October 29, 2011

Machine Tools: for War, for a New Middle Class

Engine Lathe, 1825, unknown maker.

I love machines, the way they look, each part shaped for a purpose different from those of everyday life, and often very beautiful in design. I don't know what purpose the small curved opening serves in the lathe above, but it is lovely with its three surrounding bolts. And of course my paintings are based on agricultural machines. So when my friend, the artist Ravenna Taylor, reminded me of a marvelous small museum in Windsor, Vermont, The American Precision Museum, with its collection of machine tools, I looked forward to visiting. A machine tool is a machine that makes the components of other machines. Right in the building that now houses the museum was the Robbins & Lawrence Armory Company which began as a manufacturer of weapons.

Gunstock Lathe

Robbins & Lawrence developed machine tools for the manufacture of fully interchangeable parts, in fulfilling an order for 25,000 rifles for the US army. As a plaque outside the museum states about the precision now possible in these machines: "the social implications of this technological revolution have been universal."

Robbins & Lawrence Milling Machine, 1850.

This milling machine was developed by Frederick Howe right in the same building that now houses the museum. It was used to shape the lock plate of rifles, which now could be so precise that they no longer had to be filed to fit them together. It is difficult to think of war-making machinery as having a good purpose, but I suppose we have to admit that the exigencies of war have led to many innovations. I of course think that wonderfully fluted shape is elegant, an art work in itself...

Drill Press, Phoenix Iron Works, George S. Lincoln & Co., Hartford, CT, 1840s.

as is this detail of interlocking brass gears; the shapes of forms both painted and brass look as though they were not only purposefully designed, but that aesthetics played a part. Dieter Rams, an important 20th century German industrial designer, wrote ten principles of good design, and one is "Good design is aesthetic".

Van Horn Planer, Springfield, MA, 1857.

I love the repeating green curves and circles of this planer, accompanied by a brass band of gears and levers and large ball handles. And the reverse curve of the handle arm is so full of imaginative fun.

Shaper, Warner & Whitney, Nashua, NH, 1860.

Another wonderful collection of shapes, more austere with the grand verticals backed by circles, emphasized with bolts. This is such a machine age image, looking like it could come out of a Charles Sheeler painting.

Wood Shelf Clock Movement, Eli Terry, CT, ca. 1830s.

When reading a wall label at the museum, I learned that clocks were a luxury item before the mid nineteenth century. Eli Terry figured out how to make wooden parts that could be assembled to make a clock, and they sold for $15. Clock makers began to use early machine tools to make clocks which by the 1840s sold for just $1, two days wages for an unskilled worker.

High-Wheel Bicycle

Bicycles were another consumer item that became affordable and widespread thanks to machine tools. The first bicycles, the high-wheeled variety, like clocks, were only for the wealthy. But later, new techniques and the idea of using two wheels of the same size and chain driven gears made bicycles very affordable and a reliable mode of transportation.

Willcox & Gibbs Sewing Machine, made by Brown & Sharp, Providence, RI, 1870s.

Another beautiful machine, the swooping curve looking like a graceful swan's neck, ending in the beak of the needle. An interesting story was on the label for this sewing machine, telling of the interconnections of the machine tool industry: Henry B. Leland, who headed the sewing machine division at Brown & Sharp, later went on to found the Cadillac company. The automobile has made the United States what it is, for better or worse; machine tools and the assembly line made them affordable and then a necessary part of life, making the suburbs possible, and trips on the open road...


  1. Yes, I see some paintings in the offing. You have some marvelous machines to picture.

  2. Lisa, I don't think any of these images will become paintings, but I may think about sketching them for textile designs.

  3. These photos are so fascinating. I imagine all of these as hard working components that are now museumed, silent and in their angle of repose. Which is a haunting reminder of how things come and go, moving from usefulness to a memorial to usefulness. A bit like us too perhaps.

  4. thanks for the poetic comment, slowmuse. It allows me to tell another story about the human element at the museum: there was an man running a new lathe as a demonstration, making charming tiny brass wine cups for visitors. I asked if he'd worked at the machine shops that used to be in Windsor, and it turned out that he had, and he told me the exact date that the last one closed in 2001. A new owner shut the factory and sold off the machinery; yet another tale of the demise of small town industry. And here we have the "memorial to usefulness".

  5. they sure don't make 'em like that anymore. enjoyed seeing these. i wonder if it was in the fifties that the niceties of design disappeared...

  6. rappel, all the niceties haven't disappeared completely: there's still Apple. I think many of us worry that with Steve Jobs gone, good design has taken a hit. But I agree that in general, consumer products haven't been well designed for years.

  7. I wish I didn't see jobs' niceties mostly as niceties of seduction.

  8. Diane, I guess I can see your point, in making the Apple products objects of desire. But at least they take pride in making beautiful things; too many consumer products are darned ugly.

  9. The Machines are rugged and beautiful. Framed by the Artist,
    the Machines are otherworldly. What an Eye you Have!

  10. Fascinating post and of course a reminder of the irony that much technological innovation results from war research.

  11. Beautiful pictures! I love machines, too.

  12. thanks, William and Julie and Amy; it's great to have your feedback.

  13. I learned to sew with a treadle machine on my great-aunt's Wilcox and Gibbs chainstitch machine. It's still in the attic -- doesn't work at the moment, due to some child's attempts to run it -- but it's a beautiful little machine, indeed. (No bobbin -- the chainstitch is just like at the top of feed bags, and can be ripped out if you grab the right end.)

  14. Wow, Susan, that's really nice to know that you have a sewing machine by Willcox & Gibbs. I love those chain stitches; they seem like magic when you can pull them out so easily.

  15. Wonderful images but we're looking at them in a quiet museum setting and only see the beauty. So if we're going to criticize Jobs et al, we need to remember that many kinds of machines can be seductive and dangerous. If I had a computer complaint it would be that they need to be replaced pretty often compared to a typewriter. This is a huge economic drain on many folks to say nothing of landfills. But I must say that sewing machine double curve adjacent to the side wheel is a think of beauty. For those interested, the movie "Objectified" about product design is well worth watching.

  16. Reading your comment, Ms. Wis., what immediately came to mind as seductive and dangerous are "fast cars"; they're deliberately designed for seduction of all sorts. Built in obsolescence is a real problem, but part of it is that vast improvements are made so quickly that things go out of date. I just bought a new camera (my 6 or 7 year old one started to act up; and yes, a camera years ago would last for 20 or more years) and I'm stunned by how much better it is than my old one; it feels like light years ahead.
    I agree that"Objectified" is a terrific film.