Category Archives: American Industry

Let there be light!

During the recent open house at Crane’s new Technical Materials headquarters, Vice President Dennis Lockyer noted that Crane began experimenting with what we know today as nonwoven materials in the 1950s. But paper was the first real technical material. And the go-to mill for 19th-century innovators was Crane’s.

As a matter of fact, Crane can mark Nov. 29, 1879, as the first successful use of Crane’s papers as non-writing technical materials.

It was that day when Charles Batchelor, chief researcher for Thomas Edison, used Crane’s Parchment to create a long-lasting incandescent light. Edison would demonstrate his success to the media the very next week.

Paper, especially those made by Crane, were used in a wide variety of innovations – from observatory domes to railroad car wheels to boats to printed circuit boards. With a material so pure and so consistent, Edison and others were able to deduce and take advantage of their physical, chemical and mechanical properties for use in explorations using the “Scientific Method,” that is to say – eliminating variables.

One of the most important properties paper brought to the world of innovation is the fact that it is resistant to the conduction of electricity. As such paper could be used for resistance and insulation. Edison took advantage of both those properties.

Resistance came into play in development of the incandescent light. Carbonized Crane Parchment resisted the passage of electricity, thus creating light. It was so pure that there were no defects that would weaken the filament.

Insulation was instrumental in Edison’s creation of the first municipal electric power plant – the Pearl Street Station in New York City, built in 1881. Crane’s Bond was used to separate and

Edison Crane paper YES

insulate copper plates in Pearl Street’s “Jumbo” dynamo.

Soon after Edison made good use the properties of Crane Paper, another young innovator began ordering paper “to be made suitable for the purposes of the Electric Light.” William Stanley was about to move to Great Barrington to continue his experiments with alternating current. He would shortly demonstrate his success by illuminating downtown Great Barrington.

Stanley’s U.S. Electric Light Company would eventually become a little outfit called General Electric.

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A Blast From The Past

A letter from Samuel G. Colt to Orville Wright in 1915 introduces the inventor to the Richmond Iron Works:

“I have honestly believed for a long time that Richmond is the best iron made here for piston and cylinder castings, where strength, close grain, and exceptional wearing qualities are so necessary as in the aeroplane motor. “

The production of pig iron In Richmond began in 1830 when Gates, Pettee & Company built the charcoal-fired, stone stack blast furnace to smelt iron ore found in open-pit and shaft mines in the nearby hillsides.

The Richmond Furnace was one of several dozen within the Salisbury Iron District, which covers northwestern Connecticut, western Massachusetts and central eastern New York, at its peak supported 55 blast furnaces, of which the remains of 11 survive. Richmond’s is the only one in Massachusetts still standing. Richmond Iron Works ended operations in 1923, by which time its production methods were severely antiquated.

Iron produced at Richmond from brown hematite ore was particularly hard, and was sold as a raw material to other ironworks and foundries.

As Colt notes in his letter:  “The iron became famous during the Civil War, when it all went into the Rodman guns, which were cast from straight Richmond, as were the guns on Erricson’s “Monitor” and since then, it has been used by the Pennsylvania Rail Road for car wheels.” 

Not a bad resume…..

A 20-inch Rodman gun


The deck of the Monitor. Note the dents in the Richmond Furnace iron.






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It Wasn’t Quite Wright….

Two years after setting the world on fire with their first sustained airplane flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., Wilbur and Orville Wright had transferred their operations to Dayton, OH. It was there that they developed the Wright Flyer III (their third powered plane, hence the name). On June 23, 1905, Orville flew the Flyer above Huffman Prairie for the first time, but a couple of months later, a serious nosedive led to major modifications to the aircraft.

The Wright Flyer III in 1905

Those structural and mechanical changes produced such amazing results that by mid-October, Wilbur and Orville were writing to the United States Secretary of War William Howard Taft offering to sell the world’s first practical fixed-wing aircraft.

