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Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

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Piece of machinery
Automatic Pinion Cutter, Used by the Waltham Watch Company, circa 1892 / THF110250


The roles women play in manufacturing are occasionally highlighted, but are often hidden—opposing states that these two stories from our collections demonstrate.

The Waltham Watch Company in Massachusetts was a world-famous example of a highly mechanized manufacturer of quality consumer goods. Specialized labor, new machines, and interchangeable parts combined to produce the company's low-cost, high-grade watches. Waltham mechanics first invented machines to cut pinions (small gears used in watch movements) in the 1860s; the improved version above, on exhibit in Made in America in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, was developed in the 1890s.

Page with text and five illustrations of a factory and factory workers
This article, “The American Watch Works,” from the July-December 1884 issue of Scientific American, discussed the women workers of the Waltham Watch Company. / THF286663

In the late 19th century, reports on the world-renowned company featured women workers. An 1884 Scientific American article specifically called out women’s work. The article explained that, “For certain kinds of work female operatives are preferred, on account of their greater delicacy and rapidity of manipulation.” Recognizing that gendered experiences—activities that required manual dexterity, such as sewing, or the exacting work of textile production—had prepared women for a range of delicate watchmaking operations, the Waltham company hired them to drill, punch, polish, and finish small watch parts, often using machines like the pinion cutter above. The company publicized equal pay and benefits for all its employees, but women workers were still segregated in many factory facilities and treated differently in the surrounding community.

Square of woven material in frame; also contains text label underneath
Burroughs B5000 Core Memory Plane, 1961. / THF170197

The same reasoning that guided women’s work at Waltham in the 19th century led 20th-century manufacturers to call on women to produce an early form of computer memory called core memory. Workers skillfully strung tiny rings of magnetic material on a wire grid under the lens of a microscope to create planes of core memory, like the one shown above from the Burroughs Corporation. (You can learn more about core memory weaving here, and more about the Burroughs Corporation here.) These woven planes would be stacked together in a grid structure to form the main memory of a computer.

However, unlike the women of Waltham, the stories of most core memory weavers—and other women like them in the manufacturing world—are still waiting to be told.


This post was adapted from a stop on our forthcoming “Hidden Stories of Manufacturing” tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the THF Connect app, written by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.

THF Connect app, women's history, technology, manufacturing, Made in America, Henry Ford Museum, computers, by Saige Jedele

Drab-green military jeep

THF90487

The 1943 Willys-Overland Jeep above, currently on exhibit in Driving America in Henry Ford Museum, represents the millions of vehicles, aircraft, and military items produced by American automakers during World War II. With many men fighting overseas, women joined the workforce in unprecedented numbers. Ford’s Willow Run plant, which produced B-24 bomber airplanes, showed just how important these women were to America’s war effort.

Red, white, and blue line illustration of woman riveting airplane parts; also contains text
The character “Rosie the Riveter” is celebrated in this sheet music from 1942. / THF290068

More than 42,000 people worked at Willow Run. Approximately one-third were women. Riveting was an essential craft there—each B-24 had more than 300,000 rivets. The skilled women who accomplished this work at Willow Run and elsewhere inspired the symbolic character “Rosie the Riveter.” Women also served in clerical and support staff positions at the plant. Women and men earned the same pay for the same work.

Three women work inside large, oval metal shapes
Real-life Rosies rivet B-24 tail cones at Ford’s Willow Run Bomber Plant, June 1944 / THF272701

Willow Run produced 8,685 B-24 bombers. The plant captured the public’s imagination, with Rosie the Riveter appearing on government-sponsored posters and magazine ads, encouraging more women to join the war production effort. Rosies built plenty of Jeeps, too. Willys-Overland manufactured 380,000 of them, and women and men at Ford built another 279,000 Jeeps, identical to the Willys models, at six plants across the country.

Page with text and images of engines and military vehicles
Ford Motor Company humble-bragged about its wartime production, including Jeeps, tanks, B-24 bombers, and more, in this 1943 ad. / THF93700

Altogether, the women and men who worked in American automotive plants during World War II built 4 million engines, 2.8 million tanks and trucks, and 27,000 aircraft—fully one-fifth of the country’s military materials. Many women came to enjoy the independence and economic freedom provided by their jobs. But, when men returned at war’s end, the same government that called women to the factories now encouraged them to go back to working in the home, so men could reclaim factory jobs.

The women who labored in wartime factories were essential to America’s Arsenal of Democracy. They made Rosie the Riveter into an enduring feminist icon—and a powerful symbol of women’s contributions to the American economy.


This post was adapted from a stop on our forthcoming “Hidden Stories of Manufacturing” tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the THF Connect app, written by Matt Anderson, Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.

Michigan, airplanes, Driving America, THF Connect app, by Matt Anderson, Ford workers, Ford Motor Company, women's history, World War II, Henry Ford Museum

Wooden box-like machine with toothed wheel on one side and handle on the other

THF126236

A wooden case encloses the working parts of the cotton gin model shown above, which is currently on display in the Agriculture & the Environment exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. When you turn the handle, a group of circular saw blades rotate, removing cotton seed from cotton fiber. To see that process, you’d have to dismantle the box and look inside. Such exploration helps us see how the machine functions. But much more about this cotton gin model remains hidden from view.

This gin helps us learn about one early inventor, Henry Ogden Holmes. He lived in South Carolina and worked as a blacksmith and mechanic on a plantation. In 1787, Holmes applied for a patent caveat—a document that protected his ownership of this invention. The U.S. Patent Office did not exist at that time, but President Washington signed the caveat on March 24, 1789, allowing Holmes’ ownership of his invention for five years.

You may wonder: Didn’t Eli Whitney invent the cotton gin? Whitney received his first cotton gin patent on March 14, 1794, days before Holmes’ caveat expired. Whitney’s gin used wire teeth on rollers to tear the fibers from the cotton seeds, though he adopted saw teeth in later patents. This paved the way for numerous lawsuits about who had the right to claim the cotton gin as an invention.

Print depicting large wooden dock filled with bales of cotton, with many steamships docked
This 1853 engraving, "The Levee at New Orleans," gives a sense of scale for cotton production in the American South in the mid-19th century. / THF204264

School children learn about Eli Whitney, but not about “Hogden” Holmes. Nor do they always learn about the negative consequences of the invention. Speeding up the process of removing seeds from cotton made it possible for growers to plant more cotton to meet demand from an expanding textile industry. To raise more cotton, they needed more land and labor—and this led to removal of Indian nations from, and expansion of enslavement into, the southeastern United States during the 1830s and 1840s.

Double photograph of African American people picking cotton in a field as a white overseer on a horse looks on
This stereograph depicts people picking cotton while a man on horseback oversees the work. This juxtaposition reinforced associations between African Americans and enslavement, long after the Civil War. / THF278808

The history of the cotton gin has a long-standing and seemingly straightforward narrative based in problem solving and opportunity. But, just as technologies can have unintended consequences, so can stories conceal or stray.


This post was adapted from a stop on our forthcoming “Hidden Stories of Manufacturing” tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the THF Connect app, written by Debra A. Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.

manufacturing, inventors, African American history, agriculture, by Debra A. Reid, THF Connect app

Long black piece of machinery
THF140091


The cast-iron lathe shown above, dating to the 1860s, proved the wood-cutting prowess of inventor Thomas Blanchard’s original 1818 design. While today it is motionless in the Made in America exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, when in-motion, Blanchard’s lathe was a pivotal technological development in standardization and mass production during the Industrial Revolution. Its ability to duplicate or copy irregular wood designs was a big improvement on the time-consuming and skill-demanding task of carving wood products by hand. Originally built for manufacturing rifle stocks at Blanchard’s employer, the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts, the lathe found usage in other industries, like creating shoe forms that helped standardize shoe sizes.

The lathe could be used by semi-skilled operators and made copies using a rotating blade whose position was guided by the shape of a prototype—similar to today’s modern key-cutting machine. Much like the movements of a cutting tool against a key blank are constrained by the shape of the original key, Blanchard's lathe consists of a frame into which a master pattern and a blank can be fixed. A carriage, responsible for guiding the cutting tool, then moves the length of the lathe carrying a revolving cutter and what Blanchard termed a friction point. The carriage’s position against the master pattern determines the degree to which the cutter bites into the blank. The major difference between the key-duplicating machine and Blanchard's lathe is that the former cuts a profile in the edge of a key, while Blanchard's lathe was designed to shape a three-dimensional duplicate of the master pattern.

Close-up shot of black machinery mechanism
Lathe mechanism. / THF140086

Not only was Blanchard’s lathe an early example of a machine that could be programmed, but its ability to duplicate irregularly shaped, three-dimensional objects ushered in a wave of standardized interchangeable parts that reshaped the trajectory of the Industrial Revolution.


This post was adapted from a stop on our forthcoming “Hidden Stories of Manufacturing” tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the THF Connect app, written by Ryan Jelso, Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.

