Chronicles of America 

Pioneers of the Machine Shop

There is a tinge of melancholy about the life of such a pioneer as Oliver Evans, that early American mechanic of great genius, whose story is briefly outlined in a preceding chapter. Here was a man of imagination and sensibility, as well as practical power; conferring great benefits on his countrymen, yet in chronic poverty; derided by his neighbors, robbed by his beneficiaries; his property, the fruit of his brain and toil, in the end malevolently destroyed. The lot of the man who sees far ahead of his time, and endeavors to lead his fellows in ways for which they are not prepared, has always been hard.

John Stevens, too, as we have seen, met defeat when he tried to thrust a steam railroad on a country that was not yet ready for it. His mechanical conceptions were not marked by genius equal to that of Evans, but they were still too far advanced to be popular. The career of Stevens, however, presents a remarkable contrast to that of Evans in other respects. Evans was born poor (in Delaware, 1755) and remained poor all his life. Stevens was born rich (in New York City, 1749) and remained rich all his life. Of the family of Evans nothing is known either before or after him. Stevens, on the contrary, belonged to one of the best known and most powerful families in America. His grandfather, John Stevens I, came from England in 1699 and made himself a lawyer and a great landowner. His father, John Stevens II, was a member from New Jersey of the Continental Congress and presided at the New Jersey Convention which ratified the Constitution.

John Stevens III was graduated at King's College (Columbia) in 1768. He held public offices during the Revolution. To him, perhaps more than to any other man, is due the Patent Act of 1790, for the protection of American inventors, for that law was the result of a petition which he made to Congress and which, being referred to a committee, was favorably reported. Thus we may regard John Stevens as the father of the American patent law.

John Stevens owned the old Dutch farm on the Hudson on which the city of Hoboken now stands. The place had been in possession of the Bayard family, but William Bayard, who lived there at the time of the Revolution, was a Loyalist, and his house on Castle Point was burned down and his estate confiscated. After the Revolution Stevens acquired the property. He laid it out as a town in 1804, made it his summer residence, and established there the machine shops in which he and his sons carried on their mechanical experiments.

These shops were easily the largest and bestequipped in the Union when in 1838 John Stevens died at the age of ninety. The four brothers, John Cox, Robert Livingston, James Alexander, and Edwin Augustus, worked harmoniously together. "No one ever heard of any quarrel or dissension in the Stevens family. They were workmen themselves, and they were superior to their subordinates because they were better engineers and better men of business than any other folk who up to that time had undertaken the business of transportation in the United States."1

The youngest of these brothers, Edwin Augustus Stevens, dying in 1868, left a large part of his fortune to found the Stevens Institute of Technology, afterwards erected at Hoboken not far from the old family homestead on Castle Point. The mechanical star of the family, however, was the second brother, Robert Livingston Stevens, whose many inventions made for the great improvement of transportation both by land and water. For a quarter of a century, from 1815 to 1840, he was the foremost builder of steamboats in America, and under his hand the steamboat increased amazingly in speed and efficiency. He made great contributions to the railway. The first locomotives ran upon wooden stringers plated with strap iron. A loose end--"a snakehead" it was called--sometimes curled up and pierced through the floor of a car, causing a wreck. The solid metal T-rail, now in universal use, was designed by Stevens and was first used on the Camden and Amboy Railroad, of which he was president and his brother Edwin treasurer and manager. The swivel truck and the cow-catcher, the modern method of attaching rails to ties, the vestibule car, and many improvements in the locomotive were also first introduced on the Stevens road.

The Stevens brothers exerted their influence also on naval construction. A double invention of Robert and Edwin, the forced draft, to augment steam power and save coal, and the air-tight fireroom, which they applied to their own vessels, was afterwards adopted by all navies. Robert designed and projected an ironclad battleship, the first one in the world. This vessel, called the Stevens Battery, was begun by authority of the Government in 1842; but, owing to changes in the design and inadequate appropriations by Congress, it was never launched. It lay for many years in the basin at Hoboken an unfinished hulk. Robert died in 1856. On the outbreak of the Civil War, Edwin tried to revive the interest of the Government, but by that time the design of the Stevens Battery was obsolete, and Edwin Stevens was an old man. So the honors for the construction of the first ironclad man-of-war to fight and win a battle went to John Ericsson, that other great inventor, who built the famous Monitor for the Union Government.

