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Collection Working in Paterson: Occupational Heritage in an Urban Setting

Industrial Vernacular

In his book Made in America, John Kouwenhoven has described the importance of what he calls the American vernacular: the blending of skill and resources in North America with labor markets and expertise drawn from a variety of international sources.1 This vernacular, or blending, he argues, resulted in such seminal inventions as the cotton gin, the flat-hulled steamboat, the double-bit axe, and the repeating firearm. Watson machines — both those patented by the company and those used informally by workers in the plant — reveal changes in the way in which the vernacular has been expressed in Paterson. During the 1930s or 1940s, a Watson machinist, Al Gardner, and an engineer, Gordon Van Vleet, collaborated to design and build a traverse-screw machine that automatically cuts the long circular traverse screw still used in many Watson machines to guide a wire-holding jig.2 Though never patented, the traverse-screw machine is in continuous use today even though the state-of-the-art cybernetic machinery it supports hardly resembles the plug-and-gear Watson Machine bunchers and stranders of an earlier era.3

Lathe lead man Jimmy Dowling at his lathe.

This vernacular process — hands-on craftsmanship and innovation used to solve design and engineering problems in machine-tool construction — is perhaps one of the most important aspects of the trade to document in more detail and present to outside audiences. Certainly, the number of workers, the reliance upon more sophisticated electronics, and the necessity for companies such as Watson Machine to build some machines (such as the Kinrei buncher) on an international basis have changed the machine trade.4 Nevertheless, industrial craftsmanship and control by individual machinists still exists in the machine-tool industry at Watson Machine, and it deserves particular attention in future documentation efforts.

Lathe operator Jan Sudol measuring inside dimension of a strander tube and adjusting the cutting tool on the lathe.

1. James A. Kouwenhoven, Made in America: The Arts in Modern Civilization (New York: Octagon Books, 1975). (Return to Text)

2. A "traverse screw" is a device used to guide a jig that lays wire down evenly as it is taken up on a reel or spool. (Return to Text)

3. A "strander" is a machine, loaded with spools of wire, that twists strands together to form a cable or electrical wire. (Return to Text)

4. A "Kinrei buncher" is a buncher manufactured in Japan by the Kinrei Corporation and then custom-adapted by Watson Machine to fit domestic requirements. (Return to Text)

Jimmy Dowling holds the jig that he will use to hold the cutting tool on his lathe.
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