THF Connect app, manufacturing, Made in America, Henry Ford Museum, by Ryan Jelso

Sewing machine built into wooden table with intricate, decorative metal base
This 1881 Singer sewing machine is on exhibit in Made in America in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. Isaac Singer developed the first practical sewing machine for home use in the 1850s. / THF173635


Innovation has intended, and often unintended, effects. Take the sewing machine, for example. Its invention in the mid-1840s would make clothing more available and affordable. Yet, ironically, the sewing machine also resulted in a decline of sewing skills—not immediately, but over time. Nowadays, few of us know how to make clothing.

Once, things were very different. For centuries, sewing a family’s clothing by hand was a time-consuming and constant task for women. A woman often made hundreds of garments in her lifetime; all young girls were taught to sew.

Young girl sews the back of a young boy's jacket in an area with trees; also contains text
A trade card for Clark's O.N.T. Spool Cotton from the late nineteenth century depicts a young girl using her sewing skills to repair a rip in her brother’s jacket so that “It will be as good as new and Ma won’t know!” / THF298697

When the sewing machine came on the scene during the mid-1800s, this handy invention made a big difference. For example, it now took about an hour to sew a man’s shirt by machine—rather than 14 hours by hand. In the 1850s, clothing manufacturers quickly acquired sewing machines for their factories, and, as they became less expensive, people bought them for home use.

While machines made it easier to make clothing at home, buying clothing ready-made was even less work. By the early 1900s, the ready-to-wear industry offered a broad range of attractive clothing for men, women, and children. Increasingly, people bought their clothing in stores rather than making it themselves.

Woman in pink sleeveless dress with full skirt, wearing white gloves, poses in front of a couch
Patricia Jean Davis wears a prom dress she made herself in 1960. / THF123841

Sewing skills may have declined, but what have we gained? A lot. Mass-produced clothing has raised our standard of living: stylish, affordable clothing can be had off the rack. For many, sewing remains a creative outlet, rather than a required task. For them, making clothing is no longer something you have to do, but something you want to do.


This post was adapted from a stop on our forthcoming “Hidden Stories of Manufacturing” tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the THF Connect app, written by Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.

Henry Ford Museum, women's history, THF Connect app, manufacturing, making, home life, fashion, by Jeanine Head Miller

Pottery vase with impressionistic landscape scene in blues and greens

Vase, 1917 / THF176918

This Rookwood Pottery vase from our collection, on view in the Art Pottery of the 20th Century exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, can tell us an unexpected story about women’s work and craft in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

During the late 19th century, ladies of high social standing in America were encouraged to broaden their interests beyond their homes. One of the most acceptable ways to do this was by taking up decorative china painting. Over time, these privileged women created associations with classes in china painting for women of all economic backgrounds. Probably the most important of these women was socialite Maria Longworth Nichols of Cincinnati, Ohio, who went beyond the accepted norm and established her own pottery that she called Rookwood.

Complex of several intricately timbered buildings
Rookwood Pottery, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1900-1906 / THF297612

Beginning in 1880, Nichols hired talented young women—who would not have opportunities elsewhere—as well as men to create innovative ceramic wares in this novel commercial venture. At Rookwood, pioneering glazes and imagery made the Cincinnati-based company famous from coast to coast. One of the most significant innovations at Rookwood was its introduction of the “vellum” glaze in 1904. This signature glaze, seen on the vase at the top of this post, features a light-colored background where pictorial landscapes and flowers could appear almost like a painting.

Even before the development of the “vellum” glaze, competitors noticed Rookwood’s innovations and lured away some of their best potters and decorators. Also, over time, artists left Rookwood and started their own companies. They adopted Rookwood’s distinctive techniques, spreading the look of what was called “Art Pottery” around the United States. So, by the early decades of the 20th century, the pastime of ladies’ china painting evolved into a multi-million-dollar industry. Although Art Pottery flourished in the early 20th century, the arrival of the Great Depression and World War II all but extinguished Americans’ interest in decorative ceramics for the home.


This post was adapted from a stop on our forthcoming “Hidden Stories of Manufacturing” tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the THF Connect app, written by Charles Sable, Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.

art, furnishings, Henry Ford Museum, women's history, making, decorative arts, by Charles Sable, THF Connect app

Book standing on end, open to title page, which contains text
"Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass," 1845 / THF8133

“I was born in Tuckahoe…in Talbot County, Maryland,” begins Frederick Douglass, in this, his first of three memoirs. In 1818, he was born into slavery as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, to Harriet Bailey, his enslaved mother, and an unknown white father—likely his master, Aaron Anthony. At the age of twenty, he escaped slavery and changed his name to Frederick Douglass. This first memoir, published in 1845, is foremost an account of Douglass’s early life—from the time of his birth until his daring escape.

