My favorite dings

At coffee this week, I heard of a southern Wisconsin machine shop that is struggling to keep afloat. Apparently all parties – creditors, suppliers, union – are working shoulder to shoulder to keep it going. I’m glad. We need every machine shop we’ve got.

This reminded me that machine shops were once the front line of U.S. manufacturing. In the hope of a revival of that sector, which makes up 13% of employment countrywide and 19% in Wisconsin, I thought I would post a reminder of what devices machine shops produced, and used. This harkens back to a time when American ingenuity had a mechanical flair. Putting it another way, to a time before we pushed a “like” button on a plasma screen. It also occurs to me that, as the rest of the world appears to be in a deep muddle, a reminder of America’s past material self-reliance would be welcome.

1. Underwood. When we were cleaning out the attic of my parents’ home, my youngest son, age 4, wondered at the device he called a “really old computer.” It was an Underwood manual typewriter, circa 1926. To put it in contemporary terms, as a word processor it was a marvel of engineering. First, to control the imaging space, the roller could advance at a rate of one-half space, one full space, and one double-space. This was accomplished by moving a tiny stainless steel lever, which engaged different sets of tiny cogs in the roller.

Tabs and margins were controlled mechanically also, and at the end of a row, a tiny bell would ding to remind the typist to advance the page. Leroy Anderson wrote a comic song that used a typewriter and its bell; Jerry Lewis made it famous in the movie Who’s Minding the Store?

There were choices of red or black type, achieved by raising or lowering a dual-inked ribbon. The roller itself also acted as a platen, a printing term meaning “the surface on which you make an impression.” The roller was make from hard rubber – just hard enough to accept a full impression of the letters, which flew up from the base of the machine to strike the page and create great works.

2. Jones & Lamson. J&L was formed in 1829. In 1919, its owners invented the optical comparator, a machine that used telescope optics to inspect and measure metal machine parts.

The classic J&L machine would stand about 6 feet tall and present a platform or clip to affix the part; a strong light source; and a series of mirrors that delivered a magnified image onto a frosted glass screen. The operator would then use a translucent sliding ruler to measure various dimensions across the part.

It was first used as a quality control mechanism for screws and dies, because the operator could measure the depth of the machining and the uniformity of the threads. A number of models were developed to measure larger parts, including complex ones with interior chambers and cuttings.

When I ran a machine shop, we would ask trainees to measure the distance between the grooves in a quarter.

The beauty of the comparator is that it actually measures and brings into focus parts that, in the old days, were made by craftsmen whose sure hands ensured the quality. It also is nice to see a screen that isn’t portable, no?

3. Stromberg-Carlson. My first office job entailed covering the switchboard when the real operator went to lunch. The actual switchboard unit was build circa 1930 by Stromberg-Carson. It was an oak cabinet that had a series of brass plugs jutting out from a small bakelite-covered table.

Here’s how it worked: An incoming call was announced by a buzzer and a light over the “trunk” line. The operator would pull a brass plug, attached by rayon-covered wire to the set, and plug it into “trunk,” thereby making a connection. The operator would then pull the wires and plug them into the receiver’s set.

I loved working that switchboard. I also unconsciously picked up the vocabulary of the operator I replaced. To this day, when I pick up someone else’s phone when they are busy, I report that, sorry, “they are on the other wire.” Because in the day of the Stromberg-Carlson, that was the literal truth.

Sign up for the free IB Update – your weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. Click here.