The following is an edited transcript of a speech given at the Davistown Museum Open House in 2004 by George O'Connor
Good afternoon, and welcome to the Davistown Museum's 4th annual open house. As you enjoy the day, the entertainment, the demonstrations and exhibits, I thought it would be useful to review what it would be like to imagine life a century and a half ago here in Liberty. To see what living conditions were like, what life, travel and manufacturing were like here, and in particular what central Maine, as a nexus to precision toolmaking was like.
First, I should clarify what I mean by precision toolmaking. These are tools, primarily composed of metal and wood, which are used for repeatable detailed work. Now it is easy to see a tool such as an ax or an adz, which are composed of these materials and involving some effort to make, are precision tools. They do not, however, make repeatable detailed work. The work these tools do are based on the efforts of their user. Cutting down a tree or splitting a rail are simply learned skills, but every tree, branch or beam you cut is different- Which way a tree will fall, how to get the largest beam from a log, etc.
A precision tool is something that can do repetitive work. If you were to take that same beam hewn from the log, and wanted to saw out some blocks from it, you would need to mark it and saw it accurately. The tool you would mark it with, such as a butt marker: a device with a stop on the end, and a fixed or adjustable marking device on its shank. It could be something as simple as a piece of wood with a block fastened to the end, and a nail mounted in it. There are some nice examples upstairs in the museum (more elaborate then those which I described, but forming the same function) and these were a staple of any carpenter, shipwright or woodsman of the time. Our intent is to deal with more involved craftsman and technicians than the butt gage maker, but think for a minute what was involved in the making of this tool to the 19th century resident of this area. The wooden piece needed to be cut from a branch or sapling, suitably dried so it wouldn't crack, split or distort, planed squarely, and a nail attached to it.
A nail. A small piece of iron so fashioned as to have a tapering shank with a point on one end and a head on the other. A staple of any hardware store. Where did the Davistown man get his nails? A blacksmith could provide them; certainly many were needed to construct a home or farm structure. Many 19th century Mainers made their own, though, so the idea of purchasing them involved trade or commerce of some kind. [You give me 5 lbs of nails; I will give you 4 bushels of potatoes, for example.] How do you make a nail? First you need some iron or iron ore. Don't they mine that? Sure. But what does the common man know about mining? Not much. Walk down from the museum behind the town office or the old mill, and stand by the stream. You can actually get a view which an 1850 resident here would see - the tops of a few buildings, no traffic, no power lines, no aircraft - nothing beyond the bucolic view of rural Liberty Maine, probably no different from any American rural view. After savoring the sensation for a while, look at the stream bed and look at the rocks on the bank. With a little careful looking, you will see some, which are reddish, or rust colored. Some of these will be iron, often called bog iron. You can think of the 49ers panning for gold in a stream bed, but your needs are more mundane. You heed a nail.
You collect a bag full or a barrow of rusty rocks and take them back to your yard. You build a very hot fire. To do that you need charcoal which is made from burning other wood and then smothering the fire. You cook your iron "rocks" in another rock, which you have carved or chipped a large depression in. With the right temperature and a proper air hole under the fire pit [called a Tuyere] you can make pig iron - generally called that because of the shape of the mold. You channel your molten iron into small pigs - nothing more then troughs in the sand, and you have some formable iron pieces. Still not nails, but we are getting there.
One of the more common tasks in rural and even colonial America was the winter evening task of nail making. You would put pieces of iron in your stove or hearth, and would heat them until red, take them out and hammer them into a nail shape on a nail anvil - nothing more than an iron plate with a tapered hole in it, in which you hammer your iron into and "upset" a head onto, then you would tap it out backwards. Voila! You have a nail for your butt gage marker.
A little involved? Sure. That idea of trading with the smithy doesn't sound so bad after all. I am sure the blacksmiths demonstrating their craft here today can give you a better view of iron mongering, forging, and edging metal. Surely the processes of nail making must be easier, and, of course, it soon became thus. The itinerant and traveling smiths stocked up their charcoal, got in a supply of coal, pig iron, and forming anvils. They would make their iron in sheets. Sheets of a certain size would be made that were thicker on one edge then the other and then "Sheared" off on the end at a certain width. If you think about it, this makes a square nail, which were in use and in production through the mid-20th century.
