All those belts running up into the ceiling are how the machines were powered. In the old days in machine shops in New England, the machines were powered by line shafts that would run the length or width of a shop. The line shafts would be powered by a waterwheel outside the shop, and water would be regulated into the wheel by a weir.
The waterwheel would turn a shaft, which was then sped up/down by pulleys of different sizes, and then transmitted into subsidiary line shafts. The belts would be made of leather strips, and the ends of the belts would be skived together.
To start a machine, you’d use a stick to move the belt to your machine up onto the pulley on the shaft above your position.
What’s the chances it wasn’t a water wheel but a central steam engine?
I know gun manufacturing is the one that stuck with water power the longest, but it’s difficult to find sources on individual factories.
Quite likely. I remember reading that Colt located his factory right on the river there in Hartford – he actually had to build a dike to dry out a piece of swampy ground.
Here’s a painting of the original Colt factory – I’m guessing that the smoke coming out of the stack is from a steam engine plant.
The National Park in Lowell MA gives very good coverage of early industrialization in the US. Lowell was textiles, not guns, but the Water-turbine-driven central shaft with the pulleys was the same.
Some of the factories tried to convert to electricity, but the existing install base was enormous. The fact that Lowell had highly-paid labor and the American South didn’t was also a major factor. For the price of converting an old Lowell mill, you could stand up a brand new mill in North Carolina and then collect the benefits of cheaper labor indefinitely. Or till all our textile stuff went offshore to Guatemala and Vietnam starting in the 1980s.
Anyway, the National Park is a good stop if you’re in the Lowell area.
My Grandfather (born 1902), a lifelong machinist, worked with machines like these. I remember him telling me as a little kid about the kind of machines in the picture with the shaft in the overhead and the big belts and all. Long long before OSHA. I still remember one of his stories of one of the shops he worked in, there was a wooden fence around some machinery inside the factory and another guy was curious about what was in there. He poked his finger through a knothole in the fence to “see”, and quickly jerked his hand back now minus the finger.
Even in the modern era of Bridgeports with 1 HP electric motors and guards over the speed-changing pulleys, you can lose a finger, hand or an eye in a shop but wow was the early 20th century a riskier place than now, or what?
If you look inside a Gerstner toolbox for machinists, you find a mirror inside the lid.
“WTF is this? Were machinists really this vain?”
No. It was for helping machinists get chips out of their eyes, because they didn’t typically wear safety glasses. So they’d use a magnet to help fish chips out of their eyes, with the help of the mirror in the lid of the box.
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