To protect their intellectual property, the brothers disassembled the plane in November. By 1908, with contracts in hand to make more Wright Flyers for America and France, they returned to Kill Devil Hills, the site of their first successful flight, to make further tests.

But while flying solo, Wilbur moved one of the new control levers the wrong way and crashed into the sand. He was bruised but the plane’s front elevator was ruined, and the practice flights ended. Due to deadlines for their upcoming public demonstration flights in France and Virginia, the Wrights did not repair the airplane and it never flew again.

Enter Zenas Crane Jr. and the Berkshire Museum which he founded and endowed in 1903. Being of a scientific persuasion, Crane had taken great interest in the Wright brothers’ adventures and in November of 1911, wrote to Orville to see if the museum could display the Wright Flyer III. We don’t have copies of that correspondence, but there were several letters back and forth through 1913 that resulted in Crane purchasing a variety of salvaged airplane and glider parts from a shed in Kittyhawk.

The Berkshire Museum, circa 1911

Crane in 1914 was not in robust health, so he enlisted his son-in-law Samuel G. Colt, president of the Richmond (Mass.) Iron Works.

He first wrote to Orville to restate the case for more Flyer III parts so that the plane could be reassembled and put on display in Pittsfield. Orville kept putting him off – letter after letter – saying it would require his personal attention to find the correct parts, and his schedule would not allow. His schedule was still full when Colt wrote in March to alert Orville that he had found some mechanical parts of a Wright plane in Marblehead. “Not having heard from you, we will be forced, with much regret, to do the next best thing by getting the parts…and assembling the machine….”

Somewhere between March and May, Wright was evidently able to convince Crane and Colt not to attempt a reconstruction of the Wright Flyer III. But somewhere along the line, Colt and Crane decided to reconstruct the Wright brothers’ 1911 glider – parts from which had been scrounged earlier from Kitty Hawk. The work was accomplished in the Museum’s basement by a young man named F.H. Prentiss, and the day after visiting Wright in Dayton, Crane sent some photos and diagrams of Prentiss’ work.

The Berkshire Museum’s recreation of Wright’s 1911 Glider.

Wright responded a couple of days later: “We never had any machine of the dimensions given in your sketch. I am at a loss to understand what parts of the original machine secured at Kitty Hawk could have been used in this reproduction, because none of the parts of any machine we ever had at Kitty Hawk could exactly fit into this machine if the dimensions given are correct. We never had any glider of the design shown in the photograph. I should dislike very much to have this machine exhibited in the Museum.”

Evidently, our Mr. Prentiss had never seen an airplane and was going by the description in a book and Wright’s patent drawings.

In Wright’s letter, he did allow that perhaps he should be more helpful: “I will be very glad to cooperate with you in getting together as much as is possible of the original machine of 1905, and exact reproductions of the missing parts, if you wish to undertake it.”

Wright did find some parts and he did visit Dalton and the Berkshire Museum in the summer of 1915, but interest seems to have waned. A couple of letters went back and forth through 1917, including one from Zenas Crane Jr.’s son, Zenas Marshall Crane. But with the death of Zenas Crane Jr. in December of 1917, momentum for the project was lost.

The parts of the Wright Flyer III and the 1911 glider remained in the basement of the Berkshire Museum until 1947, when they were given to Carillon History Park in Dayton, Ohio.

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Crane Powder and Crane Paper Help Arm The American Revolution

“My friend, the child Independence is about to be born; be liberal and give him an easy delivery.”

Thomas Crane, Massachusetts colonial powder master, who would go door-to-door soliciting money, clothes and supplies for the families of local soldiers.

As Massachusetts powder master, Thomas Crane of Stoughton (Canton) was in the middle of things. We noted earlier that he had to scramble and conspire to put musket and cannon ammunition in the hands of the militia defending Breed’s Hill. It was after that famous battle that the commanding General George Washington began building a wartime infrastructure, with the full assistance of the Massachusetts colonial government.

One of their early decisions, while in session in Watertown, would create a nexus of powder and paper that would allow the war for independence to proceed with well-armed forces – a decision that would cement the importance of the Liberty Paper Mill to the American revolution.

