In the early 1800s, in the years between the American Revolution and the Civil War, a revolution in manufacturing began. Most of the inventive work occurred in New England, and much of it happened here in the Robbins and Lawrence Armory, now our museum. Before that revolution, mechanical devices--including guns--were made one at a time, by skilled craftsmen. Each one was different. It took many days to make one gun, one wagon, or one plow. There were no sewing machines, no automatic writing machines, no self-propelled vehicles. The automobile was invented in the late 1800s, and in 1908 Henry Ford introduced the Model T. That first year his factory produced about 6,000 Model T autos. Just a few years later, in 1916, they built almost 600,000. By 1927, using mass production techniques, Ford had sold 15 million Model Ts.
What is a Machine Tool?
Most of the large machines that fill the museum are called machine tools. Machine tools make it possible to produce products with interchangeable parts.
A machine tool
- cuts or forms metal or some other material to a predetermined shape,
- generally uses some source of power other than muscle,
- uses a rigidly held and accurately controlled cutting or forming tool.
The machine tool increases speed, accuracy, and consistency in the metal shaping process.
A vertical boring mill or vertical lathe is much like an ordinary lathe turned 90 degrees, with the headstock down. This “up and down” position provides a great advantage in working on large, heavy work pieces. With a heavy work piece sitting on the faceplate, setup of the machine is much easier. Also, with the weight supported this way, the spindle is less likely to be thrown out of alignment.
Early Industrial Revolution
The first large American factories spun cotton and wove cloth using methods and machinery developed in Europe. Running the textile machines required very little skill, and many of the factories were staffed by young women and even children. The textile machines themselves were large and complex. Nearly all the parts for the machines were made using machine tools. By the early 1800s, American inventors began to develop new products and new ways of making things.
Revolution in Gun Making
When guns were made one at a time, each one unique, they were slow to assemble and difficult to repair. Military leaders in America and Europe wanted to find a way to make guns that were all alike, with parts that could be swapped in and out. At the federal armories and in private gun shops in New England, new machines were built that could cut wood and metal automatically, making the same part over and over again. In Windsor, Samuel Robbins, Nicanor Kendall, and Richard Lawrence won a government contract to make 10,000 Harper’s Ferry type U.S. army rifles with interchangeable parts. In 1846, they built their armory and purchased or made a wide range of machines and tools. Gun-making machinery was the government sponsored, high-tech industry of the mid 1800s, and Robbins, Kendall, and Lawrence were at the forefront.
“We had nothing to start with—buildings or capital—[but] we had nerve and pluck and were determined to carry out the contract.” Richard S. Lawrence
Transfer of Technology
The tools and methods of the “armory practice” were quickly applied to industries beyond gun making.
- The Blanchard-style gunstock lathe was used to make shoe lasts.
- Screw machines and precision lathes were scaled down to make watch parts.
- Planers, screw-making lathes, and gear cutters were used to make sewing machine parts.
- Bicycle and automobile parts makers used all types of machine tools.
- Precision measuring devices were used to calibrate tools for all of these products.
New tools and manufacturing techniques made consumer products less expensive and more available to ordinary people.
Elements of Armory Practice
During the Civil War, machinists who had begun experimenting with consumer products returned to gun making.
After the war, many of them again began concentrating on peacetime products. Watches, sewing machines, agricultural equipment, and many household devices were made using tools and methods perfected in the armories:
- A model or “ideal” or “master” example used to standardize parts for a product
- Gauges made to fit the models, so that each part could be measured to make sure it would fit
- Fixtures used to mount work pieces in machine tools to increase accuracy
- New tools to automate processes whenever possible
- Finally… interchangeable parts that could be assembled easily, without careful filing and fitting.
Specialized machinery increases productivity, so that fewer people make more products more quickly. Once the machines have been developed and the processes are in place, quantity production lowers the cost of each individual unit.
Motorcars and Mass Production
The automobile was not invented in America. There were early experiments in France, Scotland, and Germany in the 1880s.
In the 1890s, in America, George Selden and the Duryea brothers independently developed gasoline-powered cars. The Stanley brothers produced their first “Stanley Steamer” in Maine in 1897. Colonel Pope of Columbia bicycles soon began to manufacture the “Columbia light gasoline car.”
Large-scale production of automobiles began in America in 1899, when Ransom E. Olds opened his Oldsmobile factory in Detroit. Henry Leland began the precision cutting of gears for Oldsmobile, but soon founded his own automobile company—Cadillac—in 1902.
Meanwhile, Henry Ford had developed his first self-propelled vehicle in 1896. After two unsuccessful attempts to start an auto company, Ford finally established a successful company in 1903.
“The greatest need today is a light, low-priced car with an up-to-date engine of ample horsepower, and built of the very best material. …It must be powerful enough for American roads and capable of carrying its passengers anywhere that a horse-drawn vehicle will go without the driver being afraid of ruining his car.” Henry Ford, 1906
Machine tools transferred skill from the hands of the worker to the mechanisms in the machine, but the source of that skill is still the human mind. While machine tools save physical labor and increase productivity, they also demand of us a higher level of education and technical understanding. What new problems do we now need to solve? Are there some that can be solved with new advances in machinery? What other kinds of technical advances may solve problems in the new century?