Yankee Ingenuity Part II: The Inventors of Hartford

Editor’s Note: Hartford is a featured case study in our upcoming Places of Invention exhibition. For more on Hartford as an invention hot spot, read Part I of Yankee Ingenuity.

In the 1800s, New England (and Connecticut in particular) was the home to dozens of iconic inventors, including Hartford’s Samuel Colt, Hamden’s Eli Whitney and New Haven’s Charles Goodyear—not to mention hundreds of lesser-known, but highly skilled machinists and toolmakers who worked in the region’s factories and shop floors to continually improve their manufacturing processes. Hartford is a microcosm of that larger story. In just a few blocks in downtown Hartford, you can see how the methods of precision, interchangeable parts manufacturing spread from firm to firm and industry and to industry—from arms-making to sewing machines to typewriters to bicycles and automobiles, creating a real hot spot of innovation.

Some notable inventors from Hartford at this time:

Samuel Colt, 1859, courtesy of the Connecticut State Library.

Samuel Colt is the reason we are still talking about Hartford today. A Hartford native, he patented his namesake revolver in 1835-1836, but his real innovation was perfecting a precision manufacturing system that allowed him to mass produce 1000 identical copies of his design with interchangeable parts. He was a brilliant inventor and a manufacturing genius, but he was an even greater promoter of his business. He would shower liquor and lavish gifts on Army generals, schmoozing them to secure arms contracts in a way that would make us blanch today. Colt was an equal opportunity salesman—in the years before the Civil War, he sold arms to both the Northern and Southern states. He traveled to Europe and sold arms to both the British and Russian governments, arming both sides of the Crimean War. He was incredibly wealthy, brash and larger than life, with expensive tastes in art—like a modern day Larry Ellison or Richard Branson.

Albert Pope, circa 1900, courtesy of the Connecticut Historical Society.

Albert Pope was a Boston entrepreneur who first saw a high-wheel bicycle at the 1876 Philadelphia World’s Fair. These were imported from England, but Pope was determined to manufacture bicycles in the United States. After securing patent rights in the U.S., he arrived in Hartford in 1878 and contracted with the Weed Sewing Machine factory to build his bicycles. Eventually the bicycle business became so lucrative that Pope bought out Weed. Eventually in the 1890s, Pope also began making steam, gasoline, and electric cars in Hartford.

Christopher M. Spencer, circa 1863, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Christopher Spencer was a serial inventor and entrepreneur who worked across a number of industries. He invented a winding machine for silk thread, a repeating rifle that Abraham Lincoln personally tested and adopted for the Union Army during the Civil War, and an automatic screw-making machine.

Mark Twain, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Mark Twain was the quintessential American humorist and author of the 19th century—he was famous all over the world—but most people don’t know that he was also an inventor. He secured three patents: a men’s garment that worked like suspenders, a self-pasting scrapbook with pre-glued pages, and a type of historical board game, much like Trivial Pursuit. He was also a failed venture capitalist, who nearly lost everything when he unwisely invested in a failed typesetting machine that he thought would revolutionize the printing business. (When I was in Hartford, I got to visit his historic home in the Nook Farm neighborhood and see Twain’s “man cave”—he had an upstairs room where he and his friends would play billiards, smoke cigars, and drink brandy. In the corner was a little writing desk where he wrote all of those classic novels.)

Colt employees on the shop floor, circa 1900, courtesy of the Connecticut State Library.

It’s easy to learn things about a famous industrialist like Samuel Colt or Albert Pope, but much harder to find information about the folks who worked for them. It’s been difficult to understand what life was like for the average machinist or engineer who worked on the shop floor in one of Hartford’s many factories. I would love to know, for example, what it was like to work at Colt’s armory. What was the experience of living in the Coltsville factory neighborhood—to play in the Colt band, to play on the Colt baseball team, or to attend dances at Charter Oak Hall? Unfortunately, there are hardly any first-person accounts of the city’s workers. This is especially true of immigrant workers; many were not literate in English and left few records.

Yankee Ingenuity: Hartford, Connecticut

Hartford, Connecticut, is a classic story in the history of American technology. If you have ever wondered why people refer to “Yankee ingenuity,” this is what they are talking about. Hartford in the mid-1800s was one of the birthplaces of American mass production, making it a perfect case study for our upcoming Places of Invention exhibition. Around 1850, Hartford native Samuel Colt perfected the precision manufacturing process that enabled the mass production of thousands of his revolvers with interchangeable parts. Over the next several decades, a variety of industries adopted and adapted these techniques and Hartford became the center of production for a wide array of products—including firearms by Colt, Richard Gatling and John Browning; Weed sewing machines; Royal and Underwood typewriters; Columbia bicycles; and even Pope automobiles. In the mid and late 1800s, the United States overtakes Great Britain as the world’s foremost economic superpower, largely on the strength of its prowess in inventing and manufacturing new technologies. Hartford is at the center of that revolution.

Coming out of Hartford at this time is a whole class of general purpose machine tools, like the turret lathes, drill presses, and milling machines. These were essentially machines that ground and shaped metal blanks into precise shapes that became the components of finished products—things like revolver barrels, sewing machines needles, and bicycle gears. These milling machines were general purpose technologies. Essentially, these were machines to make other machines. I think of it as similar to today’s microchips—a basic memory chip can go into any number of products, from laptop computers to digital cameras to the cable box. Once the basic techniques of forging and milling pieces of metal were understood, you could make just about anything, and they did in Hartford.

In addition to the manufacturing industries, there was so much more going on in Hartford at the same time. Most people, if they know much about Hartford, probably know it as “the insurance capital of the world.” So in addition to all of these manufacturing firms, at the exact same time, you have the emergence of all these major insurance firms, like Aetna, Travelers, and “The Hartford”—firms that still exist today.

Hartford also had this amazing literary scene in the mid-1800s. The city was home to Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which ignited the abolitionist movement in the decade before the Civil War. Her next door neighbor was none other than Mark Twain, who wrote many of his classics in Hartford—including The Gilded Age (1873), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), The Prince & the Pauper (1882), Life on the Mississippi (1883), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). In fact, the protagonist of Connecticut Yankee is based on the superintendent of the Colt armory.

Hartford reached its peak in the decades before and after the Civil War. It begins to wane in the first decade of the 20th century, when some of the original inventors and entrepreneurs begin to retire and sell their businesses. In 1901, Colt’s widow, Elizabeth Jarvis Colt, sells the firm to a conglomerate; Pratt & Whitney also sells out in that same year. Many of these parent firms are based outside of Hartford, and they begin to relocate certain operations. Meanwhile, Albert Pope’s bicycle and auto-making operations face labor unrest and a banking crisis—he gets over-extended and declares bankruptcy in 1907 and the firm gets broken up into pieces. At the same time, firms looking to expand can’t do so within the city limits of Hartford, so they start to move to the suburbs of West Hartford and Manchester, and to cheaper labor markets in the Southern states and outside the U.S. By the 1950s, Hartford—like many industrial cities—begins to lose its commercial tax base, and starts to experience white flight some urban decay. However, because Hartford is the state capital and maintained the insurance industry, it has remained an important and vibrant city. Even today, we still have Colt-brand firearms, Columbia-brand bicycles, and Pratt & Whitney’s precision gauging and measurement tools.

Read Part II to learn more about the inventors of Hartford.