Timeless and Enduring Skills

The need for a skilled and educated work force is a frequent topic in current discussions about revitalizing the economy. This is not a new concern. In fact, at the turn of the twentieth century, the United Shoe Machinery Corporation of Beverly, Massachusetts, was actively engaged in its own effort to promote skills, knowledge, and expertise for young men (ages 14-18) by teaching “skills for living in the world, problem-solving, learning, and collaborating.” In May 1909, the company initiated, with the City of Beverly Massachusetts and the State of Massachusetts Commission on Industrial Education, a chartered industrial school, where generations of future shoe workers and managers were trained. Known as the Beverly Independent Industrial School or Beverly School, it was a model in industrial education for mechanics in the United States. The school officially opened on August 2, 1909, and according to the Three Partners, 1911, “one of the most important features of the welfare work at the [United Shoe Machinery] factory is the industrial school for the boys who will one day be inventors and the trained mechanics of the Company.” The school intended to teach skills in the shoe trade under actual shop conditions.

Postcard of the United Shoe Machinery new plant, Beverly, Massachusetts, 1907. Source: NMAH Archives Center, AC0277-0000010.

Secondary industrial education began in the United States at the Manual Training School of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Established in 1879 and opened in 1880, the school provided instruction in math, drawing, science, language, and shop work (use of tools). Tool instruction included carpentry, wood turning, patternmaking, iron chipping and filing, forge work, brazing and soldering, and the use of machine shop tools. Students divided their time between classroom instruction and manual labor on the shop floor. Other schools would open too, modeling their curriculum and daily program upon the Manual Training School of Washington University. While there were variations in curriculum based on local conditions, finances, and ideals, the schools all adhered to a formula of classroom instruction and manual labor. The growth of manual training schools grew rapidly. The idea ultimately took hold in general high schools where specific “shop” courses were offered and evening schools for industrial workers also became more widely available. Some included the Chicago Manual Training School (1884); Manual Training School for the City of Baltimore (1884); Philadelphia Training School (1885); Toledo Manual Training School (1885); the Technical School of Cincinnati (1886); the Manual Training School at St. Paul (1886); and the Hackley Manual Training School at Muskegon (1896).

In 1905, Governor William L. Douglass of Massachusetts appointed a commission to “investigate the needs for education in the different grades of skill and responsibility in the various industries of the Commonwealth.” The commission learned that though there was wide-spread interest in special training there was a lack of skilled workman in the industries, and public schools were not meeting the needs of industry. The commission recommended that local high schools in Massachusetts modify their instruction to align with the needs of  local industries. Towns throughout the Commonwealth of Massachusetts were urged to provide industrial courses in high schools and evening schools. In 1906, an act by the State of Massachusetts authorized the establishment of independent industrial schools, providing partial state funding and which were administered through a commission independent of the State Board of Education.

Around 1907, the three great shoe centers of Massachusetts—Beverly, Brockton, and Lynn—began discussing the feasibility of establishing a shoe trade school to teach the development of shoe making and shoe machinery. In order to explore this question of training, the Beverly Commission on Industrial Education was formed.

On May 18, 1909, Alderman James A. Torrey of Beverly introduced the following order to the Board of Aldermen which passed and was signed on June 26, 1909.

“Ordered, That an Independent Industrial School be and is hereby established in Beverly in accordance with Chapter 505 of the Acts of 1906, as supplemented by Chapter 572 of the Acts of 1908, for the purpose of instructing youths between the ages of fourteen and twenty-one years in day or evening classes in the machinist’s trade or in such other industrial trades or occupations as shall be deemed expedient by the Board of Trustees of said Industrial School, and also for the purpose of instructing any persons already employed in the industries in evening classes in such industrial trades or occupations as shall be deemed expedient by the Board of Trustees of said Industrial School.”

Two groups, A and B, each consisting of thirty-five young men, alternated between the United Shoe Machinery factory and Beverly Industrial School, spending one week at the factory and then one week at the high school. Instruction included mathematics, chemistry, electricity, mechanics, mechanical drawings, blueprint reading, English civics, and industrial economics. The machinist-instructors taught both in the factory and the classroom, while subject specialists taught the other subjects. Beverly Superintendent Adelbert L. Safford said, “Today we need men who can do things, men who can create not only with the brain—and it takes brains to be a good mechanic or a good farmer in this age—but with skilled hands as well.”

