Thursday, October 13, 2011

Voices from the Past: Samuel Colt (1866)

This great article from the 1866 book "Famous American Fortunes" gives an interesting biography of the famed gunmaker Samuel Colt. While not a definitive story, it is interesting nonetheless that he was placed among the pantheon of great American businessmen.


Samuel Colt was one of the few fortunate inventors who was not compelled to fight his way against poverty and competing rivals, and though he lived to only middle age, his life might be considered eminently successful. He was not a " model boy ;" he was restless, disliked study, and his eminently respectable father. who was a manufacturer of cotton and woollen goods, scarcely knew what to do with him. Samuel was born on the 19th of July. 1814, in Hartford, Connecticut, and by the time he was ten years old he had exhibited such a predilection for the factory over the schoolroom, that his father allowed him to go to work, and here he remained for three years, except now and then working on a farmWhen he was thirteen his father, unwilling that he should grow up without any education, sent him to boarding-school at Amherst, Massachusetts; but all would not do; he ran away from school, and shipped for a voyage to the East Indies on the " Coroo." It was while aboard of this vessel that he invented his famous revolver, not with all its latest improvements, but really the germ of "Colt's revolver," whittling the model out of wood. When he returned home he was quite willing to remain there, after his ocean experiences, and entered the chemical department of his father's factory, at Ware, Massachusetts, then in charge of an able chemist named W. T. Smith, to learn its mysteries. For this study he had a fancy, and progressed rapidly, appearing quite content. He was a rather precociously developed youth, and when only eighteen might easily have passed for twenty-two; taking advantage of this full-grown adult appearance, he started off on a lecturing tour, under the name of Dr. Colt, and lectured successfully on chemistry, which he illustrated with interesting experiments, 31 (481)
throvigh the United States and Canada; returning home at the end of two years with quite a handsome sum as the result.

The money made during this extended trip was devoted to the perfecting of his pistol, on which he applied for and obtained a patent in 1835. He also procured patents in France and England. His object now was to effect the organization of a company, to be called the " Patent Arms Company," which he was able to accomplish through the help of some New York capitalists, with a cash basis of $300,000, a factory being established at Paterson, New Jersey. Efforts were at once made to induce the government to use them in the army, but red-tape and the prejudice of the old army officers prevented the adoption of this improved arm until the breaking out of the Seminole war in Florida, when a regiment under Lieutenant-Colonel Harvey was armed with them. Its success was great, and the service it had rendered admitted, but after the close of the war, the demand for the revolver fell off to such an extent that in 1842 the Patent Arms Company suspended work and closed out the concern. That they had carried no dead stock is certain, for when the Mexican war broke out there was not a "Colt's revolver" to be had.

General Taylor, who had seen the execution these arms did in Florida, wished to arm his Texan rangers with them, and sent to Colt for a supply, but he had not even one left as a model to work by; and when the government added an order for 1,000, he had to set to work to make a new model, in which process lie added some improvements, which their extensive use had suggested. At the close of the Mexican war, the opening up of the gold regions in California, and the immense exodus from the East to the West, kept up the demand for the; revolvers, and Mr. Coltprepared for a permanent business. In 1851 he commenced the erection of an armory at Hartford, which he meant should be the largest and most complete in the world. This immense stone structure was built on thoroughly drained meadow-land, just south of the Mill river; the dike which protected it was two miles long, 150 feet wide at the base, from 30 to 60 feet wide at the top, and 25 feet high. The armory consisted of three buildings, in the form of a letter H. The front was 500 by 60 feet, the rear 500 by 40, the connecting central building was 250 by 50 feet, the main building three stories high, with offices, etc., attached. On the outbreak of the civil war these enormous buildings were duplicated, so greatly had the demand for these pistols increased. In the first year of the war, this factory turned out 120,000. The machinery for making these arms is also constructed on the ground.

It is greatly to the credit of Colonel Colt, that while he was rapidly accumulating wealth for himself, he did not forget the welfare of his workmen. He constructed for them neat, convenient residences, built for them a public hall, in which was a good library, instituted courses of lectures, organized a band of musicians from among his employes, uniformed them at his own expense, and supplied them with a splendid set of instruments; formed a military company among the men, and found the uniforms for these also. In 1855 Colonel Colt married a daughter of the Rev. Dr. Jarvis, of Portland, Connecticut. He built a beautiful mansion in Hartford for his residence, one of the handsomest in the city. He made several visits to Europe, and in 1856, while in Russia, was present by invitation at the coronation of Alexander II. Nearly all the royal heads of Europe presented him with decorations, orders of merit, medals, or other souvenirs, in recognition of the value of his inventions, which included, besides the revolver, a submarine battery for harbor defence, and a submarine telegraph cable, which was a prophecy and precursor of the great Atlantic cable. He died at his residence in Hartford on the 10th of January, 1862, at the early age of forty-eight, leaving a large fortune.