Buff & Buff Manufacturing Company
Boston, MA and Green St., Jamaica Plain, MA
1898-1982

(Buff and Berger 1871 - 1898)
(C L Berger & Sons Manufacturing Co. 1898-1962-)


surveyor's transit“George L. Buff (born 24 March 1837 in Germany; died 2 July 1923) formed this company after the breakup of Buff & Berger. Three sons worked in the company: Louis F. (born 1876; died 1941), Carl W. (born 1879; died 1941), and Henry A. (born 1884). The ‘Mfg. Co.’ may not have been used in their early years. It is not clear when they moved to Jamaica Plain, but it was apparently well after 1900.” (Nelson 1999, 129).

The Buff & Buff Manufacturing Co. in Boston was an important member of a group of New England manufacturers of surveying transits and equipment that had its roots in the classic period of American machinist tools. The sophisticated products of America's newly discovered ability to build complex machines such as surveyors' transits using the machinery invented and constructed in the Industrial Revolution (rather than hand work and hand tools) resulted in products such as the Buff & Buff transit on display in the Davistown Museum in the Industrial Revolution (IR) collection, see photo to the left.)  No modern computerized circa 2000 surveyors' transit equals the Buff & Buff specimen in beauty and quality of construction and materials, advances in efficiency and measuring capabilities not withstanding.  Also in the collection of The Davistown Museum is a six color lithograph of the museum's transit. This lithograph, one of perhaps thirty, was recovered from the Green St. factory by Liberty Tool Co. approximately 16 years after the article below by Smith was written. By that time (c. 1984) the Buff & Buff facility had closed and disposed of most of its equipment. The transit in the museum collection was purchased from a Marblehead, MA, estate in 1999. At the time of the Liberty Tool Co. salvage operation, all that remained in the Green St. factory were hundreds of transit and telescope level bubbles and parts, grinding stones, and miscellaneous equipment. The lithographs were hidden away on a high shelf in one of the dusty abandoned offices.

The following article by Smith describes the atmosphere of a 19th century factory with its overhead pulleys and belts, (probably of buffalo hide) musty atmosphere and dividing engines. (The Davistown Museum has a buffalo belt in the Industrial Revolution (IR) Collection.) This factory happened to survive long after the heydey of the classic period of the Industrial Revolution.  It's long survival into the late years of the 20th century speaks of the quality of the Buff & Buff transits and their continued relevance in the era of the internal combustion engine and the electric power grid.

Below is an excerpt from an article by Philip Smith in The Chronicle, pg. 76 and 80.

Notes on a visit to the Buff & Buff surveying instrument factory, Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, Monday, 3 June 1968

The combination of Buff & Berger was dissolved on 18 October 1898, whereupon Berger organized C. L. Berger & Sons, and Buff immediately began his own company, Buff & Buff (which included three sons), and built a new factory in Jamaica Plain.  After an especially distinguished history, the company finally went out of business in 1982.

Buff & Buff is a large, long building set back in a courtyard with a steep flight of steps up to a tiny vestibule where there is a Dutch door with a cluttered double office beyond. Beyond the office is a small storage room with low doorways, shelves, cubby-holes, trays, and drawers of instrument parts. Other dark alcoves jut off this room and under the stairs, and other cabinets and parts storage can be seen within.

On a corner shelf in a rickety box is an instrument for testing level bubbles. Transits and surveying instrument telescopes, all dusty, are stowed around. Off this room is another very small room, barely large enough for one man to work. A shelf is built along one wall on which stands an ancient looking instrument with two electrified brass light cylinders on each side and a pivoted magnifying tube in the center rear and a circular clamp in the center. There is a device at the right for holding horizontal over the central clamp a pair of large tweezers, the ends of which are coated with tallow.

Around the shelf and on other shelves packed into the corners of the room are old chewing and pipe tobacco cardboard boxes of the sort that haven't been seen for forty years. The boxes hold eye piece rings to be worked on at the instrument mentioned above. In a covered wooden box below the shelf are racks of wood 2 inches wide by 12 inches long, with a short wooden peg in the center of each short end to allow the racks to be twisted between the fingers of two hands. On these, neatly stacked, with wood strips dividing them like a lumber pile, are spider webs used for the cross hairs applied to the eye piece rings.

