Not Just Boring Machines
New Britain (Google Maps Location)
October 6, 2006
The New Britain Industrial Museum was, to me, the perfect place for me to begin my quest to visit every museum in Connectiut. There are many reasons for this, but the one I most mention is the sign above. For the last several months of picking up my son at my in-law’s house, I would sit and wait at a traffic light staring at that sign. My wife, Hoang assured me several times that all New Britain elementary school students visit to the Youth Museum and that it’s pretty good. And the town’s art museum is regionally renowned. But… what was this “Industrial Museum?” No one had ever heard of it – not even native New Britskies.
Day after day I stared at that sign becoming more and more bemused by the idea of a quirky museum in a decidedly gruff post-industrial town. “How big is it?” I wondered. And, “who maintains it?” More importantly, “who visits it?” A few months went by and then the whole “Museum Quest” idea hit me.
There must be a bunch of these “weird” unknown little museums around the state. I figured that no one had visited them all before – let alone write about them all. Day after day, I foremulated the idea for this site, staring at that sign. There were three museums printed on it right there! How many more could there be?
I bounced the idea off of Hoang and a few friends. Sure, they’d join me here and there, but this was to be my baby. I set to work on the massive list of museums. I never expected to find over 650 museums in our small state – the third smallest state in the whole country by the way. Wow… Imagine how annoying I will be at future cocktail parties? Or rather, imagine how much more annoying I will be once I know everything there is to know about our state? “Hello, I’m Steve and this is my lovely wife, Hoang. Nice to meet you. Where are we from? I’m from Delaware originally but Hoang grew up in New Britain. Yes, New Britain – you know… The city whose companies were granted more patents between 1812 and 1820 than any other city in the US. And that includes Menlo Park, NJ at it’s height if you can believe that!”
I hate me already.
I talked with my friend EdHill and we agreed that the NBIM would be my first true museum visit as it fit some very important criteria: It was open, it was centrally located between our workplaces, it was presumably odd, and, well, as I said above: it was the one which piqued my interest in visiting Connecticut’s museums in the first place.
Little did I know that the NBIM would become somewhat legendary in the future lore of CTMQ. The very first! And that unassuming highway sign; to be talked about and featured in every talk I would ever give in the future!
Of course, this story is made all the better because of the fact that the NBIM is pretty great.
EdHill and I met up in front of the building on downtown New Britain’s Main Street at 4:30, giving ourselves a mere 30 minutes to peruse what we thought would be dusty collection of precision machine parts and old tools. Looking back, I suppose that would be enough time for an average nerd like myself to walk around the large one-room (partitioned) space by myself. But upon arrival, we were warmly greeted by an elderly gentleman who appeared to have been sitting there waiting for us. He begged us to sign the visitor’s log and immediately handed out gifts – small, red, highly reflective stickers from some local company called Reflexite. I dropped a few bucks in their donation jar and the next thing I knew, we were getting a personal tour from the man.
I immediately knew that this is what this website would be all about. This was exactly how I’d hoped these small little-visited museum visits would play out. To Warren Kingsbury (the gentleman), the NBIM was a labor of love. For him, the rich history of New Britain’s industrial past was something to be proud of and something to share. I immediately knew that he pined away at night yearning for the bustling city of 1918 rather than the drug-ridden shell of a city it has become in the early 2000’s. It was impossible not to get excited about this stuff – even though the large majority of the collection is, well, rather mundane.
(I should note that I still love New Britain. My inlaws live there, my wife was raised and educrated there. The art museums is one of the best regionally and who can’t love Broad Street and the whole “New Britski” thing?)
