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The invention of the 2 x 4 is widely attributed to Augustine Deodat Taylor, a little known builder who decided about 1833 that if mills could cut lumber of fixed dimensions (say 2 inches by 4 inches), it would make it possible to build houses with hollow walls and more or less standardized shapes. By 1839, he was building whole churches on a 2 x 4 frame. The millers had few objections to dimensional cutting because it permitted them to get much more usable lumber out of a single log.

Dimensional lumber required more control of the milling trolley that holds the logs, but millwrights were early innovators of such technology, and Taylor seems to have had little trouble getting mills to provide what he wanted.

Of course, his invention would have been worthless if inexpensive nails had not become available by the early 1830s in America. Jacob Perkins invented a practical nail making machine in 1795, but it wasn't until the early 1830s that refinements to the original machine permitted nails to be widely available, and at attractive prices.

The "balloon" construction method that the 2 x 4 allowed began a whole new concept of house construction. The dead space between the walls actually insulated houses better than the solid timber framed construction methods that had been used previously.

2 x 4 construction methods made it possible to build a house faster, because adjustments for variations in the thickness of each log did not have to be calculated and accommodated. Furthermore, the house built with balloon construction methods could be built with fewer workmen since heavy beams were replaced by light-weight 2 x 4s which could be moved by a single man. Fewer construction accidents occurred, and a house worth of timber was lighter and easier to transport.

Ironically, balloon construction at first required a closer adherence to designed plans since the stress loads built into a house were easier to calculate on paper than on the site. Later on, balloon construction permitted mass building on a single plan, but at first new methods had to be discovered with time and practice.

A heavy beam could carry a load either vertically or horizontally, but 2 x 4s required more care to see that individual pieces were not overloaded, in walls or floors especially. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC has a section of early 2x4 wall in its collection.

According to some accounts, the initial houses that Taylor made by this method resulted in some awkward-looking structures. Overly optimistic projections of the load-carrying capacity of the 2 x 4 led to bowed floors and sagging walls. Methods had to be discovered that avoided putting shearing pressure on nails.

Thinner exterior walls and the truer dimensions that 2 x 4 construction permitted probably looked funny at first to those accustomed to the more solid feel of a thicker wall, but today the 2 x 4 is so common that it is hard to conceive of anyone actually inventing it.