mills popped up along Vermont waterways like spring dandelions in the
early 1800s. Falling water at cascades on streams and rivers provided
power to propel saw blades, turn grinding wheels, and more. Hardworking
Vermonters seized the opportunities of this accessible power and brought
the industrial era to the Green Mountains. Innovation and ingenuity
Windsor, a particularly ingenious pair—a mechanic and a gun
maker—teamed up on an ambitious undertaking. Competition for a
government contract propelled them to use their expertise to devise a
new approach. Their innovation advanced a new era of precision
manu-facturing known as the “American System of Manufacturing.”
American Precision Museum in the 1846 Robbins and Lawrence Armory in
Windsor celebrates machinists and toolmakers of this area and their
prominent role in shaping American manufacturing, and shows how
advancements in machining drove industrialization. The museum’s
unparalleled collection of historic machines—lathes, grinders, shapers,
stamping presses, and more—tell the story of ever-increasing
productivity and precision. Manufacturing comes to life in the museum’s
Innovation Station, where machines do their work with
demonstrations—historic cutters and lathes producing metal gears and
complex shapes to modern 3D printers making vases and tools. Along with
honoring the past, the museum inspires new generations with the dynamic
present and future of manufacturing.
From Handmade to Standardized
“This is the birthplace of the ‘American System of Manufacturing.’
In the 1840s and earlier, products were mostly made by hand, so each individual item was unique, just like
if a painter paints the same picture twice, there are subtle
differences. What happened here is that we went from that process of
making things by hand to making them by machine,” says Steve Dalessio,
the museum’s executive director.
Visitor examines the Brown & Sharpe supermicrometer, 1878.
the ‘American System of Manufacturing,’ that this whole idea of
interchangeable and repeatable manufacturing kept growing and growing
until you see what you get in today’s manufacturing, which is all about
museum’s story starts with mechanic Richard Lawrence and Windsor gun
maker Nicanor Kendall, who teamed up in the late 1830s. In the 1840s,
the US government encouraged innovation in manufacturing with a
competition for a contract for 10,000 rifles. These rifles, though, had
to have standardized, interchangeable parts. Every lock plate, stock,
barrel, and other element had to be exactly the same. Making these
identical parts required machine tools that would do the exact same
thing over and over again. Robbins and Kendall had their own
considerable skills and were also forward thinking in bringing in other
talented machinists and designers to create machines to do this work.
by businessman Samuel Robbins, they built the handsome brick armory in
Windsor alongside Mill Brook, which would provide the power to run their
new and adapted machines. Bringing in machinists and workers, they
perfected techniques to produce interchangeable parts, building a
thriving manufacturing business. They also leapt into the business of
making and selling the machines.
Bentley-Rolls Royce engine, 1930s, with cutaways. Visitors can crank the engine to see it move.
success went international when they were invited to show at the Great
Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations at the Crystal Palace
in London in 1851. This approach of mechanization, with machines
designed specifically for each operation to produce identical
interchangeable parts, became known as the “American System of Manufacturing.” British arms manufacturers ordered their machines, beginning their business abroad.
Celebrating the Joy of Making
of the museum’s first displays takes visitors back to the days of
waterpower. In front of a clear diagram showing a waterwheel is a small
metal wheel with a handle. Grab that handle and start the wheel turning.
Suddenly that simple movement turns attached belts, which then reach up
to the ceiling, turning a long metal shaft there. In the Robbins and
Lawrence Armory, waterpower from adjacent Mill Brook drove those shafts
and multiple belts that ran from them to power these machines that would
then, cut, drill, press, and stamp metal.
American Precision Museum holds the largest collection of historically
significant machine tools in the country. Some were designed right here,
including three pieces by Frederick W. Howe: machines for milling,
pistol barrel rifling, and edging. Howe’s 1853 Rifling Machine, powered
by those overhead shafts and belts, cut precise spiraling grooves inside
pistol barrels, causing the fired bullet to spin and giving it greater
visitors who know or are curious about machine tools, the museum is a
candy store of treats. The very first Bridgeport Milling Machine, serial
number 1, made in 1938 is here. An 1861 Turret Lathe from Lamson,
Goodnow & Company in Windsor, is believed to be the oldest example
of this type of machine that allowed the machinist to rotate different
cutting tools into position for different types of cuts. The 1918
Centerless Grinder designed by Lewis R. Heim increased precision in ball
bearings and roller-bearing rolls to a quarter of a thousandth of an
inch (0.00025) tolerance—vital in automobile production.
with its rich historic collection, the museum looks at the present and
future of manufacturing with exhibits on recent and contemporary
mission here is to inspire a new generation of innovators, inventors,
engineers, and manufacturing people to the joy of making. There are
great opportunities in manufacturing today,” says Steve.
American Precision Museum
196 Main Street