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Collection Working in Paterson: Occupational Heritage in an Urban Setting

Historical Depth and Change

Watson Machine International is probably the oldest continuously operated manufacturing firm in Paterson. Founded in 1845, it fabricates and refurbishes a variety of machines used in the wire, cable, and fiber-optics industries; some of its earliest products were machines used in the textile industry.1 The company is a microcosm of American industrial development. From its founding by two British immigrants in 1845, it has continuously adjusted its production (and therefore its work force and work culture) to meet changing markets. In chronological order, its products have ranged from cast turbine wheels, to prefabricated iron bridges, to twining machines, to cable-twisting machinery, to wire-twisting machinery (for bridge, nautical, and construction work), to electronics, and, finally, to fiber optics.2

Fieldworker Robert McCarl with machinist Jim Dowling.

Throughout the evolution from twine to cable to wire and fiber optics, Watson Machine itself has evolved in three major ways: physically, spatially, and culturally. Accordingly, recent changes—the closure of the forge, the consolidation of the machine shops, and the adoption of international standards of measurement and organization—have generated changes in work techniques, shifts in the responsibilities of engineers and salesmen, and alterations in the work culture.

Making a cast in the foundry at Watson, 1970s.

Probably the most important stabilizing influence during these transitions has been the Watson family's close relationship to the company. Another major source of stability has been the continuity in two aspects of production, the high quality and the mechanical similarity of much of the machinery made in the plant. Thus while Watson machines (such as twiners, bunchers, wire take-offs and pay-offs) have changed to adapt to new materials, from twine to fiber-optic cable, their basic mechanisms have remained largely the same.3 And the high quality of the machines enhances the company's revenues both because the machines' characteristic longevity is an important selling point, and because the fact that the machines are long-lasting means that owners commonly send older models back to Watson Machine for repair and retrofitting.

Manuel Cintron repairing the yoke on a Watson buncher.

The history of Watson Machine contains many points of interest. Its roots are planted in the nineteenth-century period when Paterson rose to prominence as a manufacturing center, yet by virtue of its adaptation to changing market conditions over the years, it currently exemplifies the latest trends in custom production of high-tech products for an international marketplace. In addition, undoubtedly because the firm has been in the Watson family for several generations, Watson Machine has a deep interest in its own history. Such interest is often found in family-run enterprises, where a long history is used as a marketing device and as a means of intensifying family members' pride in their involvement with the business.4

Richie Takach, Bob Dale and John Weatherwacks with the planetary strander.

By Robert S. McCarl, III

1. Over the years, the firm has evolved to meet changing needs. By the 1850s, it was casting enormous turbine water wheels and structural iron bridges. In 1875, it received a contract to develop machinery for the new McCormick harvester. In 1907, at the start of the American automobile industry, Watson began producing the Watson Conover Automobile. (Return to Text)

2. "Twining machines" are devices that take several strands of twine and twist them together to form rope. (Return to Text)

3. A "buncher" is a machine that takes single strands of wire, draws them inside the machine, and then twists them together to form a cable or electrical wire. A "take-off" is a device used to reel in completed cable as it comes off a buncher or a strander. A "pay-off" is a device used to support spools of wire being supplied to a buncher. (Return to Text)

4. This sort of marketing implies that products and services sold by family businesses are invested with special qualities by virtue of firms' longevity, continuity of tradition, and sustained commitment to high standards. The marketing of kinship and other elements of family businesses are discussed in James F. Abrams, "It's Just Like Being at Home": The Structure and Style of Folklore in Philadelphia's Family Businesses, Philadelphia Folklore Project Working Paper No. 3 (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Folklore Project, 1989). (Return to Text)

Engineer (white shirt) and machinist work on machine used for fiber-optics applications.
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