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HOSLEY: In November 30th, 1846, Captain Samuel Walker of the Texas Rangers writes Sam Colt in Hartford a letter that will change the course of history. That letter is basically reporting from the frontier that in fact, the guns you made in New Jersey do work and they have, in fact, changed the way we fight.

"The pistols which you made...have been in use by the ‘Texas Rangers’ for three years...[and are]the only good improvement I have ever seen...[In the] summer of 1844, Col. J.C.Hayes, with fifteen men, fought about 80 Comanche...Without your pistols we should not have had the confidence to undertake such daring adventures"
--Samuel Walker, 1846

HOWARD LAMAR (Professor of History, Yale University): An Indian can fire 20 arrows in a minute but a gun could only shoot about once or twice in a minute because of the having to reload, say, a rifle. Something had to be developed as a counter to the Indian's great firepower, as it were, and the Colt revolver was the answer to that.

RICHARD SLOTKIN (Professor of American Studies, Wesleyan University): A Texas Ranger with a repeating pistol has a weapon that can be fired as rapidly, more accurately with more hitting power than an Indian's bow and arrow, so it's very much a tool of advantage, a weapon of advantage on the Great Plains.

NARRATOR: With a $25,000 contract for 1,000 guns that Walker arranged and with the design modifications that Walker suggested, Sam Colt re-entered the gun manufacturing business in 1847. 

Eli Whitney Armory

Without a factory or machinery, Colt contracted with Eli Whitney’s Armory in New Haven for the manufacturing of the guns.

NELSON: The key ingredient in that contract was when Whitney finished the contract, all the machinery and the tooling and the unfinished parts and the gauges became the property of Colt, so he basically moved these up to Hartford and first set them up in the Pearl Street factory.

NARRATOR: It was in Colt’s native Hartford that he would finally see the success he craved. In the 1840’s, Hartford was an old merchant and banking city suffering from declining agriculture and population loss.

"A Crisis has arrived...[Hartford is] on the downward course...Manufacturers and mechanics...are the soul of prosperity...We must bring prosperity to our doors by producing."
--Rev. Horace Bushnell, 1847"

NARRATOR: Colt returned to Hartford primarily because a rich uncle had extended a line of credit. This fortunate turn of events wedded the story of the gun in the 19th Century to the story of 19th Century Hartford, as firearms manufacturing became its central industry.


CT River Valley armory sites

NARRATOR: The Connecticut River Valley had long been a center of gun production. Connecticut itself was known as the "arsenal of the revolution."

In the decade prior to Colt’s return to Hartford, machine tools and precision measurement had reached the point where firearms could be produced with machine-made interchangable parts.

MERRIT ROE SMITH (Professor of Technology History, MIT): New England in general was the center of great mechanical skill. The Connecticut Valley, I would say, was one of the pockets within that region that had all sorts of people who exhibited a lot of talent when it came to design the machinery.

NARRATOR: The center of New England industrialization was the Springfield, Massachusetts, Armory, which had been founded in 1794.

During the early 19th century, the Springfield Armory became an incubator of technology through firearms production. A leading goal of the Armory was to achieve interchangability of gun parts, a concept it actively promoted to the many private contractors in the area who hoped to do business with it.

SMITH: It was a clearinghouse of technical information. And what happened, basically, is that because these private contractors held government contracts, the Ordinance Department in effect insisted that if they wanted to continue to contract with the national government, they had to share their inventions with anyone who walked through that Armory gate, and that's exactly what happened.

NARRATOR: When Sam Colt was first studying the system of manufacturing that he understood to be necessary to mass-produce guns, the Springfield Armory was the first place he visited on a tour of Connecticut River Valley arms factories.

SMITH: Some of the most important machine tools in the United States were never patented in the 19th Century because they came out of these shops of gun makers who wanted to keep their government contracts and decided that they would forego patenting their machinery because that was part of the deal.

And then from there that technology spreads out.

1849 Patent drawing

NARRATOR: 1849 marked a turning point in Sam Colt’s life. That year, Colt was granted a controversial renewal of his patent, and moved to a larger rented factory in Hartford.

That year also, the California Gold Rush had begun and Colt developed the legendary 1840 Pocket Revolver, the single most successful pistol produced in his lifetime, with 325,000 sold by the time of his death.

It was also the year that he first made a profit from gunmaking. But most importantly, in 1849, Colt hired Elisha King Root.

SMITH: [Root] came to Colt at mid career after having worked at the Collinsville Ax Factory in nearby Collinsville, Connecticut. And by the time he came to Colt, there's no question that he was one recognized as one of the really top, top master machinists in the Connecticut Valley which made him one of the top master machinists in the United States if not the best in the world. The thing that Elisha Root did for Sam Colt was that he helped Colt synthesize manufacturing. He helped Colt introduce machinery that had been developed elsewhere and bring it into a sophisticated production facility

"What a scene can be more captivating to the eye of a live mechanic, than those long lines of shafting and machinery, and the vista of busy workmen, in rows...It is a museum of curious machinery."
--Hartford Daily Courant, 1849"

HOSLEY: Once Sam Colt and Elisha Root perfected the system for mass producing complex metal instruments like firearms, that system was readily adapted to make typewriters, sewing machines, and eventually bicycles, automobiles, cameras, you name it. And it really is in Hartford, CT and in the CT Valley that this choreography of machining - of complex machine operations is developed.

NELSON: And a lot of inventors and manufacturers that went on to greater independent fame, really cut their teeth in this incubator that was Colt's armory. A famous example, Francis Pratt and Amos Whitney leave Colt's in the mid 60's and form their own machine tool company,

HOSLEY: So, the alumni of Colt’s Armory became the vanguard of this high tech industrial revolution that made Hartford, the silicone valley of the 19th century. The center of a revolution in the world of work that really changed the way things are manufactured and essentially gave birth to the modern age of mass production.


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Last modified: September 03, 2012