Windsor's American Precision Museum: Birthplace of Tech Heard 'Round The World

Submitted 2 years ago
Created by
Susan B. Apel

Who knew? "Without it, we would not have mass communication, rapid transportation, modern standards of sanitation and medical care . . ." Computer science? No, precision manufacturing. And Robbins and Lawrence in Windsor VT--right here in the Upper Valley--were its early pioneers.

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The American Precision Museum is housed in a restored mid-1800s armory building in which Robbins and Lawrence dared themselves to fulfill a $10,000 government contract for new-age rifles with interchangeable parts. They used and improved existing machinery, and became famous for their ingenuity and the quality of their work, establishing a Silicon Valley of a different technology and former era. It has been said that Robbins and Lawrence rifles, supplied  to the Union army, were responsible for its victory in the Civil War.


The museum is filled with machinery like planers, milling equipment, a rifling machine, an optical comparator, oiled and glistening, pristine in shiny black or primary colors. Unless you have some background in manufacturing, you are left at first to gape and guess. Signage and other materials can rescue you in most cases by explaining what the equipment is, how it works, and its historical and present significance. Hands off the machinery, although there are some "touch me" interactive exhibits that are especially fun for kids. Two display cases of miniatures ask you to activate them by pushing a button, much like a model train and village under the Christmas tree. 

Display case of miniatures

Amid the iron and steel is the undeniable human element. One exhibit asks, "Who worked in the Armory during the Civil War?" 21st-century touch screen technology allows you to choose an engineer, an apprentice, or other worker by name and title. I chose Eben Stocker. Below is his story.

In more modern times, the machine tool industry grew and continued in the area. In 2008-09, the Vermont Folklife Center, in collaboration with the Museum, conducted an oral history project featuring men and women, like Edith Washburn (below) who left her work at the post office for the local factories, where the pay was better. You can pick up the handset and press #3 to hear Ms. Washburn tell her story in her own voice. Press #4 and you can hear Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a related Fireside Chat.

Not just cold, hard metal, but human voices.

Not all of precision manufacturing involved heavy machinery and rifles. The more delicate art of watchmaking is also represented, an advance that helped to make trains run on time. 

Telling time, and its significance in history

Rachael Garnjost at the front desk reminds us that the Museum will close for the season on October 31 and will reopen on Memorial Day weekend. She will be spending the break as an intern at another venerable cultural establishment in the Upper Valley (Northern Stage in White River Junction VT). The Museum is open for visitors from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

For more information about the American Precision Museum, click here.

Vertical shaper: beautiful in red

(Quote in first paragraph from American Precision Museum website.)


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Susan B. Apel, ArtfulEdge


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