Warren excitedly led us to the museum’s newest acquisition – a really old pistol made by Simeon North (1765-1852). Ok, I don’t care much about old pistols and I’d never heard of Simeon North, but it was hard not to get excited when Warren was practically fondling the thing. Ed listened while I wandered a bit. The museum consists of several display cases and lots of wall space chock-full of old… um… industrial “stuff.” The evolution of the belt sander. The evolution of the vacuum cleaner. The evolution of the meat grinder. The evolution of the coffee pot – one particular model had the following warning imprinted on the base:
“Do not put in water.” After receiving hundreds of telegrams and Pony Express deliveries (or whatever), the company changed the wording to, “Do not immerse in water.” That, my friends is good stuff. Despite the fact that Warren has probably told that story 500 times, it still gave him a good belly laugh.
I was enamored with our tour guide.
After getting a good idea of what was ahead of us, and after finding a little out-of-the-way display of a model of a machine with Star Trek The Next Generation’s Chief Engineer Miles O’Brien manning the controls –
Warren pulled me back in with a detailed description of the North and Judd company’s fascinating “Horse and Mule jewelry” collection and their “Hook flex fastener” invention (the thing on all of our pants if they’re not button or snap). I was also school about Simeon North. He is “The father of New Britain industry.” And I’ll never forget it.
Before moving on to the Landers, Frary, and Clack section (coffee pots and heating elements), Warren blurted out that one of the metal farm animal implements on view was called a calf weaner. Aha! The first double-entendre of CTMQ! I wanted to know more about the weaner, but the sign was slightly obscured; the mystery of which only left me thirsty for more weaners.
We wandered the back section a bit and I noted that Warren conspicuously completely skipped the silliest display of all. But I won’t – the Tuttle and Bailey company enjoys a lovely display of air vents and heat registers. I was mesmerized by the complete lameness of the display. But I guess the company has a winning formula as they’re still in business selling the same products as of 2006. I suppose they found their niche.
From there we learned about Raymond Engineering’s history and their early “black boxes” and missile guidance systems. Good stuff. Up next was the Corbin Company display. Corbin was a major player in early New Britain and made everything from locking mechanisms to door mechanisms to mail slots to cars. If it was metal, they made it. In fact, next time you are in an oldish administrative building or church, note the copper colored thing that eases the door closed. Chances are it’s a Corbin!
A subsidiary of Corbin (Berlin Steel) made all the bolts and metal joiners for both of Connecticut’s first casinos. But it was Warren’s admission after I sarcastically quipped to Ed upon seeing the small antique lock and key display that struck me more. I said, “Boy Ed, just wait til we get to the Lock Museum in Terryville!” Warren looked me in the eye, inhaled deeply, and intoned, “I am jealous as hell of the Lock Museum!”
Aren’t we all, Warren, aren’t we all. Turns out, those elitist snobs over there at the Lock Museum got 3 million bucks from the lock industry so they outbid the NBIM every time any of a New Britain company’s historical locks are on eBay or at some obscure auction somewhere. Not only that, they got to build their own building to house their collection while the NBIM still must rent a 2nd floor room from CCSU’s downtown building. (In 2015, the museum moved to a more spacious first floor room in the same building.) I promised to treat those uppity lock jerks accordingly when we get out there. Anyone that upsets Warren upsets me.
*Update: I visited the Lock Museum three-and-a-half years later. But didn’t give anyone grief. Three million bucks? If that’s the case, someone embezzled a bit of it I’m afraid.
The Corbin car company operated for 10 years back when Henry Ford was perfecting the Model T and the assembly line. They only produced 600 and only a few exist today. But get this – the first driver’s license issued to a female was in New Britain to some girl who fell off a horse and needed to get around. And she got around in a Corbin. Like I said, we’re gonna be big hits on the party circuit next year!
After a quick jaunt through the history of food grinders (“This one was to smush up tomatoes exclusively!”), some sabers that General Patton had a patent on, and the first paper cup AND first wax-coated paper cup, we moved on to the Stanley exhibit. Stanley Tools IS New Britain. Or, rather, Stanley Tools WAS New Britain. EdHill’s Grandpa worked there. My father-in-law did a stint. Unfortunately they now do all of their manufacturing in China – save the tape measures that are still produced in New Britain. They are still headquartered here as well – but only after an attempt to move off-shore for tax-saving purposes.
