Saturday, June 15, 2013

Harpers Ferry Armory and the American System of Manufacturing

The American System of Manufacturing was invented and perfected in factories owned and managed by the federal government.
Harpers Ferry Armory and the New Technology: The Challenge of Change by Merritt Roe Smith describes the birth of the Armory at the birth of the republic. It follows the history of the Armory until its death in the Civil War.

George Washington, after he left the office of president, returned to lead the U.S. army in order to deal with the threat to the United States created by the French Revolutionary wars. Facing the need to strengthen arms production in the United States, Washington supported the creation of an armory at Harpers Ferry. There was plenty of water power available at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac River, and the site would have been difficult for European powers to attack. Perhaps more important to Washington, an major armory at that site would help with the economic development of the Potomac Valley and the whole area of the capital city.

In 1859 John Brown's raid foreshadowed the demise of the Armory. In 1861 it was captured by the Virginia militia (as its first action in under the Confederacy) and its stock of weapons taken; more importantly, its machinery, tools and parts were removed; they became the basis for equipping two Confederate armories. Then, during the Civil War, Harpers Ferry changed hands between the Confederacy and the Union 11 times and its bridge over the Potomac was destroyed and rebuilt 9 times. The armory was gone forever.

The Technology

In 1800 the standard military weapon was a flintlock, muzzle-loading musket. Between that time and the Civil War, rifles had become common, breach loading had been developed and percussion caps had come to replace flint locks.

In 1800 the gunsmith was a craftsman, and the best artisans could produce lock, stock and barrel (the three components of the musket) with hand tools -- tools which they often made themselves. The resultant weapon was unique, often a work of considerable art.

By the Civil War, weapons were mass produced of interchangeable parts. The fact that one could assemble a working weapon from randomly selected parts taken from several armories would have been thought science fiction when the Harpers Ferry armory was first planned.

By 1860, the production process had been largely mechanized with many different kinds of special purpose machines used to produce parts. The parts were made to precise dimensions, with careful quality control. There was a precise division of work, and machine operators were generally more specialized and less broadly skilled than the gunsmiths of their grandfathers' time. The flow of the production was planned and the factories organized to facilitate that flow. While the armories had begun the development of the manufacturing system by building their own equipment, by the time of the civil war they were buying machinery from companies specializing in the production of factory equipment.

This system of production was invented in the U.S. government armories, and the production of interchange parts from different factories in large scale was a major advance. The system came to be known as the American System of Manufacturing. The system was first demonstrated at Harpers Ferry in the 1820s and was in full production in both Harpers Ferry in the 1850s. Its development was driven by the demands of the War Department, and financed by government funding. And of course, the managers of the armories were chosen by the War Department, and their work was regularly reviewed and inspected by the War Department personnel.

It was only just before the Civil War that well capitalized private firms such as Colt and Remington were created, and during the Civil War that firearms were first produced by the hundreds of thousands.

Social Aspects

Author Smith suggests that there is a world of difference between craft culture and factory culture. In 1800 gunsmiths were a craft elite. They were off the clock; they did not necessarily come to work at a fixed hour, nor end work at a "quitting time". They might drink whiskey at the shop, or do business for their farm there. Taking time off for any of a number of reasons was accepted.

The discipline of the factory in which most workers attended machines was antithetical to the craft culture. At the Harpers Ferry armory, where craft culture dominated long into the 19th century, machine production proved hard to install. Indeed, one Superintendent was shot to death by a former worker who had been fired for not accepting to become a slave of the machines and subject to the discipline of the bosses.

The Harpers Ferry Armory versus the Springfield Armory

John Hall, a transplant from the North, created a separate part of the Harpers Ferry Armory for the production of rifles. There he led the production of the first weapons with interchangeable parts in the 1820s. In doing so he designed the rifles themselves, designed many of the machines required for their manufacture, designed parts and jigs for accurate manufacture, set standards for uniformity and developed extensive sets of gauges to be used to assure those standards, and installed the discipline in his work force to achieve the required standards.  Thomas Blanchard, again from the north and a gifted and productive inventor, produced the first machine capable of making the complex wooden stocks while working at Harpers Ferry.

