In order to speed up and to economize on weapon production, gun-makers conceived and perfected machine tools, which proved useful in other industries:
In the history of weapon progress, the advent of the machine age rivals the discovery of gunpowder. Power tools accomplished the impossible with the guns of the day, and opened means for the progressive inventor to write an unequaled chapter of development.
The influence of machine tools in modern life is little appreciated by the average person. The New York Museum of Science and Industry has on its wall a panel stating that the origin of machine tools has made possible all generated light, heat, and power; all modern transportation by rail, water, and air; all forms of electric communication; and has likewise caused to be produced all the machinery used in agriculture, textiles, printing, paper making, and all the instruments used in every science. “Everything we use at work, at home, at play, is either a child or a grandchild of a machine tool.” But the Adam and Eve of the machine tool, and its application to mass production, were the early Connecticut and Massachusetts gunsmiths.
Good mechanics have been found in every nation, yet for some reason, most of the important machine tools used throughout the world originated in only two places: Great Britain and New England. The English craftsmen, traditionally lovers of the hand-finished product, benefited little from this fact. They have furnished no serious competition in this field since the 1850′s when undisputed leadership shifted to New England. This section of the United States became, practically, a manufacturing arsenal. Its mechanics were recognized as the world’s best. In fact, some of their contributions to the power tool industry have affected the course of history more through industrial progress than their fine weapons did on the battlefield.
Among the little-known inventions of these men can be found the first milling machine with a power feed which was devised by the original Eli Whitney; it was the direct predecessor of what is known today as the power miller. Christopher M. Spencer, who was noted for his repeating rifles, patented a great improvement on the drop hammer, and perfected a cam control, or “brain wheel,” whereby the operation of lathes was made automatic. This invention was one of the few for which the original drawing was so perfectly devised that it is still used today. Another gunsmith, Henry Stone, developed the turret principle for lathes. The high speed automatic lathe of today is a combination of the work of Spencer and Stone. The two men originated many improvements which extend from farm machinery to silk winding machines, but their first success was in weapon design.
Francis A. Pratt was one of the best designers of machine tools. After founding the Pratt & Whitney Co. for manufacturing guns, he found other products so profitable that, today, few people know of the influence of firearms on this outstanding manufacturing concern.
Asa Cook, a brother-in-law of Pratt, and a former Colt mechanic, was the inventor and manufacturer of machines to make screws and bolts automatically. Eli J. Manville, a former Pratt & Whitney engineer, established with his five sons at Waterbury, Conn., a plant which has been conspicuous in the design of presses, bolt headers, and thread rollers for the brass industry.
The arms plants proved training schools for inventors. Guns were made as long as profitable, but with changing times these versatile men began to make things entirely unrelated to firearms. Many became so successful in other manufacturing ventures that today it is often hard to associate a large telescope company or a successful sewing machine plant with its original founder, a master craftsman, working patiently on the development of a new firearm. Yet the fact still remains that American domination of manufacturing “know how” came largely from the honest effort of gun producers just before the Civil War to compete with each other in providing the world’s finest weapons.
It did not take long for American gun makers to carry the gospel of machine tool performance across the seven seas. As early as 1851, a Vermont firm showed at a London fair guns with interchangeable components manufactured by mass production methods. The British government was so impressed that it ordered the making of 20,000 Enfield rifles in American factories by this method. Three years later Great Britain ordered from the company that made these weapons 157 gun milling machines, which were the first automatic tools to be used in Europe. Among them was the eccentric lathe invented by Thomas Blanchard of the Springfield Armory. This device allowed wooden gun stocks to be machine carved with great rapidity in lieu of the laborious hand method formerly employed. The machine turned out irregular (eccentric) forms, from patterns, with automatic speed and precision; and has undergone practically no change in design since it was invented by Blanchard. Like innumerable other weapon-inspired tools, it contributed not only to American domination of the armament business but also helped to reshape the entire structure of the manufacturing world.