Carlyle's oft-quoted term, "Captains of Industry," may fittingly be applied to the Stevens family. Strong, masterful, and farseeing, they used ideas, their own and those of others, in a large way, and were able to succeed where more timorous inventors failed. Without the stimulus of poverty they achieved success, making in their shops that combination of men and material which not only added to their own fortunes but also served the world.

We left Eli Whitney defeated in his efforts to divert to himself some adequate share of the untold riches arising from his great invention of the cotton gin. Whitney, however, had other sources of profit in his own character and mechanical ability. As early as 1798 he had turned his talents to the manufacture of firearms. He had established his shops at Whitneyville, near New Haven; and it was there that he worked out another achievement quite as important economically as the cotton gin, even though the immediate consequences were less spectacular: namely, the principle of standardization or interchangeability in manufacture.

This principle is the very foundation today of all American large-scale production. The manufacturer produces separately thousands of copies of every part of a complicated machine, confident that an equal number of the complete machine will be assembled and set in motion. The owner of a motor car, a reaper, a tractor, or a sewing machine, orders, perhaps by telegraph or telephone, a broken or lost part, taking it for granted that the new part can be fitted easily and precisely into the place of the old.

Though it is probable that this idea of standardization, or interchangeability, originated independently in Whitney's mind, and though it is certain that he and one of his neighbors, who will be mentioned presently, were the first manufacturers in the world to carry it out successfully in practice, yet it must be noted that the idea was not entirely new. We are told that the system was already in operation in England in the manufacture of ship's blocks. From no less an authority than Thomas Jefferson we learn that a French mechanic had previously conceived the same idea.2 But, as no general result whatever came from the idea in either France or England, the honors go to Whitney and North, since they carried it to such complete success that it spread to other branches of manufacturing. And in the face of opposition. When Whitney wrote that his leading object was "to substitute correct and effective operations of machinery for that skill of the artist which is acquired only by long practice and experience," in order to make the same parts of different guns "as much like each other as the successive impressions of a copper-plate engraving," he was laughed to scorn by the ordnance officers of France and England. "Even the Washington officials," says Roe, "were sceptical and became uneasy at advancing so much money without a single gun having been completed, and Whitney went to Washington, taking with him ten pieces of each part of a musket. He exhibited these to the Secretary of War and the army officers interested, as a succession of piles of different parts. Selecting indiscriminately from each of the piles, he put together ten muskets, an achievement which was looked on with amazement."3

While Whitney worked out his plans at Whitneyville, Simeon North, another Connecticut mechanic and a gunmaker by trade, adopted the same system. North's first shop was at Berlin. He afterwards moved to Middletown. Like Whitney, he used methods far in advance of the time. Both Whitney and North helped to establish the United States Arsenals at Springfield, Massachusetts, and at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, in which their methods were adopted. Both the Whitney and North plants survived their founders. Just before the Mexican War the Whitney plant began to use steel for gun barrels, and Jefferson Davis, Colonel of the Mississippi Rifles, declared that the new guns were "the best rifles which had ever been issued to any regiment in the world." Later, when Davis became Secretary of War, he issued to the regular army the same weapon.

The perfection of Whitney's tools and machines made it possible to employ workmen of little skill or experience. "Indeed so easy did Mr. Whitney find it to instruct new and inexperienced workmen, that he uniformly preferred to do so, rather than to combat the prejudices of those who had learned the business under a different system."4 This reliance upon the machine for precision and speed has been a distinguishing mark of American manufacture. A man or a woman of little actual mechanical skill may make an excellent machine tender, learning to perform a few simple motions with great rapidity.

Whitney married in 1817 Miss Henrietta Edwards, daughter of Judge Pierpont Edwards, of New Haven, and granddaughter of Jonathan Edwards. His business prospered, and his high character, agreeable manners, and sound judgment won. for him the highest regard of all who knew him; and he had a wide circle of friends. It is said that he was on intimate terms with every President of the United States from George Washington to John Quincy Adams. But his health had been impaired by hardships endured in the South, in the long struggle over the cotton gin, and he died in 1825, at the age of fifty-nine. The business which he founded remained in his family for ninety years. It was carried on after his death by two of his nephews and then by his son, until 1888, when it was sold to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company of New Haven.