So you can see that although you can make a nail, it became, over time, easier to get a nail from someone who made a lot of them - or mass-produced them. Everybody needed them, and they could be made on a local scale and used anywhere. It, like many other items, became a "trade good" like lumber or ice from Maine, floated down the rivers and streams to the coast, places like Bath or Belfast, where, loaded onto locally built schooners and clippers made trade and barter with the far corners of the world a reality in the 1800s.
Great. What does this really have to do with precision toolmakers from Maine? Okay, I was getting to that. What moved America (and Maine) into the forefront from our earliest beginnings, as a supplier of masts and lumber for British ships was the fact that we took the raw materials a step further and made finished products. Not only that, we made precision finished products, with parts which were interchangeable with others. The integrated wood and metal products could be assembled and disassembled with other parts, and work as intended. This was a great leap forward in the evolution of manufacturing. It is the origin of the term "Yankee Ingenuity" and led to what is called the American system of manufacturing.
All of New England benefited in this effort, a good example of this is the "Precision Trail" through the Connecticut River valley - through places where energy was easy to access through the action of falling water used to turn shafts as a type of Universal power take off. This, tied with clever and "Native" engineers, brought us into the prominence as an industrial power.
I would like to discuss three of these individuals with Maine origins. Certainly there were many more, but this would suffice for today's endeavor. Let us say you lived here in the early-19th century, even when Maine was part of Massachusetts. The 1800 census says 50 families. Walk down to the stream or one of the nearby water ways like Lake St. George, and you could canoe or skiff your way to the Damariscotta or Medomak river estuaries and thus the Maine coast. Let us go south, to the (at that time) large city of Portland or Yarmouth. At the time of the War of 1812, there resided a young man named John Hall (age 30 [1/21/81]) who's previous work was as a cooper or barrel maker. The previous year, he had obtained a patent for an innovative idea for a firearm, to wit, a breech loading mechanism for rifles and pistols. He set up a shop near Richardsons' Wharf.
Until this time, although the concept of breach loading weapons was known, the production of the same commercially was not. Mr. Hall probably studied in central Massachusetts. After he received his patent, he learned the craft of gunmaking, the materials, tools and business. Attached is a copy of Mr. Halls' Patent, and a photographic example of his gun and mechanism. As you can see, the mechanism is an evolved mechanical device with a housing, spring hammer and trigger, married together with a barrel and a wooden stock. This reflects the marriage of wood and metal I spoke of earlier.
The firearm was an integral part of life in the wilderness - this is what allowed an agricultural society to put food on the table that they didn't raise themselves. There was a beginning of the idea of sportsmen hunting at this time, surely much of the attempts to market this weapon to an upper scale clientele. After all, he was trying to get about $30 apiece for his rifles, as compared to about $10 for a simple muzzleloader. It would be only a minor footnote in gunmaking history, even Maine gunmaking history, except for the times. For the next five years, John Hall's weapons were made in the standard one-off fashion of any artisan or craftsman. As there was a war with Great Britain on at the time, and the martial mentality prevailed, Hall tried to interest the US Government in his weapon. Locally the fear of "terrorism" prevailed. Those dastardly British had landed at Biddeford Pool in 1814 and burned several boats and workplaces. Additionally they burned and looted Washington D.C. Eventually the army did order 100 of his rifles and these were made in the same painstaking, essentially one-off fashion, although meeting the US government specification.
This itself was a major achievement. The 100 arms were produced in less time than the contract called for, and all passed the government inspection. Other companies, who had tried this, many largely capitalized, failed to do so. The government in 1819 contracted to produce 1000 of these rifles at Harper's Ferry Arsenal, and hired Hall there to supervise the machinery to manufacture them. Hall's probable greatest achievement was the machinery he produced to build these guns, which actually are probably the earliest produced American made machinery which successfully produced interchangeable parts on a mass production basis. He was granted a patent on these in 1827, but the patent office burned in 1836 and his drawings did not survive. It is generally understood that the horizontal-milling machine used today is a direct outgrowth of this machine. More than 20,000 rifles were made to his design at HF, and many more at North's Armory. He is the US equivalent of England's Henry Maudsley. There is no evidence that he ever returned to Maine after 1820, and he died in Missouri in 1841.