In late 1775, the Continental Congress, as well as the Massachusetts House of Representatives, began discussions about building powder mills in Andover and Stoughton.

In January, 1776, perhaps spurred by the assurance from Col. Henry Knox that he would arrive shortly in Cambridge with the cannons from Fort Ticonderoga, the Massachusetts House of Representatives resolved:

Whereas, this Court on the 5th day of January current, passed a Resolve empowering Mr. Putnam, Mr. Crane, and Mr. Vose, to purchase the remains of a Powder-Mill at Stoughton, and land and privileges convenient to improve the same….. and they hereby are fully authorized and empowered to purchase or hire, as they shall judge meet, the Land and advantageous Stream at Stoughton, where they have, or shall agree to erect a Powder-Mill for such a term of years, and for such yearly rent as they shall, think proper, and that they, in behalf of this Colony, take a deed or lease of the same, as they shall agree to purchase or hire.

We are not sure who Mr. Putnam is, but we do know that Mr. Crane is Thomas Crane, and Mr. Vose is Daniel Vose, a partner with Stephen Crane in the Liberty Paper Mill.


Our old friend Paul Revere appears in this story as well. The Massachusetts House and the Continental Congress in Philadelphia directed Revere to travel to Pennsylvania to learn the mysteries of gunpowder manufacturing from Oswald Eve, who owned and operated the only significant powder mill in the colonies at the time.

Philada. Novr. 21st 1775 I am requested by some Honorable Members of the Congress to recommend the bearer hereof Mr. Paul Revere to you. He is just arrived from New England where it is discovered they can manufacture a good deal of Salt Petre in Consequence of which they desire to Erect a Powder Mill & Mr. Revere has been pitched upon to gain instruction & Knowledge in this branch. A Powder Mill in New England cannot in the least degree affect your Manufacture nor be of any disadvantage to you. Therefore these Gentn & myself hope You will Chearfully & from Public Spirited Motives give Mr. Revere such information as will inable him to Conduct the bussiness on his return home. I shall be glad of any opportunity to approve myself.

Sir Your very Obed Servt. Robt Morris
Evidently, Mr. Eve was indeed protective of his monopoly. He complied with the request for a tour, but gave Revere no information about how powder is made. But Revere, already an accomplished mechanic, chemist and metallurgist was able to demystify the process sufficiently to assist Crane and Vose in setting up and begin operating the mill.

Construction began in February of 1776, and was in full operation by May. Coincidentally, it was in February of 1776 that Ezekiel Cheever, Commissary of Military Stores in the Continental Army, and Richard Devens, Massachusetts Commissary General, began purchasing large amounts of cartridge paper from the Liberty Paper Mill.

Accounts of the time tell us that there was never enough specially-made cartridge paper so Cheever, Devens and others purchased thousands of pounds of less-expensive “whited brown” writing paper, likely for cannon cartridges.

The powder mill was built on the Neponset River, a ways upstream of the Liberty Paper Mill. It successfully supplied the Continental Army until October 30, 1779, when it was “blown to atoms,” as powder mills were known to do.

In 1801, as Zenas Crane was setting up his paper mill in Dalton, Revere, now 65, returned to the powder mill location and created what would become the famous Revere Copper Works.

His superintendent? Thomas Crane.

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The Beauty of British Patents

I had the occasion recently to leaf through a couple of Crane patent portfolios from the mid-1890s. Most are quite boring in both their content and appearance. Not so when you come to British patent documents. Here are some adornments I came across today:

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The Checkered Game of Life

In his letter to Crane & Co. of Nov. 11, 1881, Mr. Bradley seemed a bit put out that a company such as Crane would be ordering gummed labels of various sizes and colors for its samples.

“We should prefer to engrave you a neat business label, and make you a plain artistic  design, something that you could use on all your various sizes and papers…and all your labels would look uniform by having the same border design and the same tint of paper.”


