Arming the Union through Innovation, Genius, and Agency
Men, Machine, & the Carbine
Advancements in tools used to make arms allowed for upgrades in carbine technology. Conversely, the call for more efficient and practical arms during the Civil War helped to inspire the creation and tweaking of machines that provided a more economical, systematic manufacturing process.
The overall American machine tool industry--including its products, such as milling machines, lathes, and rifling machines--evolved slowly until the Industrial Revolution and the American System of Manufacturing process became popularized. That system, initailly pioneeered by the government, promoted uniform parts leading to industry knowledge-sharing and improvement. Originally, in the early 1800s, government armories promoted manufacturing improvement ideas through their "open-doors policy."1 The national armories, such as Harper's Ferry or Springfield, shared machines, expertise, and skilled machinists between fellow armories and private companies. By the 1830s, however, with the end of the contracting system (which was adopted again for the Civil War and restored the government as an influential player in wartime industry), the innovations in machinery used to produce arms became a private enterprise. According to Historian Francis Deyrup, the switch to private enterprise as the industry's main producer allowed arms to be cheaper to produce and easier to obtain.2 The cheaper production costs may have been due to competition between companies. The machine tool industry was most likely spurred by the commodifying of arms products creating a need for better machines.
In the arms and machine tool industries of the 1850s and 1860s, the frequency with which employees switched jobs and businesses aided the knowledge sharing that took place between industries. Some inventors within companies collaborated in the creation of machine tools (yet others created patented machines on their own). That team-effort, which may have been initially inspired by the federal armories before the 1830s, allowed for innovation to take hold in the manufacturing industry. Both the Colt Patent Firearms Co. and Robbins & Lawrence, manufacturer of machine tools and firearms, were examples of that collaboration. The companies' workers moved between those two firms and other factories--Sharps, Remington, Spencer, Smith & Wesson, and Springfield Armory--building upon their previous knowledge of machine tools and firearms with each new job.3 Those workers demonstrated how linked the machine tool and arms industries were in the years preceding and during the Civil War.
Due to the push for uniform parts and interchangeability as well as the sharing of expertise and workers, “machine tools and mechanization spread widely over the manufacturing sector" by 1865.4 Machine tools, especially lathes, were self-used through the Civil War,5 but innovations in technology for those industries were not fully stifled by that. Not all manufacturers had inventors of machine tools on staff. Therefore, they bought the machine tools or those machine tools' products, and the inventor who owned the patent made a profit.
In the decades just before the Civil War, machine tools were undergoing significant changes.
1 Carrie Brown, “Guns for Billy Yank: The Armory in Windsor Meets the Challenge of Civil War,” Vermont History 79, no. 2 (Summer/Fall 2011): 143.
2 Felicia Johnson Deyrup, Arms Makers of the Connecticut Valley: A Regional Study of the Economic Development of the Small Arms Industry, 1798-1870 (George Banta Publishing Company: Menasha, Wisconsin, 1948), 117-118.
3 Ross Thomson, “Eras of Technological Convergence: Machine Tools and Mechanization in the United States 1820-1929” (Economic History Association meetings, University of Vermont, September 2010), 17.
4 Ross Thomson, “Eras of Technological Convergence,” 15.
5 Ross Thomson, “Eras of Technological Convergence,” 12.