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.