Monday, May 14, 2012

How America Was Built - LQD - New England Machine Tools

The following excerpt is from an article by industrial historian Merritt Roe Smith, “New England Industry and the Federal Government,” in Engines of Enterprise: An Economic History of New England, edited by Peter Temin, Harvard University Press, 2000. Smith is also author of a number of classic studies of the machine tool industry.

Smith argues that "there were moments during the nineteenth century when government action made an enormous difference to the development of the market economy," and traces the development of the metal working machine tool industry to prove his point.

Briefly stated, the new mechanical technologies that originated primarily in the Connecticut Valley small arms industry quickly found applications in all sorts of technically related manufacturing activities—sewing machines, pocket watches, padlocks, typewriters, business machines, farm machinery, photographic equipment, bicycles, automobiles, home appliances, and a host of mass production industries of the twentieth century. Rosenberg describes this phenomenon as “technological convergence." The critical link between the armory system and other manufacturing industries was the machine tool industry, which first appeared in and around Springfield, Massachusetts, during the 1840s and came of age during the following decade. Leading machine-tool firms such as Pratt and Whitney of Hartford, Jones and Lamson of Springfield, Vermont, and Brown and Sharpe of Providence trace their origins directly to the military small arms industry, the center of which (prior to the Civil War) was the US. government armory at Springfield.

But how did these machine-making firms come into being? And how did they develop their respective lines or types of machine tools? The answers can be found in the workings of the arms-contracting system that the War Department introduced after the War of 1812.

Historians of technology long have known that a number of fundamentally new machine-tool designs—for milling machines, forging machines, edging machines, and turret lathes, to name but four of the most important—first appeared in the firearms industry and that their inventors held contracts with the War Department. We also know that a number of the most important designs (like Simeon North’s plain milling machine of 1816-1817) were never patented and those that were (like John H. Hall's drop forging equipment) quickly made their way into armories, machine shops, and technically related manufacturing operations around the country without any royalties being paid to the inventors. This was so because the War Department, at the behest of the U.S. Army Ordinance Bureau, which oversaw the contract system, insisted that if private arms makers wished to continue as government contractors, they had to share their inventions and improvements on a royalty-free basis with the government-owned national armories at Springfield and at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. The national armories, in turn, made the new technology readily available to all comers. Virtually anyone who was interested and had a proper letter of introduction (which was easily obtained from one’s congressman) could visit the national armories at Springfield and Harpers Ferry, make drawings of interesting designs, and, in some cases, even borrow patterns from the armory machine shops for a particular machine or a complete set of machinery. As a result, the new technology quickly filtered out into the larger economy. Two firms that took advantage of this open-door policy were the Ames Manufacturing Company of Chicopee, Massachusetts, and Robbins and Lawrence of Windsor, Vermont—arguably the earliest commercial builders of machine tools in the Connecticut Valley and the direct precursors of larger, more specialized “modern” machine-tool builders like Pratt and Whitney, Jones and Lamson, and Brown and Sharpe.... The War Department's contractual policy and the open door that it maintained at all of its manufacturing establishments meant that the real novelty of the American system was as much administrative as technological.
 (LQD signifies "Lazy Quote Diary," meaning I let someone else do most of the heavy lifting.)


  1. Don't even know where to start, this heritage is all around me in the Connecticut River Valley. Let's just say, growing up in the 50's & 60's, knowing a tool & die machinist was as rare as knowing someone who had fought in WWII.

  2. Long time reader, first time comment. I found this to be an informative article showing the Tea Party narrative about American history is a lot of hazy myths about "the Fed gov't staying mainly out of the free market's way, just like the Founders wanted it." I learned within the last few years the historian Charles A. Beard was addressing these same tales in the 1930's. This article shows these zombie stories keep coming back , We have trouble coping with our present because we’ve lost our past On a somewhat related story, are you familiar with the work of Alexander Field who
    attributes many of the post WWII tech boom to Fed gov't funded R&D initiated during the New Deal?

  3. Long time reader, first time commenter.

    Smith argues that "there were moments during the nineteenth century when government action made an enormous difference to the development of the market economy," Are you familiar with the work of Alexander Field who makes similiar arguments about the postwar WWII living standards resulting from Fed gov't support beginning for technology R&D initiated during the New Deal?

    Charles A. Beard was addressing some of this back in the 1930's against some who were stating the Fed gov't should stay out of the way of private industry.The Myth of Rugged American Individualism

  4. Great post...thanks for the reminder to blog about the everyday things that people want to read. As a real estate agent, I too struggle with what to blog about. Thanks!
    Precision dies