Grace's Guide To British Industrial History

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Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Samuel Colt

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Colonel Samuel Colt (1814-1862)

He is best remembered for the Colt revolver.

In 1848 he purchased land in Hartford, Connecticut River and built at factory there, bringing machinery from his works in Whitneyville. This was followed by a larger factory called the Colt Armory in 1855. He hired Elisha K. Root as his chief mechanic in setting up the plant's machinery. Over the years he developed specialised machinery mass producing the guns.

For more information, see Wikipedia entry.

Other prominent engineers were employed at Colt's Armory, working there as 'inside contractors' to Colt, using his facilities to produce components for Colt at set prices or to produce their own products for sale. The engineers included Franis A. Pratt, Amos Whitney, George A. Fairfield, Christopher Spencer, and Charles E. Billings.

Joseph Wickham Roe wrote[1] that Colt's Armory adopted the principles of interchangeable manufacture 'in a most advanced form. Hand work was practically eliminated and automatic machinery substituted'. It is true that production was highly mechanized, with vast numbers of specialised machine tools installed, but David Hounshell[2] states that Colt's revolvers were not manufactured with interchangeable parts. 'When assembled, major components were stamped with serial numbers, the arm taken apart, and the parts hardened. After hardening, the parts with the same numbers were refitted by hand into a complate revolver.' He also quotes Colt's former superintendent, Gage Stickney, as saying of interchangeable manufacture, 'I have heard of it, but I defy a man to show me a case.'

1863 Obituary [3]

COLONEL SAMUEL COLT was born on the 19th of July, 1814, at Hartford, Connecticut, U.S., America. He was of Scotch descent, his father, Christian Colt, being the son of an early settler in Connecticut.

Sam Colt had not the advantage of careful education, and at a very early age he ran away to sea, and made several voyages to India. He had latent mechanical talent and great energy, and it is stated that he was constantly devising some supposed improvements in the tackle, &c., on board, for which the commander did not award him the credit which he imagined was his due ; and he turned his attention to a repeating fire-arm which should be also a breech-loader, and thus afford to the solitary pioneers of the Western States the immunity from danger which only could be obtained by rapid firing, in case of attack by the Indians.

Whilst at sea he is supposed to have produced the first wooden model of the revolver pistol which bears his name ; and it has been asserted that, on his return to America, he fell in with another untaught inventor, like himself, whose attention had also been directed to the same subject, and that he received from this accidental acquaintance the first notions of the necessity of adopting mechanical and automatic machinery for the production of these weapons.

For some years he had to struggle with great difficulties, and during that period he turned his attention to other subjects; but always keeping in view the production by machinery of the several parts of the repeating fire-arm, and for this he invented and adapted various machines.

He received his first patent in 1835, and established a factory in Paterson, New Jersey, but met with indifferent success. He subsequently disposed of his right to manufacture revolving fire-arms, and, as it was generally understood at the time, expended the proceeds in a vain attempt to clear his brother, John C. Colt, of a charge of homicide.

Sam Colt afterwards invented a submarine torpedo, which was intended for the destruction of vessels. He gave two exhibitions of the power of his new invention in the bay off Castle Garden, by blowing up first a schooner, and afterwards a large brig.

He then established a line of telegraph between New York and Sandy Hook and Montauk, which was intended to announce the arrival of vessels, and to facilitate the despatch of important foreign news ; but this enterprise failed, and he became very much reduced in circumstances.

Colonel Colt is also reputed to have been the inventor of the first submarine telegraph cable, as shown and tested from Fire Island to New York, and from the Merchant’s Exchange to the mouth of the harbour, in 1843.

A few years later he again obtained possession of his patent for the revolving pistol, and with the assistance of a few capitalists who joined him, a company was formed and a manufactory was established at Hartford, which has proved very successful, not only in the making of pistols, but in the manufacture of a revolving rifle, which was also the invention of Sam Colt. The factory was supposed, before the war, to be worth nearly $5,000,000, and since then has, most probably, considerably augmented in value. The proceeds have been so great, that Colonel Colt realised a large landed estate, and he was no doubt one of the wealthiest men in New England.

At the period of the International Exhibition in 1851, Colonel Colt first visited London, but so little was generally known of the use of repeating fire-arms, that 'Colt’s Revolvers' scarcely attracted any attention, and it was only towards the time of the closing of the Exhibition that General Gibbs MacNeill (U.S. army), who had experience of the value of these arms in the Texan and other expeditions, directed to them the attention of some Members of the Institution of Civil Engineers, by one of whom a Paper was written, from the information given by Colonel Colt, describing the automatic machinery used in the production of these weapons.

The Paper was read, and the subject was discussed at two meetings of the Institution in the month of November 1851. This induced the attention of the Government to the mode of manufacture, and Colonel Colt was permitted to establish a small-arms factory in a building belonging to the Government at Thames Bank, Pimlico. This was not successful as a commercial speculation, but it had the result of inducing the attention of the intelligent gun-makers of the metropolis and the provinces to the subject, and eventually at the Government Small Arms Factory at Enfield, the same kind of automatic machinery was adopted, with the present evident beneficial result for Her Majesty’s service. This is another instance, among many, of the too general neglect of useful inventions from abroad, and their eventual forced introduction.

In this case Colonel Colt lost a large sum of money, and the Engineer who introduced him and the repeating arm to the Institution, the Government, and the public, and wrote the article in question, is not publicly known in connection with the subject. After the closing of the manufacture at Thames Bank, Colonel Colt returned to America, and on the breaking out of the war, he used great exertions to extend the production of arms, supplying also considerable funds for raising a corps of men for the service of the Northern army. He is stated to have greatly extended the Hartford works, and to have realized a very large fortune.

His decease occurred, from disease of the brain, on the 9th of January, 1862, in the forty-eighth year of his age. He was a man of determined will, of great natural powers, and only lacked the advantages of early education and training to have become a man of mark in his generation.

He joined the Institution as an Associate in the year 1852, and received a Telford Medal for the Paper already referred to.

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. 'English & American Tool Builders' by Joesph Wickham Roe, 1916
  2. 'From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932' by David Hounshell, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984
  3. 1863 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries