This exhibit tells the story of the emergence of precision manufacturing in the Robbins & Lawrence (the museum’s Vermont location) era, when interchangeable parts were first actualized in large quantities for gun-making production, notes Sheila Brannan, visitor services. “From the end of the Civil War through the first half of the twentieth century, precision machine tools were put to use making a wide range of consumer goods,” Brannan comments. “You see the products of precision manufacturing everywhere. The industry that began in small New England shops has become international. What is its future? What are the connections between innovation and production, between technology and prosperity?”
At the center of the booth is the museum’s working machine shop, staffed by student interns and supported by retired machinist volunteers. This project, now in its fifth year, is a partnership with the River Valley Technical Center (RVTC) in Springfield, Vermont, Brannan explains.” From the beginning, the Working Machine Shop has been a major attraction for museum visitors, and the educational opportunities go both ways,” she says. “The students learn from our visiting engineers and machinists; and in turn, through their demonstrations, make the machinery come to life for museum visitors using the historic machine tools from the museum’s collection and CNC trainers on loan from RVTC.”
At the museum itself, visitors explore the beginnings of modern industry and discover the machines that have shaped our world. In the early 1800s, in the years between the American Revolution and the Civil War, a new industry was born. Before then, mechanical devices were made in small batches, by skilled craftsmen. Then came the “American System” of manufacturing, based on clever mechanical invention and precision measuring. This new technology and complement of purpose-built machine tools came to be known as the “American System.” Mass production would soon follow.
“The museum building was one of the crucibles from which the machine tool industry emerged,” Brannan says. “In 1845, war with Mexico was looming and the federal government requested bids for 10,000 rifles with interchangeable parts. A small gun shop in Windsor, Vermont, set out to design and develop machine tools for making gun parts. The owners formed a new company, submitted a bid for making the rifles, and won the contract. Starting from almost nothing, in 1846 they constructed the Robbins & Lawrence Armory, now home to the American Precision Museum, and began purchasing and designing new machines. They completed the 10,000 rifles ahead of schedule and won a second government contract. From this workshop, talented machinists and machine designers spread out across American industry, helping build companies such as Brown & Sharpe, Remington, and Jones & Lamson.”
The Museum currently has two exhibits commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. The first, Arming the Union: Gunmakers in Windsor, Vermont, tell the story of how ammunition evolved. When the Civil War began in the spring of 1861, the federal arsenals were largely stocked with antiquated smoothbore muskets. By the end of the war, the North had produced 1.5 million highly effective rifles, along with tens of thousands of pistols and carbines.
The federal armory at Springfield, along with several dozen private contractors, had begun using precision machine tools to make guns quickly and efficiently, high in quality, and with interchangeable parts. Many of the gun factories supplying guns to the Union Army purchased machine tools from the Robbins & Lawrence Armory in Windsor, Vermont. Rifling machines, drill presses, planers, and milling machines—including unique state-of-the-art profile milling machines and index milling machines—were shipped from Windsor to factories throughout the northeast. Arming the Union explores the machine tools, the men who designed and built those machines, and the impact that their work had on both the conduct and the outcome of the war.
“The Full Duty: The Civil War Collection of Howard Coffin” exhibit is from the private collection of Vermont’s foremost Civil War historian exploring the day-to-day life of Vermont soldiers in camp and on the battlefield. Both exhibits are set inside the actual nineteenth century factory building where the gunmaking machinery was perfected and built, and where 50,000 Special Model 1861 rifle muskets were also produced by Lamson, Goodnow & Yale. Together these two exhibitions present a view of Vermont’s role in the Civil War as it has never been seen before—the home front, the battlefield, and the powerful connections between the two.