CHAPTER XIX. SAMUEL COLT.
SAMUEL COLT was born at Hartford, Connecticut, on the 19th of July, 1814. He was descended from one of the original settlers of that city, and his father, who possessed some means, was a man of great energy, intelligence, and enterprise. The senior Colt began life as a merchant, and afterward became a manufacturer of woolen, cotton, and silk goods. The mother of our hero was the daughter of Major John Caldwell, a prominent banker of Hartford, and is said to have been a woman of superior character and fine mental attainments.
It was within the power of the parents of Samuel Colt to give him a thorough education, and this they were anxious to do; but he was always so full of restless energy that he greatly preferred working in the factory to going to school. He loved to be where he could hear the busy looms at work, and see the play of the intricate machinery in the great building. In order to gratify him, his father placed him in his factory at the age of ten years, and there he remained for about three years, leaving it only at rare intervals and for short periods of time, which he passed in attendance upon school and working on a farm. When he was thirteen his father declared that he would not permit him to grow up without an education, and sent him to a boarding-school at Amherst, Massachusetts. He did not remain there long, for the spirit of adventure came over him with such force that he could not resist it. He ran away from school and shipped as a boy before the mast on a vessel bound for the East Indies. The ship was called the Coroo, and was commanded by Captain Spaulding.
THE BOY COLT INVENTING THE REVOLVER.
The voyage was long, and the lad was subjected to great hardships, which soon convinced him that running away to sea was not as romantic in real life as in the books he had read, but his experience, though uncomfortable enough, failed to conquer his restless spirit. While at sea in the Coroo he had an abundance of leisure time for reflection, but instead of devoting it to meditating upon the folly of his course, he spent it in inventing a revolving pistol, a rough model of which he cut in wood with his jack-knife. This was the germ of the invention which afterward gave him such fame, and it is not a little singular that the conception of such a weapon should have come to a boy of fourteen.
Returning home, he became an apprentice in his father's factory at Ware, Massachusetts. He was put into the dyeing and bleaching department, and was thoroughly trained in it by Mr. William T. Smith, a scientific man, and one of the best practical chemists in New England. Young Holt manifested a remarkable aptitude for chemistry, and when but a mere boy was known as one of the most successful and dexterous manipulators in New England.
When he had reached his eighteenth year, the old spirit of restlessness came over him again, and he embarked in an unusually bold undertaking for one so young, in which, however, he was much favored by the circumstance that he was very much older in appearance than in reality, commonly passing for a full-grown man. Assuming the name of Dr. Coult, he traveled throughout the Union and British America, visiting nearly every town of two thousand inhabitants and over, lecturing upon chemistry, and illustrating his lectures with a series of skillful and highly popular experiments. His tour was entirely successful, and he realized in the two years over which it extended quite a handsome sum. The use which he made of the money thus acquired was characteristic of the man.
He had never abandoned the design of a revolving pistol which he had conceived on board the Coroo, and he now set to work to perfect it, using the proceeds of his lectures to enable him to take out patents in this country and in Europe. He spent two years in working on his model, making improvements in it at every step, and by 1835 had brought it to such a state of excellence that he was enabled to apply for a patent in the United States. His application was successful. Before it was decided, however, he visited England and France, and patented his invention in those countries. Though now only twenty-one years old, he had given seven years of study and labor to his "revolver," and had brought it to a state of perfection which was far in advance of his early hopes.
"At this time, and, indeed, for several years after, he was not aware that any person before himself had ever conceived the idea of a fire-arm with a rotating chambered breech. On a subsequent visit to Europe, while exploring the collection of fire-arms in the Tower of London and other repositories of weapons of war in England and on the continent, he found several guns having the chambered breech, but all were so constructed as to be of little practical value, being far more liable to explode prematurely and destroy the man who should use them than the objects at which they might be aimed. Unwilling, however, to seem to claim that which had been previously invented, he read before the Institution of Civil Engineers in England (of which he was the only American associate), in 1851, an elaborate paper on the subject, in which he described and illustrated, with appropriate drawings, the various early inventions of revolving fire-arms, and demonstrated the principles on which his were constructed."