Here then, in these early New England gunshops, was born the American system of interchangeable manufacture. Its growth depended upon the machine tool, that is, the machine for making machines. Machine tools, of course, did not originate in America. English mechanics were making machines for cutting metal at least a generation before Whitney. One of the earliest of these English pioneers was John Wilkinson, inventor and maker of the boring machine which enabled Boulton and Watt in 1776 to bring their steam engine to the point of practicability. Without this machine Watt found it impossible to bore his cylinders with the necessary degree of accuracy.5 From this one fact, that the success of the steam engine depended upon the invention of a new tool, we may judge of what a great part the inventors of machine tools, of whom thousands are unnamed and unknown, have played in the industrial world.

So it was in the shops of the New England gunmakers that machine tools were first made of such variety and adaptability that they could be applied generally to other branches of manufacturing; and so it was that the system of interchangeable manufacture arose as a distinctively American development. We have already seen how England's policy of keeping at home the secrets of her machinery led to the independent development of the spindles and looms of New England. The same policy affected the tool industry in America in the same way and bred in the new country a race of original and resourceful mechanics.

One of these pioneers was Thomas Blanchard, born in 1788 on a farm in Worcester County, Massachusetts, the home also of Eli Whitney and Elias Howe. Tom began his mechanical career at the age of thirteen by inventing a device to pare apples. At the age of eighteen he went to work in his brother's shop, where tacks were made by hand, and one day took to his brother a mechanical device for counting the tacks to go into a single packet. The invention was adopted and was found to save the labor of one workman. Tom's next achievement was a machine to make tacks, on which he spent six years and the rights of which he sold for five thousand dollars. It was worth far more, for it revolutionized the tack industry, but such a sum was to young Blanchard a great fortune.

The tack-making machine gave Blanchard a reputation, and he was presently sought out by a gun manufacturer, to see whether he could improve the lathe for turning the barrels of the guns. Blanchard could; and did. His next problem was to invent a lathe for turning the irregular wooden stocks. Here he also succeeded and produced a lathe that would copy precisely and rapidly any pattern. It is from this invention that the name of Blanchard is best known. The original machine is preserved in the United States Armory at Springfield, to which Blanchard was attached for many years, and where scores of the descendants of his copying lathe may be seen in action today.

Turning gunstocks was, of course, only one of the many uses of Blanchard's copying lathe. Its chief use, in fact, was in the production of wooden lasts for the shoemakers of New England, but it was applied to many branches of wood manufacture, and later on the same principle was applied to the shaping of metal.

Blanchard was a man of many ideas. He built a steam vehicle for ordinary roads and was an early advocate of railroads; he built steamboats to ply upon the Connecticut and incidentally produced in connection with these his most profitable invention, a machine to bend ship's timbers without splintering them. The later years of his life were spent in Boston, and he often served as a patent expert in the courts, where his wide knowledge, hard common sense, incisive speech, and homely wit made him a welcome witness.

We now glance at another New England inventor, Samuel Colt, the man who carried Whitney's conceptions to transcendent heights, the most dashing and adventurous of all the pioneers of the machine shop in America. If "the American frontier was Elizabethan in quality," there was surely a touch of the Elizabethan spirit on the man whose invention so greatly affected the character of that frontier. Samuel Colt was born at Hartford in 1814 and died there in 1862 at the age of forty-eight, leaving behind him a famous name and a colossal industry of his own creation. His father was a small manufacturer of silk and woolens at Hartford, and the boy entered the factory at a very early age. At school in Amherst a little later, he fell under the displeasure of his teachers. At thirteen he took to sea, as a boy before the mast, on the East India voyage to Calcutta. It was on this voyage that he conceived the idea of the revolver and whittled out a wooden model. On his return he went into his father's works and gained a superficial knowledge of chemistry from the manager of the bleaching and dyeing department. Then he took to the road for three years and traveled from Quebec to New Orleans lecturing on chemistry under the name of "Dr. Coult." The main feature of his lecture was the administration of nitrous oxide gas to volunteers from the audience, whose antics and the amusing showman's patter made the entertainment very popular.