1820 was a watershed year for Maine, too. It was granted independent statehood from Massachusetts at that time. The area around Liberty or Davistown by mid-century had a sawmill, gristmill and even a machine shop. Waterpower to these mills was provided by a "Cram" water wheel developed in Montville around 1850, and it was later improved to be the "Bennett" wheel. Bennett machine shop made machinery for the barrel making industry, particularly the staves. (See "The Kingdom in Montville, Maine" by Tom Donahue in the library.)
If you were to take that same boat trip to the ocean and go up the Penobscot River to Bangor in the 1850's you might run into a noted mechanical prodigy named Samuel Darling. Born in 1815, Mr. Darling formed a partnership with Edward Bailey to make machinist's rules and some examples exist marked D&B. These are quite rare, as the partnership only lasted 1 year. Mr. Darling took on another partner in 1853, a Druggist named Michael Swartz whose chief contribution was financial, not technical. The museum has several examples of D&S scales upstairs. Samuel Darling received his first patent in 1853 for a surface grinding machine, considered to be the first of such machines ever produced, and still today a staple of the manufacturing industry.
His first patent for a machinist tool, however, was a steel square [see example & see patent.] This may seem to be a simple tool by today's standard, but it was a technological achievement at its time. How did you make something at right angles to each other? This was the square "standard" of its day (no bureau of Standards then). If this was the standard for right angles, what was the standard for distances? The scale - what you might (incorrectly) call a ruler. Everything had to be set to a standard, and Mr. Darling employed half a dozen workers in producing scales and squares in Bangor at the time. Darling had developed a dividing engine, essentially a long accurate leadscrew (45",) which, when turned a certain number of revolutions, moved a linear distance. This replaced the hand operation of mechanics laboriously transferring by scribe, lines of a master beam. In fact in the whole US the two principle makers of scales at the time were D&S, and a Rhode Island firm called Brown & Sharpe. And, just like in business today, the two companies merged in 1866 to Darling Brown and Sharpe.
Darling moved from Bangor to Providence, RI, with 6 workers, his grinder and his dividing engine. His new partners bought out Mr. Swartz's interest and the new company produced measuring tools - venires, calipers, gages, and a small device invented in France called the micrometer. Although Joseph Brown had developed a dividing engine of his own, Henry Sharpe (grandson of the founder) reported that the Darling machine was superior and in fact was used into the 20th century. He also reported that Darlings' machine was made from saw blades from mills in Maine, and in fact Darling only removed the teeth of the blades where necessary. All of the tooling in the factory that required graduating was under the guidance of Samuel Darling, the machine tool and sewing machine business was performed in other parts of the plant. Darling was also in charge of tool development, and from 1868 to 1895 held over 20 patents of his own, independent of assigning them to the DB&S Co. These included vises, hardening machinery, dividing engines, micrometers, protractor screw thread gages and key seat rules, among others. In 1892, when he was 77 years old, the remaining partners bought out his interest in the business. He died at 81 years of age in 1896. Brown & Sharpe is one of the two largest US toolmakers, and one of three in the world. In fact much of B&S's work is produced overseas now. The other international company is Mitutoyo, and the only remaining US manufacturer, is the L.S. Starrett Co. in Athol, Mass. The company (founded in the 1860's) is still run by a Starrett, and most of their products are made in the US.
So what? Well, to turn back to where we stand today, you could walk towards the west heading to Augusta. An easy days' walk would take you to China, Me. Laroy S. Starrett was born there in 1836. Starrett was one of 12 children, and, as with the times, were a farming family. Their clothing was wool or linen from their own sheep or the flax they raised. (As an aside, there is a nice display of flax tool upstairs - the process of removing the fiber was and is a lot of work.) By 1850, Laroy then 14 years old, was allowed to drive loads of cordwood to Augusta by himself - this was a 17 hour round trip at the time by ox sled. By the time he was 17 he "hired out" to bring in income for the family farm. Anecdotally it is said he loved tinkering with hand tools - hand tools of that time would be saws, chisels, planes, shaves, and augers. Again you can see period examples of all of these upstairs. This represented "state of the art" for tooling in rural America at the time. In fact, little had changed since the settling of this country 200 years earlier - these tools are all still made today.
