Ordinarily the relocation of a factory from one town to another would hardly be the fodder for all but the most arcane and specialized of almanac-like features. But on this date in 1854 Aaron Lufkin Dennison moved his four year old watch making business to new facilities in Waltham, Massachusetts, setting the stage for a revolution in industrial production first known as the American System of Watch of Watch Manufacturing. The principles of precision made interchangeable parts, use of specialty machine tools, and consistent calibration measured by highly accurate instruments were soon applied to other industries ushering in a new phase of the industrial revolution that created the machines that increasingly shaped daily life.
It was not an easy or smooth road. Dennison would be beset by set back after set back—failed early designs and processes, bankruptcies, board intrigues, faithless partners, and financial panics. The new plant in Waltham would slip from his hands in bankruptcy in just three years, and he would be unceremoniously fired as machine shop superintendent in 1861. He would go on to found a number of new businesses to see his dreams crushed time and time again.
Meanwhile the factory, known as the Boston Watch Company in 1855 would go through ownership changes and name changes, finally becoming known as the Waltham Watch Company in 1907 and famous for its railroad chronometers and quality pocket Watches. The company’s direct descendent, the Waltham Aircraft Clock Corporation manufactures that specialty product in Alabama. Firms that purchased marketing rights to the Waltham name along with some inventory and goodwill and since merged are now known as the Waltham Watch Co. (Delaware) and markets imported watches. A former Swiss subsidiary is now known as Waltham International SA, and markets luxury Swiss made watches to Japan and other international markets.
Dennison was born on March 6, 1812 in Freeport, Maine. His father was a shoemaker, the lowliest of the skilled trades, who taught music on the side. The family moved to Brunswick when he was a boy. He got the minimal schooling of a boy of his class—reading, writing, and simple ciphering. He may have supplemented this with reading from books borrowed from neighbors.
He spent much of his childhood and youth at various jobs to help the family. He carried hod for a bricklayer, cut wood, and was a herdsman. By his teenage years he was accomplished enough at his letters and arithmetic to clerk at a local store before joining his father in his cobbler shop. Dennison displayed his first interest in improving production techniques by suggesting his father pre-cut pieces to make shoes by the batch rather than start-to-finish one at a time.
At age 18, rather than formally apprentice to his father, Dennison bound himself to James Cary, a local clock maker. During his apprenticeship he apparently devised some sort of machine for cutting gear wheels. The exact nature of the machine is unknown but was probably a modification of an existing wheel cutter that allowed him to press a few layers of metal at the same time, creating identical gears with each impression. Again, the idea was to provide parts in batches for future assembly. Cary so admired his apprentice’s skill and ingenuity that he offered Dennison a partnership at age 21.A skilled early 19th Century watch/clock maker journeyman at his work bench, Everything was assembled by hand from unique self-manufactured parts.
But Dennison knew he had to learn more or be stuck in a provincial shop. He headed to Boston to work for and study with the best American watch repairers. He volunteered to work for three months at jeweler Currier & Trott without pay and then was hired by them. By 1834 at age 22, he felt confident enough to open his own repair shop. But he gave that up only two years later when he was offered the chance to work under Boston’s most sophisticated master watch maker, Tubal Howe of Jones, Low & Ball where he could learn the techniques of the best Swiss and British craftsmen.
He stayed with Howe until 1839 when he left for New York City where he spent several months with a colony of Swiss watchmakers. Returning to Boston he once again set up his own shop offering not only repair services but also selling watches, tools, and repair equipment. During this period, he perfected the Denton Combine Gage “upon which all the different parts of a watch could be accurately measured.” This later became the Standard Gage of the industry and was just the first in the specialty instruments he devised.
Meanwhile Aaron established a second business with his younger brother Eliphalet Whorf Dennison, his former partner in his old Boston repair shop. Together they went into a specialty business manufacturing paper boxes for jewelry stores. The enterprise, filling an unmet niche, was a success. But after a few years Aaron withdrew from the company to pursue his dream of manufacturing his own watches, leaving the firm in Eliphalet’s hands. It continued to prosper as the Dennison Manufacturing Company and still exists today as Avery Dennison Corporation a manufacturer of pressure sensitive adhesive products which recently sold its well-known envelope, business stationary, and school supply lines which continue to be marketed under the name Avery.
Thing must have been looking pretty good for the 28 year old Aaron in 1840. After years of dedicating himself single-mindedly to business he married Charlotte Ware Foster who was connected to the Ware family of distinguished Unitarian clergy. Together they would have five children.
While continuing to operate his businesses, Dennison dreamed of going into watch manufacture. He developed a plan over the 1840’s based on his old notion of producing parts in batches.
