By Jessica Jenkins
A well-known American inventor in his day, Christopher Miner Spencer obtained 42 patents during his lifetime and created the first successful breech-loading repeating rifle. Born on June 20, 1833, in Manchester, Connecticut, Spencer attended school until the age of 14 while also working on his parents’ farm. He then apprenticed in the machine shop of the Cheney Brothers’ silk manufacturing company.
By 1849, Spencer had completed his apprenticeship and began working as a full-time journeyman machinist in the Cheney mills. Beginning in 1853, Spencer spent several years working in a variety of machinery shops in Connecticut and New York. This allowed him to gain familiarity with the machinery for producing varied goods, including textiles, tools, locomotives, and firearms.
Spencer Repeating Rifle Garners Civil War Contracts
In the mid-1850s, Spencer acquired his first patent for an automatic silk-winding machine, used by the Willimantic Linen Company of Windham. In 1860 he patented his most famous invention, the breech-loading repeating rifle, which allowed ammunition to be loaded into a chamber at the rear of the gun barrel rather than at the muzzle. By 1862 he had established the Spencer Repeating Rifle Company in Boston, Massachusetts, in order to produce the firearm for the Union army during the American Civil War.
As the firearm’s inventor, Spencer witnessed his weapon become the standard arm for the Union cavalry in the latter stages of the Civil War. Although Spencer faced many bureaucratic obstacles when trying to interest the United States Army in his firearm, he eventually gained access to President Abraham Lincoln for a demonstration. After personally testing the rifle, Lincoln arranged for the army and navy to formally evaluate the firearm before its official acceptance for service.
Post-War Innovations Boost Industrial Efficiency
After the Civil War, Spencer remained active in manufacture and the development of new ideas. In 1869 he partnered with Charles E. Billings to refine the accuracy of—and expand the applications for—drop forging, a process of producing complex shapes from metal by, quite literally, dropping a heavy hammer or press with a die pattern onto the metal. The Hartford company of Billings and Spencer successfully manufactured sewing machine shuttles, pistol frames, and hand tools.
In 1873 Spencer obtained a patent for his automatic screw turning machine. The automatic turret lathe used on the machine allowed for the quick and easy production of screws. Soon after, the incorporation of the Hartford Machine Screw Company in 1876 laid the groundwork for one of the capital city’s largest industrial enterprises.
In 1882 Spencer relocated the Spencer Arms Company to Windsor, Connecticut and reorganized it to manufacture a new repeating shotgun of his invention. While the gun itself was mechanically successful, the company failed. Spencer sold it in 1890. Three years later, Spencer established the Spencer Automatic Machine Screw Company in Windsor and worked there until his retirement several years before his death.
Christopher Miner Spencer died in Hartford on January 14, 1922. His inventive genius led him to make advancements in textile production, drop forging, screw making, and firearms. These advances in manufacturing, along with his many inventions, helped shape the automation of American industry in the 1800s.
Jessica Jenkins is Curator of Collections at the Litchfield Historical Society.