Spiders collected once a year from "country" areas around the Charles River or under bridges are put in boxes (one to a box) and taken back to Buff & Buff, where the spiders are allowed to calm down overnight. The next morning the spiders are put on the racks which are then twisted as the spider tends to drop to the floor and thus the webs are wound up on the rack. Good spiders will provide three or four reels each. The web thickness varies from reel to reel, but is fairly uniform on any one reel.

The eye piece rings are carefully scored to show where the cross hairs made from the webs are to be placed. One is carefully aligned on the central circular clamp and the tallow on the tweezers ends is softened. The tweezers are then touched to opposite sides of the rack, which lifts off a length of cobweb. The tweezers are then secured in the right hand clamp and lowered into the correct position so that the web exactly aligns with a set of score marks on the eye piece rings. A few drops of lacquer applied with a toothpick to the ends bonds the web to the metallic part. The web is stronger and more elastic than steel wire of the same diameter.

Behind these two rooms is a long, narrow workshop with four or five parallel tiers of work benches and machining equipment, principally lathes, all powered by a 19th-century system of overhead spindles, pulleys, and leather belts, all humming and thumping together. Only three or four men are at work in this room. One works on aligning two parts of a transit vernier, demonstrating the charcoaling of the vernier scale with a small wooden reverse clamp to hold the divided vernier scale solidly.  First, oil is applied to the scale, then a stick of charcoal is rubbed over, and excess oil and charcoal wiped away with a rag.

Other men are turning exact pieces, all individually fitted, although the pieces are received rough from the foundry and successively refined and polished in this room. Trays of parts on the benches and under the benches are everywhere. Some pieces have just been received from the basement where black enamel has been baked onto the surface of various pieces.

Upstairs there is a room where optical lenses are ground. There are cakes of grinding rouge, grinding forms, grinding wheels, and slugs of uncut flint glass. Next, also upstairs, is a repair alcove where instruments sent in for fixing are tended to. On a table is an iron oven where various work is performed (in the old days sometimes lunches were cooked there). There are also two vats of acid to eat off enamel on instruments to be refinished and a coffee pot over a Bunsen burner. More rows of lathes and other instruments, more belts and spindles, more trays of parts and racks of unassembled instruments are found here.

In the basement is a small, locked, double room. It's concrete and musty, containing four dividing engines of various sizes and capabilities, the largest of which is probably in the vicinity of four feet in diameter. These were not in operation while I was there. The rest of the basement is a paint shop and a woodworking shop where instrument boxes are produced.