He was specifically inspired by the success of the Federal Armory at Springfield, Massachusetts in manufacturing muskets for the Army using interchangeable parts. This made rapid production possible in times of need, greatly reduced the cost of each firearm, and facilitated repair in the field using standardized parts. Dennison was not the only entrepreneur impressed with the system. Samuel Colt applied it to his pistols in the mid 1830’s and contributed the innovation of assembly line production—assembly of parts in succession with semi-skilled workmen each performing a specific task and sending the work to the next worker on the production bench for the next step. Others were adapting Springfield and Colt innovations in other fields including Cyrus McCormack for his reapers.
But the manufacture of watches, some of the most complex machines of their time requiring scores of small parts that had to be produced with precision, meant whole new demands compared to the few and large parts with relatively high tolerances of muskets, pistols, and farm equipment. Dennison planned it out in his head. By 1845 he had worked out a detailed plan and constructed a scale model of a production facility. All he need now was a backer.
It took until 1849 to secure the support and partnership of Edward Howard of the manufacturing firm of Howard & Davis and Howard’s father-in-law Samuel Curtis. While the partners erected a new factory next to the existing Howard & Davis building in Roxbury for the new firm of Dennison, Howard & Davis, Aaron went to London to buy what parts could not yet be manufactured in the States. He also hired English journeyman watchmakers and studied the critical process of gilding brass parts. When he returned he completed the design and construction of specialized machines for his production process.
But there were major problems. The new machines were not yet perfected, he had trouble duplicating the gilding process, and the first watches produced, an eight day watch with a single mainspring barrel, did not keep time accurately enough to be successfully marketed. Dennison needed a more skillful machinist to perfect his ideas and in 1852 he found one in Charles Moseley. He also brought on master watchmaker N. P. Stratton who designed a new 30-hour watch and perfected the gilding process while Mosely rebuilt the machines. The resulting watch was marketed successfully.
In fact, sales were so strong that in 1855 the company moved to its expanded facilities in Waltham and adopted the new name of the Boston Watch Company. Dennison oversaw production as the plant superintendent while Howard and a Board of Directors managed the business affairs.
Most of the machinery and watch inventory, and some of the skilled workers, were taken back to Roxbury by Edward Howard, who established the Howard Watch Company. The buildings and large machinery were sold at auction to Royal E. Robbins who restarted watch manufacture under the name of Tracy Baker & Company. Dennison was retained in the reduced capacity of superintendent of the machine division. His relationship to Robbins, however, was tense. Robbins felt Dennison “meddled” in other divisions of the factory. Dennison felt Robbins was losing track of his vision.
In 1861, just as the Civil War was about to greatly increase the market for watches among officers who needed to be able to coordinate battlefield movements and the exploding demands of war time industrial production, Robbins unceremoniously fired Dennison.
In the post-war period, Tracy Baker & Co. would change hands again and become the American Waltham Watch Company and finally simply the Waltham Watch Company, for many years the largest American producer of time pieces.
It took until 1864 for Dennison to find a backer for a new firm, A. O. Bigelow. Together they formed the Tremont Watch Company. This time the plan was a little different. The Civil War had dramatically driven up wages for skilled workmen in the North. Dennison figured out that the most famous and skilled watch makers in the world in Switzerland made significantly less than their American counterparts. In an early example of offshore outsourcing, Swiss journeymen would manufacture to specification fine parts like escapements and wheel trains while larger parts including barrel plates, cases, faces, etc. would be made in the States where the watches would be assembled.
Dennison and his family went to Zurich to make the arrangements. While he was gone, the Tremont board, without consulting him, decided to move the factory to Melrose to produce a cheaper model watch entirely in their factory. The company was reorganized as the Melrose Watch Company. Dennison resigned in protest. He was essentially stranded in Europe. He remained in Switzerland trying to set up a new arrangement with an American manufacturer without success. As Dennison expected Melrose failed by 1870.
In 1871 relocated to England where he tried to manufacture watches from parts made in Zurich and plates from Tremont. Using capital raised by this venture he helped organize the Anglo-American Watch Company in Birmingham in 1874. He and his English partners bought up the parts stock and some of the machinery of Melrose, shipped it to England and began producing watches there for the first time on the American System of Watchmaking. In 1874 the company changed its name to the English Watch Manufacturing Company. It turned out the reputation of American production in England at this time was similar to the post-World War II reputation of goods Made in Japan harming sales. Dennison left the company about the same time.
Dennison had a second business in Birmingham manufacturing watch cases, for which the main clients was, ironically, the Waltham Watch Company, the descendent of the firm he had created. With the addition of a partner the firm became Dennison, Wiggly & Company in 1874. Dennison remained in England managing this, at last, successful, firm until he died on January 8, 1895 at age 83. His son Franklin became managing partner. The name was changed to the Dennison Watch Case Company in 1905 and continued to provide its products to the industry until 1965.
Dennison died with neither the fame nor the enormous wealth of other significant American industrial innovators and businessmen. The creator of the American System, which transformed manufacture and production in profound ways far beyond the watch industry, spent almost 40 years in a kind of exile.