory underlying all engineering practice, it has permitted the specialized handbooks to (pg.23) concentrate on more advanced data. The publication has achieved wide acceptance among engineers in all categories, as well as scientists and technologists in many fields. This valuable book is now in the process of revision.
The thousands of technical men throughout the world who are familiar with volumes of the series will be interested to learn that complete revisions are in progress for the famous Kent: "Mechanical Engineers' Handbook" and the equally distinguished Pender-Del Mar-McIlwain: "Electrical Engineers' Handbook." In the forthcoming twelfth edition of "Kent," the "Power" volume will be edited by J. Kenneth Salisbury, of the General Electric Company. The "Design Production" volume will be edited by Colin Carmichael, associate editor of "Machine Design" magazine. IN the case of the new edition of "Electrical Engineers' Handbook," William A. Del Mar will again edit the "Power" volume of that work, and Knox McIlwain will again edit the "Communications and Electronics" volume.
Other well-known handbooks include the authoritative "Mining Engineers' Handbook," edited by the late Robert Peele and John A. Church; the "Handbook of Mineral Dressing," edited by Arthur F. Taggart; the "American Civil Engineers' Handbook," edited by the late Thaddeus Merriman and Thomas H. Wiggin; the "Architects' and Builders' Handbook," edited by the late Frank E. Kidder, and revised in its current eighteenth edition by Harry Parker; "The Engineers' Manual," prepared by Ralph G. Hudson; and the "Chemical Engineers' Manual," prepared by D.B. Keyes and A.G. Deem.
Late in 1947 we announced a completely revised edition of the popular Waterbury vest-pocket "Handbook of Engineering." Containing basic mathematical data for all fields of engineering, this compact little book has been brought completely up to date by H.W. Reddick, W.M. Lansford, C.O. Mackey, H.S. Bull, and the late H.H. Higbie.
The "Timer Engineers' Handbook," edited by Howard J. Hansen, University of Florida, and released in January of this year, is a study of the properties of all woods used for construction in this country. Correlating the results of the last ten years' research in timer engineering, the author has included all the latest information necessary for the design of wood structures. (p. 25)
The monumental "Corrosion Handbook," which brings together the most comprehensive collection of technical data on the subject ever assembled, is the latest addition to the list of Wiley handbooks. Eidted by H.H. Uhlig, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and published in cooperation with the Electrochemical Society, Inc., this invaluable study contains the work of over one hundred specialists in the corrosion field. It was published in February of 1948.
In the near future we plan to publish a "Handbook of Stress analysis" representing the collaborative effort of top authorities in that field. The volume is being prepared under the auspices of the Society of Experimental Stress Analysis, and edited by Miklos Hetenyi, Northwestern Technological Institute.