"The Three Partners," Industrial School, Section I, page 20, 1911. Source: NMAH Archives Center, AC0277-0000008.

"The Three Partners," Industrial School, Section II, page 22, 1911. Source: NMAH Archives Center, AC0277-0000009.

Fourteen young men graduated from the Beverly Industrial School on December 18, 1912. The school would undergo several name changes—Beverly Independent Industrial School; Beverly Industrial Training School; the Beverly Cooperative Trade School (1925-circa 1980); Claude H. Patten Trade School (1968) opened at the new Beverly High School;  and the Claude H. Patten Trade School Vocational High School (1970-1995). The Vocational High School eventually ceased operation in 1995.

Photograph of the Beverly Industrial School football team, 1913. Source: NMAH Archives Center, AC0277-0000011.

In addition to teaching skills in the industrial school, United Shoe also established a program to teach its immigrant workforce English. Using the English for American Citizenship Program (Industrial Series, 1919) the program not only taught the workforce to speak English, it taught life lessons in “punching the clock,” “buying clothes,” “spending money,” “asking for directions,” and “buying groceries.” Prepared by the Massachusetts Department of Education, University Extension, the Industrial Series Program was free to all residents of the State of Massachusetts. The courses were wide ranging, and included language, economics, mathematics, government, civil service, drawings, electricity, natural science, and homemaking. Courses were also taught for teachers and were held at Boston area schools such as Simmons College, Boston University, and Franklin Union.

Plant Survey for English and American Citizenship Classes, 1921. Source: NMAH Archives Center, AC0277-0000006.

English for American Citizenship, Industrial Series, Lesson XII, Buying Groceries, 1919. Source: NMAH Archives Center, AC0277-0000005.

Helping its immigrant workforce is just one example of United Shoe fostering skills for living in the world. United Shoe also sought to weave into its English lessons and hands-on training with machinery, “civic literacy” with lessons about Washington’s Birthday, the flag, and the Constitution. This page from an employee’s copybook shows a lesson an employee practiced writing titled, “The Declaration of  Independence.”  Most of the texts used by United Shoe promoted middle class values and habits along with instruction in the language.

Employee copybook page, Declaration of Independence, 1921. Source: NMAH Archives Center, AC0277-0000007.

To learn more about the United Shoe Machinery Corporation and its rich history of shoe making and educating its workforce, visit the Archives Center.


  • American Machinist, March 17, 1920.
  • Bennett, Charles Alphheus. History of Manual and Industrial Education, 1870 to 1917. Peoria: The Manual Arts Press, 1937.
  • Boston Daily Globe, August 1, 1909.
  • First Annual Report of the Trustees of Beverly Independent Industrial School, 1909, at www.primaryresearch.org (last accessed December 11, 2012)
  • The Three Partners, 1911.
  • Morse, Charles Henry. Some representative American industrial and manual training school. Massachusetts. Commission on Industrial Education. Boston, Wright & Potter Print. Co., State Printers, 1908.

Sorting It Out

NMAH, Archives Center, Elmer Gates Papers Collection #: 1123 Box 1 Folder 11

Elmer Gates's Chevy Chase, Maryland Laboratory, undated. NMAH, Archives Center, Elmer Gates Papers Collection

Tucked away in the quiet residential neighborhood of Chevy Chase, Maryland, psychologist and inventor Elmer Gates worked in his personal laboratory at the turn of the 20th century. Though he is an obscure figure in the history of science today, Gates (1859-1923) was known in his lifetime for his original ideas about experimental psychology, his many eclectic inventions, and his strong interest in educating children. He was particularly influenced by the beliefs of Friedrich Wilhelm August Froebel (1792-1852), the creator of kindergarten. Froebel’s educational toys, known as the Froebel Gifts, were designed to give children the opportunity for self-directed exploration and learning through play.

Patent drawing (US patent 741,903), educational toy or game apparatus, October 20, 1903. NMAH Archives Center, Elmer Gates Papers Collection

In 1903, Gates patented an educational toy (U.S. Patent 741,903) that was very much in the Froebel mold. Still in widespread use today, it was a wooden box with openings for sorting different geometrical shapes (e.g., square, circular, triangular). Gates expected children to “discriminate” between different geometric shapes, so each piece fit into only one matching hole. “This mind-training toy,” he wrote in his patent application, “can be advantageously used to amuse and instruct children even before they can speak a word or at least after they have commenced to learn to talk.”

