Wood Type Archaeology: Motive Power

On my most recent trip to Two Rivers and the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum, I rigged up a one-horsepower electric motor to the die stamping machine the Hamilton Manufacturing Company used to make decorative wood type border during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I was hopeful this motor would be sufficient to power the machine through its stamping action. It takes a fair amount of force to drive a stamping die into end-grain maple blocks, and the smaller motor I had tried in early January was not up to the task.

Motorizing the die stamping machinery is a vital precursor to the experimental work I am doing with the machine as part of my thesis research in the Industrial Archaeology program at Michigan Technological University. When the stamping machine was installed and in operation in the Hamilton Manufacturing Company’s type shop a century and more ago, it would have been in constant motion. The machine has no throw-off lever or clutch mechanism of any kind. The worker operating it would have had to internalize the rhythm of the machine’s movement in order to operate it properly. So re-creating this constant motion is essential to gaining insight into the worker’s experience with this machine. And gaining this insight is central to my archaeological research.

According to Sanborn fire insurance maps from 1891, a 150-horsepower steam engine provided motive power for Hamilton’s type factory, which at that time had just been relocated to the east side of East River Street, just south of 18th Street (then known as Cedar). This engine drove the machinery on both floors of the factory by means of overhead drive shafts and belting.

Sanborn maps, when they are available, are extremely valuable resources for industrial archaeology. Oftentimes, the inspector the Sanborn map company sent out to survey an industrial works took detailed notes of the machinery found therein, and these inventories were reproduced on the printed maps. Hamilton’s type factory in 1891, for instance, held two end wood planers, two glue pots, one facer, two sanders, one band saw, nine “little saws,” and two “stamping type [sic]” on the first floor, and 17 presses, eight type machines, nine saws, and one punch machine on the second (The 1891 Two Rivers Sanborn map is available on the Wisconsin Historical Society’s web site; the Hamilton works is depicted on sheet 5: http://content.wisconsinhistory.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/maps/id/11997/rec/13).

It was not feasible to install a steam engine at the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum for the purpose of my industrial archaeology experiment. Fortunately, the one-horsepower electric motor, paired with a 15-to-1 worm gear speed reducer, provided the stamping machine with plenty of motive power to drive the dies into my end-grain maple blocks. I have cut hundreds of these blocks from maple flooring lumber using a mitre saw and type-high gauge. In February, I used some of these for initial experimental trials with the machine. Next week (March 10-14), I will start the industrial archaeology experiment proper: first shorter runs to draw conclusions about the actual mechanics of the machine’s operation; then longer runs to simulate production conditions; finally, a second set of shorter runs, this time introducing more complexity by using multiple stamping dies and attempting to replicate more intricate border designs.

If you find yourself anywhere in the vicinity of Two Rivers next week, I hope you’ll stop by the museum. I would be happy to show you the die stamping machine in action.