Mr. Starrett may have stayed one of the countless hard working farmers that central Maine produced - those countless souls who stacked the rock walls you see in every cleared field. However, he moved on to Massachusetts. He rented a 600 acre farm in Newburyport in 1862, during the Civil War, and was very successful - in fact he bought the first mowing machine in that part of the country, and rented it out to other farmers after his own fields were done. He set up a workshop over his stable, and like the nail maker of old, would tinker on the winter nights. His first invention was to be a labor saving device for chopping meat. He made a working model, and then decided to hire a pattern maker to make patterns for casting. Starrett, since he hired the patternmaker, studied and learned what was needed to make a pattern for casting pieces in iron. He then sold his farming interests, and rented a room to build this device. His understanding of manufacturing, however, was handicapped by the fact that to sell his items, he had to peddle them himself, and while doing that, nothing was made. The business model that still follows today was employed - he took in a silent partner for financing, he patented his idea, and then sold foreign rights to his invention. He called this device a "Hasher." He soon outgrew his shop, and looked for a bigger and better place, somewhere with access to (water) power.
In 1868, he aligned himself with an Athol Massachusetts company called the Athol Machine Co., to produce his device. He capitalized the business ($25k) and became one of the directors of the company. He then decided to see what else he could make, and made slight modifications to the hasher and came up with a washing machine (his second invention), and then a food press. Starrett then apparently decided to try his hand at tools and patented a couple of adjustable wrenches. Unfortunately others made very similar wrenches (like the Bellows wrench) and this item did not move well.
His next major tool was an improvement on the Darling try square and he sketched, designed and patented the combination square. This is virtually the identical tool we use today. He also went on to make the center head and the protractor for it. He had some difficulties with Athol Machine Co., and was forced out of the company in 1878, never-the-less, he had another shop (Richardson) fabricate the square. Athol continued to produce Starrett's chopper, and then threatened the Richardson Company with suit if they produced Starrett's square. They were afraid of the idea of a suit and stopped production. Starrett then bought the Richardson Co. and started making squares. He hired a company in Connecticut (Stanley) to make his first batch of blades (5000) to marry the heads to. The quality did not meet his standards, so he tried to get another company to do his grinding and graduating - this may have been B&S, but they would not do this for him. So Starrett made his own machinery for the job. His grinder was so successful, that he was able to produce the first "flexible" scales (called tempered) scales.
Athol Machine, his rival now, bought the rights to a predating square (called the Chaplin Try square) and tried to sue Starrett to get him to stop. Starrett counter sued, and won, but Athol Machine kept making Chaplin Squares through their subsidiary Standard Tool. Starrett himself gathered over 100 patents for tools, not all of them machine tools (shoe hook fastener.) He also was willing to concede others had good inventions, too. A good example is the Fay Caliper (Charles Fay became his foreman.) Starrett remained sole proprietor of his company until 1900, when he incorporated as the L.S.Starrett Co. (note marking difference.) He bought out his competitor, the Athol Machine Co. in 1905, and even owned for a time the company that became Union Tool Co. for making cutting tools. Mr. Starrett continued at the helm of the company into the 1920's - he died in 1922. We have a picture of him on his 85th birthday flying in an open cockpit plane.
The company today is still run by an Starrett (as was his father & grandfather.) They produce over 5000 different tools still in Athol Mass, in a series of brick buildings. They employ about 2800 people (more than half in Athol) and continue to produce their tools here. This is an auspicious omen from a company that had its beginnings in the mind of a man who grew up 10 miles from here. All of the creative toolmakers had the same formulate start around here, and are in part what make life's conveniences of today.
I know we have only touched on 3 locals - there are hosts of others. In the gunsmithing world - The Evens Brothers, Hiram Maxim, for example. There are other prolific inventors - The Stanley bros. And their sister Chansonetta, for example. Maine is replete with a toolmaking history and heritage, while I have only touched briefly on a few in the precision toolmaking world. A great history unfolds in the names of people who have made the tools and art in the museum collection, and our understanding of them. People who have shaped the raw materials around them into functional and practical extensions of their hands. Tools and our ability to adapt them to our ends are the cause of our evolutionary advancement. To paraphrase Ben Franklin, our tool history was "all for the want of a nail."