But it is also a political text that humanized the enslaved and the cause of abolition. Douglass was a master storyteller—as well as a legendary orator—and this memoir is a compilation of the most moving moments of his young life, including the tragically few memories he has of his mother, the gruesome beatings he both endured and witnessed, the joys and challenges of learning to read, and, of course, his courageous escape from slavery. By 1847, it had already sold more than 11,000 copies and supported the young family he was building with his wife, Anna Murray Douglass. 

Portrait of seated Black man, wearing suit with high collar, with mustache and bushy salt-and-pepper hair
Portrait of Frederick Douglass, circa 1860 / THF210623

Douglass is best known for his long and celebrated career as an abolitionist orator, which began with an impromptu speech at an 1841 antislavery meeting. This would be the first of a lifetime of speeches. Douglass would go on to lecture about racial equality all over the world until his death in 1895. He also advised numerous sitting American presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, and was the first Black man to hold numerous high-ranking governmental posts.

Douglass was both a witness and a catalyst: he exposed the horrors of slavery and inequality, and then made it his life’s work to create a more just America.


This post was adapted from a stop on our forthcoming “Stories of Black Empowerment” tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the THF Connect app, written by Katherine White, Associate Curator, Digital Content at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.

Henry Ford Museum, THF Connect app, by Katherine White, African American history, books

Brass machine with various knobs and fittings
Steam Engine Lubricator, 1882 / THF152419

You may have heard the saying, “The Real McCoy.”  Popular belief often links the phrase to the high quality of a device patented by Black engineer Elijah McCoy.

Elijah McCoy was born on a farm in Canada to formerly enslaved parents. His father, George McCoy, had rolled cigars to earn the $1,000 required to buy his freedom.  But money could not buy freedom for George’s love, Mildred “Millie” Goins, so George and Millie escaped her Kentucky master and became fugitives, settling in Colchester, Canada. They became farmers and had twelve children, including Elijah, born around 1844.

Elijah McCoy’s interest in machines led him to pursue formal study and an apprenticeship in engineering in Scotland. When he returned, he joined his family in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

Portrait of man with beard and mustache wearing suit
Portrait of Elijah McCoy, circa 1895 / THF108432

But employers, blinded by racism, could not see his talent. Instead, in 1865, the Michigan Central Railroad offered McCoy the dangerous job of oilman and fireman. The need to constantly oil the moving parts of a locomotive AND shovel coal into the engine’s firebox soon sent him to the drawing board. In 1872, McCoy patented his own “improvement in lubricators for steam-engines,” the first of at least 52 patents and design registrations he secured during his lifetime.

For the next 40 years, McCoy patented many improvements for his automated oil-drip mechanism, updating his device as steam-engine design and operation changed. The steam engine lubricator cup pictured above (and on exhibit in Made in America in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation) resulted from improvements patented in 1882. Today, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office branch in Detroit bears his name, a fitting tribute to an innovator who moved locomotives—if not mountains.


This post was adapted from a stop on our forthcoming “Stories of Black Empowerment” tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the THF Connect app, written by Debra A. Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.

Made in America, Henry Ford Museum, THF Connect app, railroads, Michigan, making, engineering, by Debra A. Reid, African American history

thf163072
Microscope Used by George Washington Carver, circa 1900 / THF163072

This microscope, reputedly used by agricultural scientist George Washington Carver during his tenure at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, offers us a closer look at Black empowerment through Black education.

It took training to run educational laboratories, and administrators at Black schools sought qualified faculty to do the job. Booker T. Washington, principal at the private, historically Black Tuskegee Institute, recruited Carver as the one person who could build an agricultural research program comparable to the ones available to whites through other public land-grant institutions. Carver was qualified, having earned a master’s degree in agricultural science in 1896, the first Black American to do so.

Austin W. Curtis, Jr., who assisted Carver in his laboratory between 1935 and Carver’s death in 1943, donated and affirmed Carver's use of this microscope. Through it (and other scientific instruments), Carver documented the molecular structure of organic matter—the plants, fungi, bacteria, soils, and sedimentary material of Alabama and beyond. He translated his findings into how-to pamphlets, sharing strategies that Black families in the South could use to improve their own health and the health of their soils. Carver’s pamphlets also introduced hundreds of new uses for plant-based materials, ranging from livestock feed and medicines to pigments and synthetic polymers.

The highest level of learning requires analysis of original research. This microscope supported that cause while in use at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and it continues to help us focus on Black history.

You can see Carver's microscope for yourself in the Agriculture: Innovations in Farming exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.


This post was adapted from a stop on our forthcoming “Stories of Black Empowerment” tour of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in the THF Connect app, written by Debra A. Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. To learn more about or download the THF Connect app, click here.

by Debra A. Reid, education, agriculture, George Washington Carver, African American history, THF Connect app