In a little-known Vermont museum the tools that built industrial America tell the tremendous story of how they did it
The American Precision Museum, in the town of Windsor, Vermont, will never compete in size or grandeur with the great repositories of the world’s treasures, but behind its mellow brick facade dwells a fascinating collection of immense historic significance. The museum houses America’s most important assemblage of nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century machine tools—implements that gave birth to modern manufacturing and helped make the United States the surpassing industrial force in the world.
The building itself is the former Robbins & Lawrence Armory, built in 1846, where some of the finest early machine tools were developed and built. The austere slate-roofed edifice is a National Historic Landmark and an International Mechanical Engineering Heritage Site; it is also a shrine to the ingenuity and perseverance of American workers. That the museum is there at all is the achievement of one man, a lanky seventy-five-year-old Yankee named Edwin A. Battison.
‘This is a dream for me,” he says, seated amid the clutter of objects and oddments that fill his office. “This museum conveys my conception of America, based on the harnessing of power, on ingenuity, and on work. It’s tremendously important for Americans to know what began here and what it has meant for the country.” Albert W. Moore, president of the National Machine Tool Builders Association, says, “Machine tools generated the wealth of this nation. They created jobs, they won wars.” Battison agrees: “It wouldn’t have been possible to have the typewriter, the sewing machine, or the bicycle, let alone the automobile, without machine tools.”
Battison was born in Windsor and went to school there. The Depression kept him from attending college; much of his extensive learning came from hanging around the machine shops and factories that were the town’s legacy from its days as a leading producer of machinery. “Back then,” he says, “you could walk into a factory or shop—the door would be open—and watch and see how things were done, and ask questions. I was always collecting things, trying to figure out how they worked. My parents were older, and some of their friends took an interest in me. One was an invention developer. He taught me a lot of tricks and procedures with machines.”
Battison began working as a machinist in Windsor and soon became a toolmaker, a job that frequently took him to the building that now houses his museum. He he found himself collecting a growing assortment of tools and vehicles. Eventually he concluded he should set up some classification system for the objects he had accumulated, and he wrote asking officials at the Smithsonian for guidance. This led in 1956 to an invitation to visit the institution.
Battison went, and to his astonishment he found himself being offered a post as an associate curator in the mechanical- and civil-engineering division. During his twenty-one-year tenure at the Smithsonian he rose to the rank of curator of mechanical engineering, a job whose duties included research, writing, arranging exhibits, and studying museums in the United States and abroad.
He left the Smithsonian in 1977, but the idea of creating the American Precision Museum had been on his mind long before then. “As I set up exhibits at the Smithsonian, I thought how nice it would be to have a museum for tools and mechanical objects. I knew the Robbins & Lawrence building, of course, and its historical importance, and I kept it in mind. In 1964 the power company that owned the building made plans to raze it, and 1 decided to try to get it for a museum. Eventually the power company donated the building. We got title and tax-exempt status in 1966.”
Battison had learned the art of acquiring exhibit-worthy items during his years at the Smithsonian: You watch, you wait, and when the time is right you make your move. One treasure in the collection is a nail-making machine built in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, in 1880. In the 1970s the company that owned the machine went out of business and offered it to the descendants of people who had earlier run the operation. These descendants knew of the American Precision Museum, thanks to Battison’s tireless evangelism. They gave the nail maker to the museum.
An exotic early acquisition was an 1883 portable Otto engine, the first four-stroke engine operating on the basic principles of the modern automobile motor. Battison found it in a Florida junkyard, where it had been dumped after years of service powering a boat. Now it’s at the Connecticut State Library Museum in Hartford, the city where it was built.
What a visitor first sees on entering the American Precision Museum is something very new: an anteroom containing a whole machine shop in miniature. The little shop has forty working models of machine tools, painstakingly built to one-sixteenth scale. Its creator, John Aschauer, of Detroit, spent the equivalent of twenty years’ working time on it, and he did it all from memory, based on long machine-shop experience, with no drawings or plans. The National Tool Machine Builders Association donated the exhibit last year, on the museum’s twenty-fifth anniversary.
Past that exhibit, the visitor enters the main hall of the museum, on one of the former working floors of the Robbins & Lawrence Armory. The room is long and narrow, with twenty-four high windows originally designed to give as many workers as possible daylight for their exacting work. When the place was a factory, the equipment was arrayed in long rows; now the machines are grouped in clusters, so that visitors can see them from every angle. There has been no attempt to re-create the dingy atmosphere of the machine shop; the floor is of light, polished beechwood, and all the walls and the heavily beamed ceiling are whitewashed. The room is so quiet you can hear the rush of water over the dam that adjoins the factory, which once provided its power—“natural, renewable power,” Battison points out. The hall is so crowded it resembles a mechanized forest. Overhead are vestiges of the drive shafts, pulleys, and belts that once transmitted power from the water wheel.