Still, during practically all of the life of the Harpers Ferry armory, the Springfield armory produced more weapons of higher quality at lower cost. Springfield led in the introduction of machinery and in the discipline of its workforce.

Springfield benefited from being located in a geographic area with a cluster of innovative manufacturing establishments. The managers, inventors and machinists in Springfield benefited from a great deal of professional interchange with nearby peers.

Harpers Ferry in contrast was quite isolated by its location in an out of the way, rural location. (Unfortunately, that location was also subject to periodic flooding and serious endemic malaria during the summers.) The nearest towns were agricultural hubs rather than manufacturing centers. The completion of the C&O Canal and service from the B&O Railroad in the 1830s reduced Harpers Ferry's isolation, and its links with suppliers of material and equipment improved late in its life; so too did its communication with the Ordinance Department in Washington and the Springfield Armory.

Smith contrasts the slave culture of Virginia with the free labor culture of Massachusetts, the more religious culture of Springfield with the lack of churches in Harpers Ferry, the public schools of Springfield with their lack in Harpers Ferry, all leading to a more disciplined work force in Springfield. The craft culture of the gunsmiths who staffed the Harpers Ferry Armory and the rural culture of the Harpers Ferry community are seen as complementary.

Local and National Politics

Much of the book focuses on the Junto of five families who dominated the economic and political life of Harpers Ferry in the first half of the 19th century. When the federal government purchased the land for the armory, it not only left what would become the commercial center of the town in the hands of the Junto, but also agreed to their monopoly on sales to the employees of the armory. Members of Junto families dominated the higher positions in the armory and used their power to hire and fire to reward or sanction the residents of the town. The purchasing power of the armory was used to enrich the Junto families.

I found the story of James Stubblefield's long term administration of the Armory to be surprising. He was linked by marriage to the Harpers Ferry Junto and enjoyed (and merited) their support for decades. He consistently ignored instructions from his superiors in Washington. He overspent the appropriations and kept such poor financial records that the overspending could seldom be detected much less controlled. He appointed his brother-in-law to be his second in command, and they ran a government owned and financed establishment as their personal fiefdom. Much of his effort was devoted to his personal farm while he was superintendent of the Armory. His contracting favored local businesses, his personnel policies supported Junto influence in the local community, and he seemed unconcerned that the factory produced arms more slowly, of lower quality, and more expensively than did the Springfield Armory.

Virginia at the time limited suffrage not only to adult males, but to the more affluent. There was no open ballot, and the votes of the armory workers were monitored. Not surprisingly, Harpers Ferry always gave substantial majorities to the candidates for state and national office favored by the Junto.

Merritt Roe Smith points out that as a result, the armory always seemed more devoted to advancing the interests of the town than those of the army and the federal government, to the continuing annoyance of the War Department.

The superintendent, paymaster and chief armorer of the armory could generally depend on the support of Virginia legislators, and benefited from their influence with the War Department and president, as well as their authority over appropriations. On the other hand, John Hall also had a team of supporters among northern Congressmen who used their influence to support his positions in Washington.

Things apparently changed with the election of Andrew Jackson, after which the Democrats (and indeed the party of the president) saw appointments at the armory to be sources of patronage for party supporters. That in turn led to a Superintendent who hired Democrats, creating positions at the armory by firing Whigs.

I found myself often surprised at the degree to which a few hundred factory employees in rural Harpers Ferry could draw on the attention of presidents, secretaries of war, and the Congress. Indeed, I found George Washington's intervention to secure a government facility in the Potomac Valley to be surprising.

Final Comment

This is a very good book. It was awarded the 1977 Frederick Jackson Turner Award from the Organization of American Historians , the 1978 Pfizer Award from the History of Science Society, and nominated for the 1977 Pulitzer Prize in History.

I found it hard to follow some of the descriptions of machinery and to keep straight the names of all the people named in the book, but I think those problems were of my understanding rather than of the clarity of the text.

I found it added significantly to my understanding of the development of American leadership in global manufacturing and of the difference between craft and factory manufacturing. It also opened my eyes to aspects of American cultural history that I now better appreciate.

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