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Gilbert: Precision Manufacturing

05/23/12 7:55AM By Peter Gilbert
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(Host) This Saturday, two new exhibits will open at the American Precision Museum in Windsor, both related to the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Civil War. According to Vermont Humanities Council executive director and commentator Peter Gilbert, together they tell important stories - of individuals and the nation.

(Gilbert) In 1860 Lamson, Goodnow & Yale, the manufacturing company in the handsome four-story brick building on the side of Mill Brook in Windsor, was making sewing machines. But when the Civil War broke out in the spring of 1861 – 151 years ago – the head of the company, Ebenezer Lamson, headed to Washington and negotiated a contract to manufacture rifles for the Union army. A year later his factory was producing 300 rifles a week. Later in the war it would be a thousand.

More importantly, Lamson’s company also made the latest gun-making machinery and sold it to other arms manufacturers, including Remington, Smith & Wesson, and Colt - machinery that made the vast majority of the million and a half Union rifles that were made for the war. This equipment incorporated the most cutting-edge technology of the time – precision measurement, tooling, machinery, and repeatable processes pioneered right there in Windsor. This resulted in superior products, including rifles, and rifle parts made with such exactness that they were interchangeable. If a soldier’s rifle broke on the battlefield, it could be repaired with spare parts that would fit, and the gun would work.

Two new, related exhibits at the American Precision Museum reflect this history. The first examines Windsor as one of a group of towns along the Connecticut River that have long been known as Precision Valley, home to a large machine tool industry that lasted into the second half of the twentieth century. The exhibit, “Arming the Union, Gunmakers in Windsor, Vermont,” profiles the workers and machines that made the rifles that won the Civil War, and shows how the production of both Union rifles and gun-making machines in Windsor was a forerunner of the eventual marriage between manufacturing and the military that gave rise to America’s military industrial complex.

The other exhibit, entitled “Full Duty,” features the private Civil War collection of well-known Vermont historian Howard Coffin. It contains letters, diaries, photos, maps, paintings, weapons, and other objects that tell the stories of day-to-day life of Vermont soldiers, in camp and on the battlefield. They speak to the extraordinary impact ordinary people can have on events. Some of the same young men who worked in the Windsor arms factory ended up shouldering rifles themselves and heading off to war. The two exhibits present Vermont’s role in the Civil War in a new way – home front, battlefield, and the powerful connections between the two.

Because that red brick building in Windsor was at the forefront of the development of precision tool technology, it helped the United States acquire the capacity to manufacture materiel on a massive scale; to win the Civil War and both world wars; to make the U.S. a manufacturing giant of goods of all kinds, and to make America what President Franklin Roosevelt would call, before we entered World War II, the “arsenal of democracy.”
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