American History, Blog, New England, Road Books, The Yankee Road, yankee

Interchangeable Parts and The American Precision Museum

A while back, my wife Jane and I took a 5-day trip into New England for a short break. From our home in Nova Scotia, Canada, the drive is a long one – some 500 miles into central Maine. Some Americans don’t realize that North America extends some 900-1000 miles east and north of the Maine border. Mostly rocks and trees, but there is a lot of it that never appears on US maps.

We visited a lot of places in New England, but one that had a special connection to The Yankee Road, we stumbled upon by accident. We were going to visit the Saint-Gaudens estate in Cornish NH. It is on the New Hampshire side of the Connecticut River that separates that State from Vermont, a dozen or so miles south of Lebanon and Hanover. There is a covered bridge that crosses the river at Windsor VT, just across from the Saint-Gaudens estate and we were driving down the main street when Jane pointed out a sign for ‘The American Precision Museum’. Huh? We had to stop there, but only after going to the Saint-Gaudens estate.

In Volume 1, Chapter 9 of The Yankee Road, I tried to reconstruct the tale of Roswell Lee, Simeon North and others’ attempts to develop interchangeable parts for musket and rifles at, first, the Springfield MA Armory some miles downriver from Windsor VT, and then at the Harpers Ferry Armory in Virginia. It was a military project, begun after the War of 1812 and, in 1841, after what was a large expenditure spread over 25 years, the Army could say they had succeeded. Imagine what anything like an auto or a refrigerator would cost if each part had to be adjusted, filed down or rebent to make it fit the machine and you get the picture. Don’t even think about a cellphone…

Like a lot of technologies that came out of the American ‘military-industrial complex’, such as artificial orange juice and the internet, 19th Century entrepreneurs seized on the machine tools and cutting lathes and began to produce all kinds of products where tight tolerances were needed to fit parts snugly together. One of the earliest adopters was the Robbins and Lawrence factory, constructed in 1846 at the falls of a small tributary of the Connecticut River. By the 1850s, their factory was producing firearms parts and other mechanical devices. Eventually, their workers were attracted away by bigger companies in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Now, the factory building has become The American Precision Museum. It houses a spectacular collection of miniature factory machines and tools, which, even though they are small, actually move and even the miniature saws have cutting teeth. As well, the museum has a collection of old tools and machines that needs to be seen by anyone who understands how important the development of interchangeable parts was to the country’s and the world’s economies. As an interesting twist, the museum has a small 3D printer that is a 21st Century interchangeable part producer. We spent a couple of hours there, before going off to lunch a few blocks away at a local (genuine) diner, where members of the family pitched in to keep the customers fed and happy. For such a small town, Windsor VT has a lot to offer. 

About The Yankee Road

The Yankee Road: Tracing the Journey of the New England Tribe that Created Modern America is a 3-volume book series that combines fascinating history with a travel narrative, taking the reader on a journey through the places Yankees and their descendants settled as they expanded westward. Using a physical road to connect locations important to the Yankee cultural “road,”

Jim McNiven takes us on side trips into individual stories, introducing readers to the origins of such large-scale and diverse ideas as conservation, public education, telegraphy, mass production, religion, and labor reform. US Route 20, which McNiven nicknames “The Yankee Road,” is America’s longest highway, extending coast to coast from Boston to Newport, Oregon. Along it, or near it, so-called Yankees developed ideas that underlay much of how the world works today.

Visit The Yankee Road to learn more about the men and women whose ideas created modern America.