The wooden sorting box was part of Gates’s plan for his children’s education. This included five training stages—image stage, idea stage, concept stage, reason stage, and thought stage (the box was used in the image stage). Elmer Jr., Roger, Donald, and Phebe tested Gates’s prototypes in the Chevy Chase lab, and Gates, in turn, tested the children. In a November 16, 1902, Chicago Tribune article, John Watkins, Jr., wrote of visiting Gates’s Chevy Chase laboratory where “in a well lighted room, several little ones were at work amid growing plants, and in the brightness of a benevolent smile from a bust of Froebel.” In the same article, Gates said that he “wanted his children nourished by science, trained by science, developed by science, taught by science, and schooled by science.”

Gates theorized that repeated psychological tests would increase mental skill, so he created other (unpatented) apparatus to test his children. These included a ring-toss game; a color wheel to teach young eyes to discriminate between various shades and tints; an electric sonometer (an instrument that measured the sensitivity of hearing) to train their ears; an aesthesiometer (a device for measuring tactile sensitivity) to train their sense of touch; and a pendulum chronograph (a type of watch) to evaluate muscular movement.

Photograph, wooden sorting box, circa 1900. NMAH Archives Center, Elmer Gates Papers Collection

No doubt even Gates’s well trained and discriminate small charges managed to fit a square peg into a round hole.

These images provide a glimpse into Gates’s educational training regime, including a photo of his daughter Phebe demonstrating the wooden sorting box. Read more about Gates in the Archives Center’s finding aid.

A Career in Video Games

A visitor plays Pong with inventors Bill Harrison and Ralph Baer in 2009.

Students all over the country have just headed back to school. But what to go to school for?  Video Game Design is one of the fastest growing degree fields, even though as recently as 1996 Bachelor of Arts degree programs didn’t even exist. Two year diplomas in video game programs weren’t even established until the mid-1990’s. Now, however, according to the Entertainment Software Association, “American colleges and universities will offer 343 programs in game design, development and programming, including 301 undergraduate and 42 graduate programs, during the 2011-12 academic year.” The majority of schools with degree programs are located with California, but programs can be found in 45 U.S. states plus the District of Columbia.

As the popularity of video games seemed to become permanent, the demand for qualified personnel to produce them rose. It is a familiar story to the Lemelson Center. Invention leads to an industry built around that invention, and that industry leads to the establishment of programs to train and educate people to work in that industry. Industry pioneers look for people with the certain set of skills they need to reach their goals or produce their inventions. Over time a set of “standard” skills for an industry’s workers establishes itself. Around that set of skills degree programs are built. According to Rich Taylor, senior vice president for communications and industry affairs at the ESA, “with an increasing number of schools now offering graduate programs in game design and development, students have even greater access to the training they need to meet this growing demand.”

In 1967, Ralph Baer and his colleagues at Sanders Associates, Inc. developed a prototype for the first multiplayer, multiprogram video game system. The "Brown Box" is part of the collections at the National Museum of American History.

There are multiple historical comparisons, but the most apparent is the computer industry. The PC was invented during the 1970’s, resulting in an industry to create computers and a need for skilled workers to create them. Within a few years colleges and universities were offering degrees in computer science.  As the industry expands, so do the areas of specialization. When studying video games, people can focus on art, programming, sound and audio, production, and writing, to name a few.

The very fact that video gaming degrees are offered helps legitimizes the industry. But tension over respect still exists. Tell someone you’re getting a degree in engineering and they tend to be impressed. Tell someone you’re getting a degree in video gaming and they tend to think you’re going to be playing video games all day long.

The degree—and the people who earn them—still have a long way to go to earn the same respect that Philosophy, English, Math, and History majors enjoy.  But it wasn’t that long ago that degrees in the computer industry held a similar status. Now little thought is given to people majoring in computer technology. In fact it’s looked on as being rather lucrative. Perhaps video game degrees will find themselves on a similar trajectory to respect as more and more people continue to choose video game design as a career path and its applications expand. This process—of building a new industry around a new invention—has happened throughout history and will continue.  According to Taylor, “while computer and video games have been a source of entertainment for decades, our society is increasingly recognizing the broader uses of games and their positive impact. Whether it is in healthcare, education, business, or government, schools across the country see the value of games and are training their students to meet the demand.” So video game students headed off to school this fall are riding the wave of a cresting industry.