Having secured patents in the United States and in the principal countries of Europe, Mr. Colt exerted himself to organize a company for the manufacture of his revolver. He met with considerable opposition, for it was commonly asserted that his pistol would never be of any practical value. The wise ones said it was too complicated for general use, and that its adoption would be attended by the killing or maiming of the majority of those who used it. The inventor disregarded these birds of ill omen, however, and, persevering in his efforts, finally succeeded in securing the aid of some capitalists in New York. A company was formed in 1835, called the "Patent Arms Company," with a capital of $300,000, and an armory was established at Paterson, New Jersey. Mr. Colt then endeavored to induce the Government of the United States to adopt the arm in the military and naval service. Strange as it now seems, however, the officers of the army and navy were not disposed to regard the revolver with favor. They declared that the percussion cap was entirely unreliable, and that no weapon requiring it could be depended on with certainty; that there was great danger that two or more of the charges would explode at the same time; and that the arm was liable to get out of order very easily. They further protested that it was much more difficult to repair than the arms then in use, and that this alone rendered it unfit for adoption by the Government. Notwithstanding these objections were fully met by Mr. Colt, who explained carefully the principles of his weapon, it was two years before the Government consented to give the revolver a trial.
In 1837, the Florida war raged with great violence, and the Seminoles, secure in their fastnesses in the Everglades, were enabled to bid defiance to all the efforts of the army of the United States. Their superior skill in the use of the rifle gave them an advantage which the bravery and determination of our troops could not overcome. In this emergency, the Government consented to make a trial of Colt's revolver. A regiment under Lieutenant-Colonel Harvey was armed with this weapon, and its success was so marked from the first that the Government promptly gave an order for more, and ended by making it the principal arm of the troops in Florida. The savages were astounded and disheartened at seeing the troops fire six or eight times without reloading; and when the war was brought to a close, as it soon was, it was plain to all that the revolver had played a decisive part in the struggle. It was a great triumph for Colonel Colt, but in the end proved a source of misfortune. The speedy termination of the war put an end to the demand for his weapon, and his business fell off so greatly that in 1842 the Patent Arms Company was compelled to close its establishment and wind up its affairs.
For five years none of the revolvers were manufactured, and, meanwhile, the stock which had been put in the market was entirely exhausted by the demand which had set in from Texas and the Indian frontier. In 1847 the war with Mexico began, and General Taylor, who had witnessed the performance of the revolver in Florida, was anxious to arm the Texan Rangers with that weapon. He sent Captain Walker, the commander of the Rangers, to Colonel Colt to purchase a supply. Walker was unsuccessful. Colt had parted with the last one that he possessed, and had not even a model to serve as a guide in making others. The Government now gave him an order for one thousand, which he agreed to make for $28,000; but there was still the difficulty caused by having no model to work by. In this dilemma, he advertised extensively for one of his old pistols, to serve as a model, but failing to procure one, was compelled to make a new model. This was really a fortunate circumstance, as he made several improvements in the weapon, which officers who had used it suggested to him, so that his weapons were very much better than the old ones. Having no factory of his own, Colonel Colt hired an armory at Whitneyville, near New Haven, where he produced the first thousand pistols ordered by the Government. These gave entire satisfaction, and further orders from the War Department came in rapidly. Colonel Colt now hired and fitted up larger and more complete workshops in Hartford, and began business on his own account, supplying promptly every order that was given him. The weapon proved most effective during the Mexican War, and the orders of the Government were sufficiently large to allow the inventor to reap a handsome profit from them, and lay the foundations of his subsequent business success.
At the close of the war, Colonel Colt was apprehensive that the demand for his weapon would again drop off, as it had done after the Florida campaign; but he was agreeably disappointed. The success of the revolver in Mexico had made it generally and favorably known throughout the country, and there was now a steady and even a growing demand for it. The discovery of gold in California, which so quickly followed the cessation of hostilities, greatly stimulated this demand, for the most essential part of the gold seeker's outfit was a revolver; and the extraordinary emigration to Australia, which set in somewhat later, still further extended the market for his weapon. Convinced by this time that there would be no considerable falling off in his orders, Colonel Colt began to take steps to assure the permanency of his business.
The experience of the American officers during the Mexican War enabled them to point out many improvements to the inventor, who promptly adopted them. This made his pistol almost a new weapon, and the most formidable small arm then in use. He obtained a new patent for it, as thus improved, and it was adopted by the Government as the regular arm of the army and navy, different sizes being made for each service. The Crimean and Indian wars, which followed soon after, brought the inventor large orders from the British Government, and during the next few years his weapon was formally introduced into the armies of the leading States of Europe.
His success was so rapid that, as early as 1851, it became necessary to provide still more ample accommodations for his manufactory. The next year he began the execution of a plan, the magnitude of which caused many of his friends to tremble for his future prosperity. He resolved to build the largest and most perfect armory in the world, one which should enable him to manufacture his weapons with greater rapidity and nicety than had ever yet been possible.