The Transit an American Instrument
By Milton Estabrook

One of the most important and revolutionary inventions of the latter half of the nineteenth and early twentieth century was the American Transiting Theodolite. It is more commonly known as a transit. Theodolites were invented and used in Europe and England for some time but it was not until approximately 1866 that an instrument with a transiting telescope and a compass located in the center of the device appeared and was produced in significant numbers. These changes along with the double horizontal verniers and a vertical vernier made the instrument uniquely American in concept and design. The instruments reigned supreme in the position as the most versatile and precise surveying and engineering instruments for over one hundred years. One man's instrument, first built in 1866 was produced largely unchanged for over seventy years and it was one of the best. George Buff the inventor of this instrument and Christian Louis Berger, who would for some time be his business partner, were two of the premier instrument makers of the time and they left an indelible mark on the history of instrument making and the history of the United States. They were by no means the only people to produce instruments but they were unusual in that they both emigrated from Germany to the United States and they both ended up living in Boston, Mass. Additionally they both had factories producing transits in the same city at the same time. Their story is inseparable from that of the transit itself.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of the transit to the development of the United States. All of the large engineering projects were laid out and leveled and in fact the lands the creations were built on were surveyed with these instruments. Bridges, tunnels, skyscrapers, railroads, runways and even the building the space shuttle was built in was laid out with the use of a transit. Seldom in history has a single device had such enormous impact on a nation. These instruments exemplify the zenith of the instrument maker's profession and are an art form in and of themselves. They required mastery of a number of disciplines such as: metallurgy, physics, optics, mathematics and extreme precision in machining metals. It is stated in some of their catalogues that these instruments could repeat lines on the ground within 3/10,000 ths. of an inch at a distance of 11,000 yds. This type of accuracy in sighting and turning angles horizontally and vertically made them uniquely valuable when it is coupled with the fact they had a central compass. The inclusion of turning accurate angles to a compass heading made them especially adept at surveying land or any project that required compass coordinate orientation. It was these capabilities that made these instruments uniquely American. They were only improved upon in ease of use, in the late 1970's or early 1980's, by the now common digital instruments. The accuracy of the better transits is still difficult to improve upon. This is an amazing legacy. There are still some uses for these instruments and they are still produced in small numbers. There are few if any built at this time that can match the craftsmanship and unique near perfection of fit that was achieved in the better instruments of the early twentieth century. The instruments were incredibly labor intensive to produce and each instrument maker left his mark in some special feature or high degree of workmanship. Each instrument maker's transits were a study in themselves and represented the lifetime learning experiences of that particular genius. Many of the instrument makers worked into their eighties. They were a very special group of highly gifted people who truly pushed the envelope of knowledge and technological capabilities beyond the limit of what could have been expected for their time. It is doubtful that many of the engineering projects that we have today could have been completed without these ubiquitous devices that were taken for granted but in fact were of inestimable value. It seems unfair that few remain in existence and few people understand or care how they functioned or what a tremendous contribution they made to the development of the nation.

A brief and sketchy chronicle of George Buff and Christian Louis Berger's immigration to the U.S. and their initial respective locating in New York and Boston leads to finding both men living in Boston and becoming partners about 1871. Both men had had previous experience building theodolites in England and both men had worked on dividing engines for other firms. In 1866 George Buff had made several improvements to the theodolite while he was living in New York. He acquired a patent for the instrument and it appeared as the Americanized Transit that we recognize today. In 1871, he had moved to Boston and went into partnership with Berger. They produced transits and other instruments until 1898 when after a severe argument, they dissolved the company and each of the men started their own new company. Berger kept the remains of Buff and Berger and became C L Berger & Sons Manufacturing Co. and Buff became Buff & Buff Manufacturing Co. both located in Boston. Each of the companies held numerous patents and they both remained in business until the middle of the twentieth century, when the advent of digital instruments finally brought an end to their companies.

To get a more accurate understanding of what was required to produce a transit at the time these milestone instruments were produced, it is necessary to know the very difficult challenges that were faced and overcome by the instrument makers of the time.

One of the most important inventions required to produce the transits was the dividing engine. This machine inscribed the degree, minute and second marks on the horizontal circles of the transits. These horizontal circles were critical to the accuracy of the instruments. The first dividing engines were built in Germany and London. Finally, in 1899, C L Berger built his own dividing engine for use in his factory located in Roxbury a part of Boston. Prior to that he had worked for Cooke in London where that company produced dividing engines. Buff had also worked for this company and that is where they had first met while serving their apprenticeships in that portion of their training as instrument makers. There were also men who produced dividing engines in Germany and that was probably where the discipline was most likely at its best. Both Buff and Berger decided to use dividing engines that produced an inner and outer vernier circle that were laid out from opposite sides and read from opposite sides. This feature was very important because if the instrument was read from both positions 180 deg. apart, the readings could be averaged and any errors in the dividing engine's inscribing the marks on the horizontal circles could be mathematically eliminated. The metal used in the construction of the transits, with the exception of the compass needle, had to be non ferrous. The instrument makers developed bronzes with extraordinary strength and sufficient resistance to wear to withstand years of use without needing adjustment. It is stated that some of these instruments could withstand 50 years of normal use without showing any appreciable signs of wear or loss of accuracy. The only exception would be if the instrument suffered damage from a catastrophic accident. Even if the instrument suffered damage while out in the field, it was possible to make compensations for the error and continue using the instrument until the instrument could be returned to the factory to be recalibrated.

The design of the bearings for the several axis's of movement in the instrument took a great deal of engineering to make sure that all the components of the instrument were all concentric to the optical center of the instrument.

The telescope on the instrument was an enormous challenge. There were many hurdles. It had to be collimated to be at the optical and mechanical center of the instrument. A self erecting lens system had to be created, the scope had to conserve as much light as possible, it had to have the proper reticule and be of sufficient power to make distant sights possible. Most importantly it had to transit through its vertical axis and be able to be double centered with same result each time. Because the instrument had a large accurate magnetic compass in its center, the instrument had to be constructed of non Ferris metals that would not effect the compass, have excellent wear resistance and be very strong. Special bronze compounds were created that could be tempered and ground to the perfect tapers to create the surfaces the instrument would turn on and not be effected by wear or temperature for extended periods of time. The most important feature was the fact that the instrument was capable of being adjusted in the field and checked against itself in both the angle turning function and the leveling functions by a competent operator. Additionally, it was able to perform all its functions without the use of any external power source. Finally, the level vials that kept the instrument body and the telescope level had to be developed. They had to be exceptionally accurate and appropriate for the use. Some were developed that were capable of 0.5 seconds of arc. Machines were built that ground these glass tubes to a very consistent curve that allowed this type of accuracy.  In short this was an instrument with extreme performance requirements that had to be hand made and have near perfect repeatability in regard to its readings. Most of the materials and techniques that would have made it more feasible to build had yet to be invented. The factories also built very strong fixed leg and adjustable leg tripods that functioned for the life of the instrument. The last two commonly produced accessories were the rods and cases that were used with their instruments. The rods came in several types. One type came divided in feet and fractions and was used for leveling and one type came with stadia lines and was used for distance measurement. The cases were beautiful and functional. They held the instrument on a removable instrument board on which the instrument could be held securely. It also held the sunshade for the telescope and an adjusting pin. On the inside of the door of the case were the plumb bob, magnifying glass, brush, screwdriver and often a wrench of some type. The screwdriver and wrench were used to make field adjustments to the instrument. A more self-sufficient unit was hard to imagine. They could function out in the field for years without needing anything.

The instrument maker's contribution to the development and construction of these remarkable devices was seen in every part of the unit. They were able to overcome all the challenges of creating the ultimate engineering tool by superb mastery of available materials and techniques and a great deal of creativity. Despite all of these obstacles some first order instruments were constructed and their accuracy has yet to be surpassed.

Both Buff and Berger had and built dividing engines, Transits, theodolites, scientific instruments, surveying instruments, levels, and numerous specialty accessories only a few of which still are in existence today. The Buff factory was closed and the remaining bits and pieces were sold for scrap in the early 1980's. The Berger factory closed a little later and the remaining materials were bought by Chicago Steel Tape in 1995.  The dividing engine used by Berger is located in working order at the Lansing Michigan Surveying Museum.

Concluding, to truly appreciate the genius of the Transit and its peripheral appurtenances it is necessary to examine each component of the unit and look at them in the perspective of the time in which they were produced. There was no road map for the instrument makers and it was only because they were masters of so many disciplines that they were able to produce such a complex but totally functional unit. It is only with some effort that it becomes clear that everything contained in the units is necessary and everything that is necessary is there and functions as near flawlessly as was humanly possible. The symmetry, form and function of the instruments is timeless and a thing of great beauty. Even if a person knows nothing about them they can appreciate the obvious near perfection of workmanship these units exemplify.

A more detailed look at the parts of the instruments and the tooling that was necessary to produce them will be attempted.  Watch this page for updates.


References:
Buff & Buff Mfg. Co. Surveying instruments: For civil and mining engineers.

Links:
Conservation of Instruments Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 by David St. John
CST/Berger: Chicago Steel Tape/Berger
The Early History of Berger Instruments by J.P. Whitelaw
The Museum of Surveying: Lansing, Michigan

Also check our David W. Mann Co. information file to see more Industrial Revolution measuring instruments.