The Stanley collection is the star of the show. Each antique tool is worth hundreds of dollars – in fact, one teeny tiny little folding ruler about the size of my pinky was said to be worth $600. At this point I realized it was past 5 o’clock and Warren was keeping the joint open just for us (Surprisingly, there were no other visitors during our time there). We apologized and he acted as though we were crazy for doing so. We still had to get to the tape measure, saw, and router displays! (EdHill got excited for a second at the mention of routers until he realized there were no computers involved.) After that, it was over to the back wall and a real boring machine.
“Boooooooooooring,” I said. Warren smiled and said, “You bet it is son, check this out!” He showed off how the gear ratio made it even more boring. Warren, for his part, was immune to the irony. Either that or I’m only the 873rd visitor to make that lame joke and his 6 minute discussion of the boring qualities of the boring machine was his secret way of getting jokers like me back. At this point it was almost 5:30 so we decided to skip the Fafnir company’s display of ball-bearings and engine parts. I’ll be sure to hit that corner first next time I go – and you can be assured there will be a next time. My pops would get much more out of the museum than I did – his father owned probably half of this stuff and what’s more, my dad knows how to use all those tools.
I only know how to watch my dad use all those tools.
Just before leaving, a really old guy (a Mr. Van Dorn) ambled out of the office to thank us for coming. He was curious where we were from, seeing as though we took more pictures of the place than probably anyone in its history. I spoke the truth and he was genuinely excited for us and eager to see what you are reading now. I promised that I’d send the link and hook him up with the book when it comes out.
The two volunteers were both lovely men and left us with such a good feeling about knowledge and history and learning (and cool free Stanley keychain screwdriver head tchotchkes to boot). It was great to meet them and get a personal tour of the museum.
If 10% of my visits go this well, I’d consider CTMQ a resounding success. Especially if, as a last gesture of goodwill before leaving, each museum sets up such an easy joke as this:
Where can you go to one museum that has displays on missile guidance systems, surgical drill bits and a bunch of toasters? Why The New Britain Industrial Museum of course! Stop being so stupid. Seriously, you’re an idiot for not knowing that.
I found myself having a bit more of nostalgia for this museum than Steve did, for my mother grew up in New Britain and my grandfather worked at Stanley Works. Growing up I was so used to seeing all sorts of Stanley tools, Stanley tape measures, Stanley everything, at my grandparents house and at their beach house (Back then you could work at Stanley works in New Britain and afford a summer home. Go figure). And here was all the same stuff behind glass in exhibits. Funny hearing Warren Kingsbury go on and on about the rarity of the tool box collection preserved in a glass case and me thinking “gee, didn’t I used to play with this thing at Grampa’s house?” Family legend in my house, Grandpa was on his way to work and getting off the bus; landed wrong and broke his ankle. Since the hospital was a longer walk than Stanley, he just went to work. My gramps was a badass.
The museum had a large birds eye view of the huge Stanley works building in its prime. It was quite impressive and interesting since I never knew what the place looked like and now I have a picture in my head to match the family history. But like everything else in Hartford, if it was historical and interesting, it probably got destroyed to make room for a highway. All that was left was the plaque from the main entrance sitting right below the picture, in a second floor museum in downtown New Britain. Sad.
This wasn’t, as you might think, one of those quirky odd museums like you laugh about. After all,if you know anything about New Britain is that it was THE industrial city for a good number of years. Consequently it had an interesting story to tell (As well as a number of smaller, boring ones. I mean, the history of the belt sander? Yikes). One of my favorite exhibits was the row of toasters. I liked it because it was like seeing the famous “evolution of man” drawing only in toaster form. Lets just say the early toasters (one pictured, above) were somewhat primitive. Red hot coils with a wire mesh in front of it. I would’ve just gone the extra mile and had the whole thing start with a small fire. I mean, that’s how prehistoric man made their toast so its only fitting.