Actually, this letter was likely not written by Milton Bradley himself; more about that in a bit.

Bradley was born in Vienna, Maine, in 1836 and moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, at the age of 19. Trained as a draftsman, Bradley got a job with the Wason Car Manufacturing Co., drawing the plans for the company’s line of locomotives and railroad cars. It was after Bradley was given a color lithograph of a particularly lavish car which he had helped to design for the ruler of Egypt, that he decided to go into the lithography business himself. In 1860, at the age of 24, he formed the Milton Bradley Company to produce lithographs for Springfield businesses. With the only color lithograph machine in Massachusetts outside Boston, Bradley was soon busy with orders, but making a profit was difficult.

The website Funding Universe tells us that one evening while visiting his best friend, George Tapley, Bradley played an old English board game and conceived the idea of inventing a distinctly American game.  Calling his game “The Checkered Game of Life,” he borrowed the format of the familiar checkerboard and incorporated into it a narrative of life as seen through the eyes of the New England puritan tradition. The object of the game was to achieve “Happy Old Age” instead of “Ruin.” Bradley spent weeks producing several hundred copies of the game and then set off for New York City to try selling this first production run to distributors. To Bradley’s surprise, dealers were unreservedly enthusiastic about the new game, which could be sold as a lesson in morals as well as an entertaining pastime, and within a few days Bradley had sold his entire stock.

Milton Bradley Checkered Game of Life

By the winter of 1860, Bradley had sold 40,000 copies of the game, and it was becoming a nationwide fad. Bradley became convinced that future success would come through producing games.

Bradley and his company would have an interesting and varied history from this point forward. Bradley attended a lecture in 1869 about the German movement toward kindergarten and became enthralled with the concept of pre-school education. Bradley’s company’s involvement with kindergartens began with the production of gifts,” geometric wooden playthings that he felt were necessary to properly structure children’s creative development. As he became more and more committed to the movement, Bradley began manufacturing other educational materials considered essential by Froebel including colored papers and paints. Bradley spent months devising the exact shades in which to produce these materials; his final choice of six pigments of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet would remain the standard colors for children’s art supplies through the 20th century.

The Milton Bradley company was acquired by toy giant Hasbro in 1984. Hasbro remains proud of its roots in association with Milton Bradley, and beginning Nov. 25, 2011, will open a new permanent exhibit at the Lyman and Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History. Made possible by a grant from the Hasbro Children’s Fund, the new Hasbro GameLand pays tribute to Milton Bradley with games of memory, chance, speed, imagination, strategy and word play.

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A “Telegraphic” History Mystery

telegraph 1

telegraph date


In this day book from Crane’s Old Stone Mill, you will see that Crane was making “Tellegraph” paper beginning in July of 1832.

History tells us that Samuel Morse invented the electromagnetic telegraph in 1847, so why telegraph paper 15 years earlier?

History also tells us that Harrison G. Dyer in 1826 first started work in Concord, Mass., on sending messages over a single wire via electrical impulses that would leave a distinctive mark on chemically treated paper. The first telegraphic message was sent over 18 miles of wire at a racetrack on Long Island. A bitter fight over royalties caused him stop his work and leave for Paris at a date unknown.

So, was Crane making telegraph paper for Harrison Dyar? Or was there something else going on? I’ll be heading to Concord soon and will report my findings.

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A Bridge Never Crossed

As I was reorganizing some of the archival papers after writing an earlier post, something caught my eye.

It was a small drawing of a suspension bridge:

roebling bridge

The 1873 letter accompanying the drawing reads: “Enclosed please find rough sketch, which will give you an idea how to construct a cheap susp. bridge. The price of 2″ diameter steel rope is 15 cents per foot. If you conclude to build, and should want more information, we will gladly give it.”

220px-RoeblingI have no idea why Crane & Co. would have been considering building a suspension bridge, but if they had they would have gotten their information from the best in the business: John A. Roebling’s Sons. If you don’t know the Roebling story, have a look here.

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