Just to the south of the Little or Mill River there was a piece of meadow land, about two hundred and fifty acres in extent, generally regarded as useless, in consequence of its being submerged every spring by the freshets in the river. Colonel Colt bought this meadow for a nominal sum, and, to the astonishment of the good people of Hartford, proceeded to surround it with a strong dike, or embankment. This embankment was two miles in length, one hundred and fifty feet wide at the base, from thirty to sixty feet wide at the top, and from ten to twenty-five feet high. Its strength was further increased by planting willows along the sides; and it was thoroughly tested just after its completion by a freshet of unusual severity. Having drained the meadow, Colonel Colt began the erection of his armory upon the land inclosed by the embankment. It was constructed of Portland stone, and consisted of three buildings—two long edifices, with a third connecting them in the center, the whole being in the form of the letter H. The front parallel was five hundred by sixty feet, the rear parallel five hundred by forty feet, and the central building two hundred and fifty by fifty feet—the front parallel and central building being three stories in height. Connected with these buildings were other smaller edifices for offices, warerooms, watchmen's houses, etc.
In 1861, the demand for the arms had become so enormous that the armory was doubled in size, the new buildings being similar in style to the old. "In this establishment there is ample accommodation for the manufacture of one thousand fire-arms per day," which is more than the arsenals at Harper's Ferry and Springfield combined could turn out in the same time previous to the war. In 1861, Colt's armory turned out about one hundred and twenty thousand stand of arms, and in 1860, the two armories before mentioned made about thirty-five thousand between them. A portion of the armory at Hartford is devoted to the fabrication of the machinery invented by Colonel Colt for the manufacture of his pistols. This machinery is usually sold to all parties purchasing the right to manufacture the revolver. Colonel Colt supplied in this way a large part of the machinery used in the Government manufactory at Enfield, in England, and all of that used in the Imperial armory at Tulin, in Russia. Near the armory, and in the area inclosed by the dike, Colonel Colt erected a number of tasteful cottages for his workmen, and warehouses for other kinds of business. His entire expenditure upon his land and buildings here amounted to more than two million five hundred thousand dollars.
"Among his other cares, the intellectual and social welfare of his numerous employés were not forgotten. Few mechanics are favored with as convenient residences as those he has erected for them; and a public hall, a library, courses of lectures, concerts, the organization of a fine band of music, formed entirely from his own workmen, to whom he presented a superb set of musical instruments, and of a military company of his operatives, provided by him with a tasteful uniform, and otherwise treated by him with great liberality, were among the methods by which he demonstrated his sympathy with the sons of toil."
The Hartford armory is the largest and most complete in the world, in extent and perfection of machinery. All the articles needed with the revolver, such as the powder flask, balls, lubricator, bullet molds, cartridges, etc., are made here on a large scale. The establishment is a noble monument to the inventive genius and business capacity of its founder.
In addition to his inventions of fire-arms, Colonel Colt invented a submarine battery, which was thoroughly tested by the officers of the United States Navy, and is said to be one of the most formidable engines for harbor defense ever known. He also invented a submarine telegraph cable, which he laid and operated with perfect success, in 1843, from Coney Island and Fire Island to the city of New York, and from the Merchants Exchange to the mouth of the harbor. His insulating material consisted of a combination of cotton yarn with asphaltum and beeswax; the whole was inclosed in a lead pipe. This was one of the most successful experiments of the early days of submarine telegraphy, and entitles Colonel Colt to a conspicuous place in the list of those who brought that science to perfection.
After the permanent establishment of his business, in 1847 and 1848, Colonel Colt's success was rapid. He acquired a large fortune, and built an elegant and tasteful mansion in Hartford, where he resided, surrounded with all the luxuries of wealth and taste. In 1855, he married Miss Elizabeth Jarvis, daughter of the Rev. Dr. Jarvis, of Portland, Connecticut, a lady of great beauty and superior character and accomplishments. She still survives him.
He repeatedly visited Europe after his settlement at Hartford, and as the excellence of his weapons had made his name famous the world over, he was the recipient of many attentions from the most distinguished soldiers of Europe, and even from some of the monarchs of the Old World. In 1856, being on a visit to Russia, with his family, he was invited with them to be present at the coronation of the Emperor Alexander II. He was decorated by nearly all the Governments of Europe, and by some of the Asiatic sovereigns, with orders of merit, diplomas, medals, and rings, in acknowledgment of the great services he had rendered to the world by his invention.
He died, at his residence in Hartford, on the 10th of January, 1862, in the forty-eighth year of his age. The community of which he was a member lost in him one of its most enterprising and public-spirited citizens, and the country one of the best representatives of the American character it has ever produced.