The Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention & Innovation
Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, Smithsonian Beanie Illustration
Centerpieces   Places of Invention
An exhibition under development

Places of Invention tells the stories of historic and modern communities where people, resources, and spaces have come together to spark inventiveness.

Invention hot spot:
Beginnings of mass production in 19th-century Hartford, Connecticut

1886 Columbia high-wheel bike

An 1886 Columbia Ordinary made by the Pope Manufacturing Company. From the America on the Move exhibition, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the West Bronx, where Kool DJ Herc threw his first hip-hop parties

Albert A. Pope, 1908. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Wheelmen's club, 1879.

Participants in one of America's first organized bicycle tours lined up with their Ordinaries on the road outside of Readville, Massachusetts, 11 September 1879. The second rider is Albert A. Pope. From the America on the Move exhibition, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Columbia electric automobile

A Columbia Mark LX electric runabout, made by the Electric Vehicle Co. of Hartford, Conn. That company had its roots in the Electric Carriage and Wagon Co. and the Pope Motor Carriage Co., part of the Pope Manufacturing Co., a successful bicycle manufacturer. Pope, like a number of other bicycle manufacturers, got into the car business in the late 1890s. From the America on the Move exhibition, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

As a nineteenth-century nexus of gun, sewing machine, bicycle, and even automobile manufacture, Hartford, Connecticut, shows the lineage of American mass production. Hartford's evolution as an industrial center and training ground for gifted engineers reveals a fluid network of inventive people, technology, skills, and the factories that incubated those skills. Hartford became a hot spot of the entrepreneurial ingenuity, industrial growth, and rapid innovation (fueled by failure along with success) that swept much of New England in the nineteenth century.

Inventor Christian Sharps' Rifle Company, opened in 1852, incubated the industrial hub that formed along Hartford's Capitol Avenue, known for a time as Rifle Avenue. In 1855, Samuel Colt opened his Armory and applied the system of interchangeable parts as fully as possible in the mass production of guns. (Gun assembly still required some fitting and filing by hand.) Colt's superintendent, Elisha Root, designed and outfitted the Armory, and his excellence as a mechanical engineer, inventor, and teacher matched Colt's marketing genius. The Colt Armory became a renowned center of metal-working and training ground for a long line of inventive machinists, many of whom went on to form new partnerships and metal-working companies in Hartford.

The machinists drawn to Hartford to apprentice at Colt's included Amos Whitney and Francis Pratt. They became friends and both eventually left the Armory to work at George S. Lincoln and Company while "moonlighting" as machinists for other companies. In 1860, Pratt and Whitney formed their own company to design and build machine tools. (Machine tools of many varieties are used to make the metal components of machines.) Through their prolific and varied designs, Pratt and Whitney further honed the interchangeability of machine parts pioneered at Colt's Armory. And like Colt superintendent Elisha Root, Amos Whitney taught hundreds of apprentices who went on to start their own businesses.

Hartford's industrial base expanded further after the Civil War. After the Sharps Rifle Company failed in 1870, the Weed Sewing Machine Company took over its factory and soon surpassed the Colt Armory in size. Weed's superintendent (and another Colt-trained machinist), George Fairfield, served also as president of Hartford Machine Screw, which was based in one of Weed's factory buildings before moving into its own, new factory nearby. Fairfield ran Hartford Machine Screw with inventor Christopher Spencer, whom he met through the Colt Armory.

The Weed Sewing Machine Company gained a different tenant after a serendipitous turn of events. Bostonian Albert A. Pope envisioned a lucrative product when he saw the British-made, high-wheel bicycle, or velocipede, at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. He organized the Pope Manufacturing Company in Boston and bought patent rights for bicycle manufacture in the United States. Wanting to contract out his first order, however, Pope approached George Fairfield of Hartford, and the Weed Sewing Machine Company produced Pope's first run of bicycles in 1878.

The "Columbia" bicycle proved a commercial success, as Pope had anticipated, but its height made it difficult to balance and unsafe to ride. Still, the Columbia sold steadily. To educate (and cultivate) consumers, Pope opened the Bicycle Riding School in Boston in 1878, and in 1880 he founded an association for the formation of cycling clubs. In 1882, Hartford held its first bicycle parade, featuring 300 cyclists riding Columbia bicycles. George Day, Weed's dynamic company president elected in 1877, was a cyclist himself and formed the Connecticut Bicycle Club.

In 1888, Pope launched the "safety bicycle," more closely resembling today's bicycles, with two wheels of equal size for improved balance and safety, and pneumatic tires for a more comfortable ride. Bicycle production in the Weed factory expanded, with Weed making every part but the tires, and by 1890, demand for bicycles overshadowed the failing sewing machine market. Pope bought the Weed factory, took over as its president, and renamed it the Pope Manufacturing Company. The thriving triumvirate of Pope Manufacturing Company, Hartford Machine Screw, and Pratt and Whitney Machine Tool was neighbored by other, thriving companies. These included Billings and Spencer, co-founded by Christopher Spencer and Christopher Billings, another notable inventor and former Colt Armory employee. Begun in 1869 as the Roper Sporting Arms Company and reorganized in 1873 as Billings and Spencer, the company pioneered the drop-forging process and became an important manufacturer of tools for the gun and sewing machine industries. The bicycle boom was short-lived, peaking near the turn of the century when more and more consumers craved individual automobile travel. In 1899, American bicycle production reached one million and the country was home to 312 bicycle manufacturers. But by 1905, only 101 manufacturers remained. Pope's company suffered financially from over-production amidst falling demand. In an effort to save his business, Pope opened a Motor Carriage Department and turned out electric carriages, beginning with the "Mark III" in 1897. Pope's venture might have made Hartford the capital of the automobile industry were it not for the ascendency of Henry Ford and a series of pitfalls and patent struggles that outlived Pope himself.

The dramatic failure of the Pope Manufacturing Company did not mark the end of industry in Hartford, as companies like Pratt and Whitney continued to evolve. But the nineteenth-century life cycles of the Colt Armory, Weed Sewing Machine Company, and other factories exemplify the movement of people, skills, and technology that fueled invention and made Hartford a hot spot as mass production took hold in America.

-- Amanda Murray


Tom D. Crouch, "How the Bicycle Took Wing,"American Heritage of Invention and Technology Magazine, vol. 2, no. 1 (Summer 1986).

Ellsworth Strong Grant and Marion Hepburn Grant, The City of Hartford 1784-1984 (Hartford: Connecticut Historical Society, 1986).

Ellsworth Strong Grant, The Colt Legacy: The Story of the Colt Armory in Hartford 1855-1980 (Providence: Mowbray Company, 1982).

Ellsworth Strong Grant, "The Miracle on Capital Avenue,"Hog River Journal (Summer 2004).

David A. Hounshell, From the American System to Mass Production, 1900-1932 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984).

National Museum of American History, America on the Move.

  « Back
:: Home :: About Us :: Centerpieces :: Events :: Resources :: Video & Audio ::
:: Press Room :: Blog :: Newsletter :: Site Map :: Facebook :: Flickr :: Twitter ::