One of Battison’s favorite items is an engine lathe from about 1825—“the earliest we have,” he says. It was made to build machinery for a Massachusetts textile mill. Its massive bed—the central surface—is of granite rather than metal. The stone was relatively inexpensive and would have easily withstood temperature changes that might warp iron.
Nearby is an automatic lathe made in Hartford in 1911. It has multiple spindles rather than the single one its predecessors carried, and so allowed one worker to perform several operations simultaneously, increasing productivity and cutting costs. An early power rifling machine, from 1853, demonstrates the durability of a well-executed design. Devised by Frederic W. Howe, superintendent of manufacturing at Robbins & Lawrence in the 1850s, it was used at the armory until after the Civil War, was then sold to the arms makers Smith & Wesson, and stayed in use through the end of World War II—a total of more than ninety years.
Near at hand is a muscular-looking device from Springfield, Vermont, called a Fellows gear shaper. Bristling with screws and rods and pulleys and connections and cams, it looks complicated enough to do almost anything mechanical. What it did do, beginning in 1903, was introduce a new standard of economy and quality to gear production.
Down the aisle a little way stands an enormous black form that turns out to be a centerless grinder, so called because the piece being worked on is supported by its own surface and feeds through the grinding process automatically, speeding up production. It was built in Danbury, Connecticut, in 1921, one of thousands of its type that found extensive use in the automotive, aircraft, and appliance industries. It is a thing of considerable beauty, with rounded edges, and a deep, rich, glistening black finish.
Farther along stands a beveled-gear grinder designed by Henry M. Leland, of Detroit, in 1895. He built the machine to make the gears for chainless bicycles, which were popular among women who feared catching their skirts in a chain. Leland subsequently got into the automobile business and built both the Cadillac and Lincoln companies before they were bought by General Motors and Ford respectively.
More machines abound on every side: a crank planer, a magnetic chuck, an Ames shaper, a 1938 Bridgeport milling machine. The Bridgeport was the most widely used and popular milling machine of the century; more than a quarter of a million were made to the same design. This one is quite handsome, painted a forceful battleship gray with bright red letters shouting BRIDGEPORT. But the most beautiful machine on the floor has to be the tall, vertical shaper built by Warner & Whitney, of Nashua, New Hampshire, for cutting slots such as keyholes and splines. Its overhead elements are supported by a bright red column fluted like a Greek pillar.
In addition to the tools, Battison has put on display the things they made and the machinery that powered them. Near the end of the hall stands a 1914 Model T, a kind of culmination of the mechanical progress that the machines leading up to it represent. Near the Ford is a massive directcurrent dynamo built in 1893 by General Electric.
Above the exhibit hall are treasures not accessible at present to the general public: a large library and three more floors full of machinery. The library has an almost complete set of U.S. Patent Office Gazettes and cases full of machinetool manufacturers’ catalogues, technical books, and publications about mechanical engineering.
Battison is proud to show off the library’s complete set of the monumental Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot, completed in 1772. It is one of only 750 copies in the world, and he smiles when he recalls how it was acquired. It was part of an estate being broken up, and officials of Harvard University put in a request for it. Battison asked a representative of the late owner’s family, “What did Harvard do with the set John Adams gave it in 1789?” It turned out that Harvard still had that set, so “We got the books.”
Battison has many ambitions for the museum. Ultimately he hopes to rebuild the dam that powered the factory, restore a nearby gristmill, rebuild a woolen mill downstream, acquire an adjacent house, and restore an old drop-forge shop that served the factory. “I think we should aim for the maximum,” he says. “We could have a microcosm of nineteenth-century village life in Vermont, which would give visitors an idea of how people really lived then.”
Donald Hoke, a museum director from Wisconsin who has studied the Windsor premises, agrees. “Integrating the Ascutney dam and the gristmill into the complex is a great idea. This would straddle two technologies—the late-eighteenth-century wooden technology of grain milling, and then the dam and waterpower and Robbins & Lawrence factory, which tell the story of the American system of manufacturing interchangeable parts. There’s a big opportunity to do an overall interpretation there. It’s unparalleled.”
Others have great hopes for the museum too. At its twenty-fifth-anniversary banquet last summer, Albert Moore, the head of the machine-tool builders’ association, said, “I hope these exhibits will inspire the youth of this country and bring them to realize that this is one of the few areas of activity that actually create the wealth of the nation.” Sally Smith, a museum advocate who works for the Department of Energy, in Washington D.C., added that “the American Precision Museum could be the start of a renaissance of American industry.” And when Battison himself stood, diffidently, to speak, he sounded the same theme. “There is a need for a new drive in the United States,” he said. “I only hope that the museum can help stimulate the United States in trying to catch up to where it once was.”