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Current time:0:00Total duration:4:34

Video transcript

(lively jazzy piano music) - [Steven] We're in collections storage in the Wadsworth Atheneum, looking at a little object made of brass and steel. It's a gun, but it was never fired. - [Brandy] It's actually a prototype. It was designed by Elijah Root for Colt Manufacturing here in Hartford, Connecticut. - [Steven] Colt was an incredibly important industry in this area. By the time Colt died, he was one of the wealthiest people in the country and perhaps in the world, a result of the manufacturing process that this gun represents. - [Brandy] Samuel Colt, at the age of 16, his life dream as a child was to be a merchant, a sailor. And he gets on a boat, spends 10 months to the hot climes of India, and realizes that he'd much rather be an industrialist. And he has this vision. And the vision is for the revolver. So at that point in time, you have single-shot firing. - [Steven] And what Colt realizes is that one of the mechanisms on the ship that helped sailors tighten ropes, a kind of horizontal wheel that sailors pulled and clicked into place so that it wouldn't reverse, that mechanism might help him develop a multi-chamber gun. - [Brandy] And so he comes home, and from that point on, this is his life ambition. He even goes so far as to become a traveling salesman, called Dr. Colt, who would administer laughing gas for funds. And it's this money that he uses to develop his first prototypes. And he's actually hiring traditional gunmakers to create these prototypes at a high cost. - [Steven] They were still hand-crafted. But this is the Industrial Revolution. Britain had made tremendous advances in harnessing the power of steam. And manufacturing processes were becoming ever more efficient. - [Brandy] And thanks to Colt and his team of engineers, including Root, we outpace England in the Industrial Revolution, and it becomes the American system that they then adopt. - [Steven] In American mythology, we think of the assembly line as belonging to Henry Ford and his manufacture of the Model T. But in fact, it's Colt that does this first. - [Brandy] It's eight decades before Henry Ford, that Colt envisions this interchangeable part assembly line. Now you can take any guy off of the street. You can train him in a very specific task to perfection. And it's a whole system of workers that come together. - [Steven] So the putting together of those pieces was possible only if the pieces were made precisely enough. That is the forging and machining of these pieces had to be accurate enough so that any number of barrels could fit with the other parts, for example. - [Brandy] While Colt is this brilliant engineer, it's Root who develops the infrastructure of the factory and the tooling and the machinery needed to make this happen. And meanwhile, Samuel Colt is focusing on marketing. And he's using some pretty inventive strategies we would recognize today. - [Steven] For example, early on in Colt's career, when he wanted to sell some of his newly produced guns, he went to the front lines. So the military had passed on an order. And so he went directly to the men doing the fighting and offered his guns. And he's not just selling to a domestic market. He's selling to Britain. And through Britain, his guns are reaching as far as India. - [Brandy] He travels with some pretty prestigious people, including Samuel F.B. Morse, who had invented the telegraph. And they actually worked together as Colt explored underwater explosive technologies. - [Steven] And the result of the work that Root and Colt both did changed American history. His guns played a huge role in the Civil War. And in the post-war years, his revolvers were credited with winning the West. - [Brandy] If you think about some of the most significant happenings in the 19th century, the gun is there, from the Gold Rush to the Mexican-American War, even the Seminole War. - [Steven] It's important, I think, not to romanticize these guns. Colt, when he went directly to the military to sell his guns, sold them for the express purpose of helping to eradicate Native Americans, for example, during the Second Seminole War. - [Brandy] Colt is a very complicated American figure at a complicated time in our history. (upbeat jazzy piano music)