This is the last post (promise) on our August anniversary road trip in NH and VT. We've been to other places since then, including a roadside attraction in MA and a balloon festival in PA, details in future posts.
There's a region in Northern CA widely known as Silicon Valley. Perhaps less well known is that in the mid-19th century in New England, Windsor, VT, and surrounding regions became known as Precision Valley.
Precision Valley ran along the Connecticut River, from Springfield, VT, to Hartford, CT. In the 1850s, electricity didn't exist and water power was what enabled precision machinery to operate.
The village of Windsor, VT, became an anchor in the Precision Valley due to a gun factory on the banks of the Mill Brook that became a forerunner in the field of interchangeable precision manufacturing.
Today, the former Robbins & Lawrence Company gun factory is home to the American Precision Museum, and its unique collection of machine tools spanning the first 100 years of precision manufacturing. Declared a National Historic Landmark in 2001, the building is significant for its architectural integrity reflecting the size, scale, and operation of a 19th century New England factory.
Richard Lawrence had moved to VT in 1838 at age 21 and later formed a gun-making shop with Nicanor Kendall. In 1846, local businessman Samuel Robbins urged them to bid on a United States army order for 10,000 rifles for the Mexican-American War. They got the bid because their bid of $11.90 was ten cents per gun lower than competing bids. And, convinced the government parts interchangeability could be used in building the rifle.
Lawrence and Robbins bought Kendall out and formed a partnership, buying land and building a factory and machine shop, hiring workers and mechanics, inventing new machines, adapting old ones, and creating the new technology of producing precise interchangeable parts to fill the order. The system of mass production introduced at the factory was so efficient that the order was done 18 months early; the company was awarded a second contract for 15,000 more rifles.
The four-story factory had high ceilings and wood construction. Its wood floors accommodated heavy equipment for a large workforce. The narrow width and expansive windows provided plenty of natural light. An 18-foot iron and wooden water wheel in the basement powered a network of belts and shafting to operate the factory's machine tools. These could cut rifle wood and metal parts with accuracy and consistency speeding up the production process.
Robbins & Lawrence was one of the first companies to use custom metal lathing machines to create parts so precise they could be interchanged. This was a major advance in weapon making and manufacturing in general. Shop superintendent Frederick W. Howe was responsible for many of the company’s innovations in machine-tool design and along with Lawrence developed a milling machine that was later commercialized for use by other firms.
When the war ended in 1848, R&L found that machine tools could be used to produce other items. These tools created precise custom parts for machinery that became standard throughout the U.S. The concept of interchangeable parts was applied to mass production of consumer goods like shoes, watches, sewing machines, typewriters and later bicycles and automobiles producing them faster and in greater quantities.
|Revolving hammer pistol |
R&L produced in mid-1850s
In 1851, American contractors and manufacturing firms including Robbins & Lawrence exhibited at the Crystal Palace Exposition in London, a worldwide celebration of arts and technology. The Windsor-made rifles won a metal and the British Parliament sent a group to the VT factory to study the American System of interchangeable machine-made parts.
Afterwards, Britain placed an order for 25,000 Enfield rifles to be made in Windsor, also ordering 141 machine tools to equip an armory being built near Enfield. Robbins & Lawrence became one of the first American companies to export new technology from America to Europe reversing the previous direction.
Ironically, the awarding of this major contract also led to the company’s downfall. In 1857, the Robbins & Lawrence Company went bankrupt and closed. The company, which had bought machinery to produce the rifles, was left with 12,000 undeliverable muskets when the Crimean War ended suddenly in 1856.
The Robbins & Lawrence Company employed over 150 men at its peak. These machinists and engineers were able to apply their skills to tool companies in the area and beyond. Even in its decline, the company’s technical innovations guaranteed Windsor, VT, a chapter in the history of the American Industrial Revolution. It also played a role in fostering the careers of those who implemented Vermont’s machine tool industry in the late 19th and 20th centuries.
After it closed, the plant and equipment were bought in 1858 by Ebenezer Lamson operating as Lamson, Goodnow & Yale which made sewing machines. When the Civil War erupted in 1861, he secured a government contract for 50,000 long-arm rifles and re-tooled to produce rifles and machinery for gun makers like Colt, Remington, Sharps Rifle, and the Springfield Armory.
|The most common firearm for Union soldiers was the Special Model 1861 rifle-musket based on the British Enfield rifle made by Robbins & Lawrence in the 1850s.|
During the fall and winter of 1861-62, production soared. Lamson recruited skilled machinists and gun makers from around New England. Gas lighting was installed; more than 300 men worked in shifts around the clock. By spring 1862, orders for gun-making machines slowed. Machinists in the Windsor factory began receiving orders for lathes, drill presses, barrel turning machines, and various types of milling machines.
Wesson and continued as a manufacturer of machine tools for a number of years changing the firm’s name to the Windsor Manufacturing Company.
The heritage of the former Robbins & Lawrence Company continued with several companies using the old buildings and tools. The property was sold to the Windsor Electric Light Company and, in 1926, was sold again to the Central Vermont Public Service Company which proposed razing it in 1964 and prompting Windsor resident, Edwin Battison to form plans for a museum.
Battison ↑, curator of Mechanical Engineering at the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, secured the building in 1966 to house not only the American Precision Museum in 1966, but his collection of historic machine tools, related books, and archival materials. He served as its director until 1991.
The American System of Manufacturing had its roots in firearms production. Notable features included the extensive use of interchangeable parts and production mechanization. The system was first fully developed in armories and known as armory practice.
The Robbins & Lawrence Company and its successors played a crucial role in this process.