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Rise of Industrial America
Work in the Late 19th Century
Connecticut Clock Maker

Francis Donovan, a skilled clock maker, had worked for the Seth Thomas clock making company. He was interviewed during the Great Depression; excerpts of that interview, from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 , appear below. What changes in clock making does Mr. Donovan talk about? What is Mr. Donovan's attitude toward the introduction of "modern methods" into clock manufacturing?

View the entire interview with Mr. Donovan. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.

From the simple dignity of Colonial style to the stream-lined designs of modern age; from the painstaking, leisurely methods of craftsmen whose processes depended almost exclusively upon the coordination of hand and eye to the robot labor of the machine -- this in brief is the story of the clock industry over the past century and a quarter as it is reflected at the Seth Thomas plant, one of the first and one of the most famous [of the?] clock factories of New England.

Relatively gradual until recent years, the transition [has?] [been?] accelerated by [with the advent of?] the depression, and the merging of the old company into a large corporation.

New methods, new machines, and a system of work production entirely alien to clock making tradition have revolutionized the industry at Seth Thomas, [-- for the past?] several years has been a subsidiary of the General Times Instruments Corporation.

The clock maker of the past, trained after aptitude tests to a particular operation, made skillful by years of diligent application [to his job?] is being replaced wherever possible by younger workmen [adaptable to change, with?] the physical stamina requisite for the operation of [the tireless?] machines. [they serve.?]

A [far?] greater percentage of work than would have been thought possible short years ago is now done by women and girls. The emphasis is no longer upon craftsmanship, but upon speed, proponents of the new system contending that the remarkable precision of the machines produces parts much nearer perfection than could be turned out by hand by the most meticulous workman. . . .

Several of the company's pensioners recall [nostalgically,?] the days when every operation in the manufacture of clocks called for [the?] skilled hands, the careful judgment of craftsmen trained by their fathers in one particular phase of the work. That the industry, or that portion of it exemplified by the Thomaston concern, is still in a state of flux can be seen by the fact that a number of operations known to clock makers since the beginning of the industry on a large scale have been made obsolete within the past [last] two years.

"Wheel truing", for example, has been virtually abolished. Wheels were once "staked" by hand, whereas today they are turned out by a staking machine, operated, incidentally, by a woman.

Says the company's pamphlet: "Modern clock movements consist of a maze of wheels and pinions made on special highspeed precision machines. The intricate mechanism requires expert care and careful lubrication. Many pins and pinions are so small that they cannot be examined and measured with ordinary tools. A tool maker's microscope checks the parts to a tolerance of one ten-thousandths of an inch. Gears are machined from solid blanks on special gear-holding machines. The foundation of a clock movement is two plates in which are held all the pinions, wheels, escapements, etc. These plates are drilled in pairs on multiple spindle drill presses, then, with the drills acting as guides, countersinking spindles form sockets in the plates."

To the assembly line come thousands of parts all made to fit identical clock movements. Parts are added as the movement progresses along the line, and at the end the finished movement is checked and adjusted for tolerances. After assembly the clock movement is mounted in long lines and run for a period of time during which it is further checked and inspected.

These processes are in direct contrast to the time-honored methods of clock making which they have supplanted. It is a common assertion [made by?] of the clockmakers of the old school, for example, that many of them could "put a clock together from start to finish;" that if a particular tool was needed for their work, it was not unusual for a man to take time off, go to the tool room and make it himself, rather than risk misunderstanding. This leisurely procedure was possible without loss of money for the operator because in many cases he was paid on a straight hourly basis, or because his piecework price was high enough to enable him to take time off from his operation and make it up later [?] in the day.

Under the Bedaux system, which has been in effect at the company for more than three years, [all that has been changed.?] This system, [which?] has changed the nature of the industry at Seth Thomas with bewildering rapidity, [is declared?] by its sponsors to be the most efficient method yet devised for the use of concerns paying their employees by "piecework."?] Briefly, the system [operates as follows:?] The worker is [carefully?] timed on every operation by men who have been trained [for the purpose?] by the company, allowance is made for adverse working conditions, and a "price" or piece-work scale is determined under which the job is [henceforth?] done. There is a base rate on each operation [a?] -- [a minimal hourly?] rate below which pay is not supposed to fall -- but workers complain that [they have been permitted to put in?] [have been permitted?] lower rates. Formerly, the price was established by the room foreman after a period of experiment, [a man usually well acquainted with all phases of the work,?] and workers contend that such a person is better qualified for the purpose than an office-trained clerk who has no actual bench or machine experience.
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View the entire interview with Mr. Donovan from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.