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Collection Working in Paterson: Occupational Heritage in an Urban Setting

Conclusion

The research conducted at Watson Machine provides insights into the importance of developing ethnographic, or insider, perspectives on the changing skills and expectations of workers in the machine-building trade. In addition, this concentrated study of specific work techniques — machining a gear, retrofitting an electrical system for a buncher, or designing a jig to measure thread depths for a strander — also grounds historical change in personal experience. By listening to skilled workers, one better understands how wider national and international economic change leads, for example, to an increase in the demand for fiber-optic machinery (rather than cable-twisting machines), and how, in turn, the production of these machines requires the juxtaposition of traditional knowledge and emergent technology.

Machine shop at Watson probably ca. 1890.
Looking south in machine shop toward assembly area and paint booth at Watson.

Watson Machine is unique as a Paterson institution because it reflects historical, demographic, and corporate changes that have profoundly shaped the contemporary landscape of the city. Watson is Paterson in microcosm: in the evolution of its corporate structure from family-held local company to international corporation; in the increasing ethnic diversity of its workers; and in the firm's physical importance as a high-quality machine-manufacturing plant in the heart of the city. In a larger context, the 150-year history of Watson Machine mirrors the development of the industrial vernacular in America: in the shift from hydraulic- to internal-combustion-powered plants and, more recently, in the transition from electrical technology to fiber optics. These salient technological shifts can easily be charted in Watson Machine's huge vault, where meticulous hand-inked nineteenth-century plans for bunching machines can be found along with computer-generated transparencies for state-of-the-art switching equipment made to order for today's telecommunications industry. While there are other companies in the United States that have histories of comparable importance, few if any in the Paterson area possess the same combination of rich history, continuity of skills and products, and singular documentary resources. The claim can also be made that Watson Machine is an extraordinary cultural resource because it reflects important facets of the city's character: like Paterson, it has always shown resilience and adaptability when buffeted by the winds of change.1

Interior of fiber optics room at Watson with fiber optic proof tester; this machine tests the tensile strength of fiber optic cable while it winds it on to spools.
Angelo Basileo's retirement dinner in the late 1970s.

Finally, the microanalysis of skills within a particular trade holds great promise for the study of community history wherever it might be applied. The working people who informally create the contexts within which goods and services are produced in our industrial society have first-hand knowledge of economic, technical, and cultural experiences that no historical, social, cultural, or psychological abstraction can adequately interpret.

1. Present and past workers at Watson Machine, and others interviewed in the course of the "Working in Paterson" study, frequently commented that these characteristics also apply to them and to others who have endured in Paterson despite difficult circumstances. (Return to Text)

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