Colt's ambition, however, soared beyond the occupation of itinerant showman, and he never forgot his revolver. As soon as he had money enough, he made models of the new arm and took out his patents; and, having enlisted the interest of capital, he set up the Patent Arms Company at Paterson, New Jersey, to manufacture the revolver. He did not succeed in having the revolver adopted by the Government, for the army officers for a long time objected to the percussion cap (an invention, by the way, then some twenty years old, which was just coming into use and without which Colt's revolver would not have been practicable) and thought that the new weapon might fail in an emergency. Colt found a market in Texas and among the frontiersmen who were fighting the Seminole War in Florida, but the sales were insufficient, and in 1842 the company was obliged to confess insolvency and close down the plant. Colt bought from the company the patent of the revolver, which was supposed to be worthless.

Nothing more happened until after the outbreak of the Mexican War in 1846. Then came a loud call from General Zachary Taylor for a supply of Colt's revolvers. Colt had none. He had sold the last one to a Texas ranger. He had not even a model. Yet he took an order from the Government for a thousand and proceeded to construct a model. For the manufacture of the revolvers he arranged with the Whitney plant at Whitneyville. There he saw and scrutinized every detail of the factory system that Eli Whitney had established forty years earlier. He resolved to have a plant of his own on the same system and one that would far surpass Whitney's. Next year (1848) he rented premises in Hartford. His business prospered and increased. At last the Government demanded his revolvers. Within five years he had procured a site of two hundred and fifty acres fronting the Connecticut River at Hartford, and had there begun the erection of the greatest arms factory in the world.

Colt was a captain of captains. The ablest mechanic and industrial organizer in New England at that time was Elisha K. Root. Colt went after him, outbidding every other bidder for his services, and brought him to Hartford to supervise the erection of the new factory and set up its machinery. Root was a great superintendent, and the phenomenal success of the Colt factory was due in a marked degree to him. He became president of the company after Colt's death in 1862, and under him were trained a large number of mechanics and inventors of new machine tools, who afterwards became celebrated leaders and officers in the industrial armies of the country.

The spectacular rise of the Colt factory at Hartford drew the attention of the British Government, and in 1854 Colt was invited to appear in London before a Parliamentary Committee on Small Arms. He lectured the members of the committee as if they had been school boys, telling them that the regular British gun was so bad that he would be ashamed to have it come from his shop. Speaking of a plant which he had opened in London the year before he criticized the supposedly skilled British mechanic, saying: "I began here by employing the highest-priced men that I could find to do difficult things, but I had to remove the whole of these high-priced men. Then I tried the cheapest I could find, and the more ignorant a man was, the more brains he had for my purpose; and the result was this: I had men now in my employ that I started with at two shillings a day, and in one short year I can not spare them at eight shillings a day."6 Colt's audacity, however, did not offend the members of the committee and they decided to visit his American factory at Hartford. They did; and were so impressed that the British Government purchased in America a full set of machines for the manufacture of arms in the Royal Small Arms factory at Enfield, England, and took across the sea American workmen and foremen to set up and run these . machines. A demand sprang up in Europe for Blanchard copying lathes and a hundred other American tools, and from this time on the manufacture of tools and appliances for other manufacturers, both at home and abroad, became an increasingly important industry of New England.

The system which the gunmakers worked out and developed to meet their own requirements was capable of indefinite expansion. It was easily adapted to other kinds of manufacture. So it was that as new inventions came in the manufacturers of these found many of the needed tools ready for them, and any special modifications could be quickly made. A manufacturer, of machine tools will produce on demand a device to perform any operation, however difficult or intricate. Some of the machines are so versatile that specially designed sets of cutting edges will adapt them to almost any work.

Standardization, due to the machine tool, is one of the chief glories of American manufacturing. Accurate watches and clocks, bicycles and motor cars, innumerable devices to save labor in the home, the office, the shop, or on the farm, are within the reach of all, because the machine tool, tended by labor comparatively unskilled, does the greater part of the work of production. In the crisis of the World War, American manufacturers, turning from the arts of peace, promptly adapted their plants to the manufacture of the most complicated engines of destruction, which were produced in Europe only by skilled machinists of the highest class.


  1. Abram S. Hewitt. Quoted in Iles, "Leading American Inventors", p. 37.
  2. See the letter from Jefferson to John Jay, of April 30, 1785, cited in Roe, "English and American Tool Builders", p. 129.
  3. Roe, "English and American Tool Builders", p. 133.
  4. Denison Olmstead, "Memoir", cited by Roe, p. 159.
  5.  Roe, "English and American Tool Builders", p. 1 et seq.
  6. Henry Barnard, "Armsmear", p. 371.