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Pioneers of the Machine Shop

Samuel Colt invents the revolver.

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Samuel Colt was the man who carried Eli Whitney's gunmaking to transcendent heights. Samuel Colt was the the most dashing and adventurous of all the pioneers of the machine shop in America.

Samuel Colt

Samuel Colt was born at Hartford in 1814 and died there in 1862 at the age of forty-eight, leaving behind him a famous name and a colossal industry of his own creation. His father was a small manufacturer of silk and woolens at Hartford, and the boy entered the factory at a very early age. At school in Amherst a little later, Samuel Colt fell under the displeasure of his teachers. At thirteen he took to sea, as a boy before the mast, on the East India voyage to Calcutta. It was on this voyage that he conceived the idea of the revolver and whittled out a wooden model. On his return he went into his father's works and gained a superficial knowledge of chemistry from the manager of the bleaching and dyeing department. Then he took to the road for three years and traveled from Quebec to New Orleans lecturing on chemistry under the name of "Dr. Coult." The main feature of his lecture was the administration of nitrous oxide gas to volunteers from the audience, whose antics and the amusing showman's patter made the entertainment very popular.

Selling the Colt Revolver

Samuel Colt's ambition, however, soared beyond the occupation of itinerant showman, and he never forgot his revolver. As soon as he had money enough, he made models of the new arm and took out his patents; and, having enlisted the interest of capital, he set up the Patent Arms Company at Paterson, New Jersey, to manufacture the revolver. He did not succeed in having the revolver adopted by the Government, for the army officers for a long time objected to the percussion cap (an invention, by the way, then some twenty years old, which was just coming into use and without which Colt's revolver would not have been practicable) and thought that the new weapon might fail in an emergency. Samuel Colt found a market in Texas and among the frontiersmen who were fighting the Seminole War in Florida, but the sales were insufficient, and in 1842 the company was obliged to confess insolvency and close down the plant. Samuel Colt bought from the company the patent of the revolver, which was supposed to be worthless.

Nothing more happened until after the outbreak of the Mexican War in 1846. Then came a loud call from General Zachary Taylor for a supply of Colt's revolvers. Samuel Colt had none. He had sold the last one to a Texas ranger. He had not even a model. Yet he took an order from the Government for a thousand and proceeded to construct a model. For the manufacture of the revolvers he arranged with the Whitney plant at Whitneyville. There he saw and scrutinized every detail of the factory system that Eli Whitney had established forty years earlier. He resolved to have a plant of his own on the same system and one that would far surpass Whitney's. Next year (1848) he rented premises in Hartford. His business prospered and increased. At last the Government demanded his revolvers. Within five years he had procured a site of two hundred and fifty acres fronting the Connecticut River at Hartford, and had there begun the erection of the greatest arms factory in the world.

Elisha K. Root

Samuel Colt was a captain of captains. The ablest mechanic and industrial organizer in New England at that time was Elisha K. Root. Samuel Colt went after him, outbidding every other bidder for his services, and brought him to Hartford to supervise the erection of the new factory and set up its machinery. Root was a great superintendent, and the phenomenal success of the Colt factory was due in a marked degree to him. He became president of the company after Colt's death in 1862, and under him were trained a large number of mechanics and inventors of new machine tools, who afterwards became celebrated leaders and officers in the industrial armies of the country.
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