Samuel Colt was an American inventor and industrialist from Hartford, Connecticut. He founded Colt's Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company (today, Colt's Manufacturing Company), and made the mass production of the revolver commercially viable.
Colt's first two business ventures — producing firearms in Paterson, New Jersey, and making underwater mines — ended in disappointment. But his business expanded rapidly after 1847, when the Texas Rangers ordered 1,000 revolvers during the American war with Mexico. During the American Civil War, his factory in Hartford supplied firearms both to the North and the South. Later, his firearms were prominent during the settling of the western frontier. Colt died in 1862 as one of the wealthiest men in America.
Colt's manufacturing methods were at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution. His use of interchangeable parts helped him become one of the first to exploit the assembly line. Moreover, his innovative use of art, celebrity endorsements and corporate gifts to promote his wares made him a pioneer in the fields of advertising, product placement and mass marketing, although he was criticized during and after his life for promoting his arms through bribes, threats and monopoly.
Samuel Colt was born in Hartford, Connecticut to Christopher Colt (1777–1850), a farmer who had moved his family to the city after he became a businessman, and Sarah Colt, née Caldwell. His mother's father, Major John Caldwell,had been an officer in the Continental Army and one of Samuel's earliest possessions was his maternal grandfather's flintlock pistol. Sarah died from tuberculosis when Samuel was six years old, and his father remarried two years later to Olivia Sargeant. Samuel had three sisters, one of whom died during her childhood. His oldest sister, Margaret, died of tuberculosis at 19 and the other, Sarah Ann, later committed suicide. One brother, James, became a lawyer; another, Christopher, was a textile merchant. A third brother, John C. Colt, a man of many occupations, killed a creditor in 1841 in New York City, was found guilty of the murder, and committed suicide on the day he was to be executed.
At age 11, Colt was indentured to a farmer in Glastonbury, where he did chores and attended school. Here he was introduced to the Compendium of Knowledge, a scientific encyclopedia that he preferred to read rather than his Bible studies. Its articles on Robert Fulton and gunpowder motivated Colt throughout his life. He discovered that other inventors in the Compendium had accomplished things that were once deemed impossible, and he wanted to do the same. Later, after hearing soldiers talk about the success of the double-barreled rifle and the impossibility of a gun that could shoot five or six times without reloading, Colt decided that he would create the "impossible gun".
In 1829, at the age of 15, Colt began working in his father's textile plant in Ware, Massachusetts, where he had access to tools, materials, and the factory workers' expertise. Following the encyclopedia, Samuel built a homemade galvanic cell and advertised as a Fourth of July event in that year that he would blow up a raft on Ware Pond using underwater explosives; although the raft was missed, the explosion was still impressive.Sent to boarding school, he amused his classmates with pyrotechnics. In 1830, a July 4 accident caused a fire that ended his schooling, and his father then sent him off to learn the seaman's trade.On a voyage to Calcutta on board the brig Corvo, he noticed that regardless of which way the ship's wheel was spun, each spoke always came in direct line with a clutch that could be set to hold it. He later said that this gave him the idea for the revolver. On the Corvo, Colt made a wooden model of a pepperbox revolver out of scrap wood. It differed from other pepperbox revolvers at the time in that it would allow the shooter to rotate the cylinder by the action of cocking the hammer with an attached pawl turning the cylinder which is then locked firmly in alignment with one of the barrels a bolt, a great improvement over the pepperbox designs which required rotating the barrels by hand and hoping for proper indexing and alignment.
When Colt returned to the United States in 1832, he went back to work for his father, who financed the production of two guns, a rifle and a pistol. The first completed pistol exploded when it was fired, but the rifle performed well. His father would not finance any further development, so Samuel needed find a way to pay for the development of his ideas.He had learned about nitrous oxide (laughing gas) from the factory chemist in his father's textile plant, so he took a portable lab on the road and earned a living performing laughing gas demonstrations across the United States and Canada, billing himself as "the Celebrated Dr. Coult of New-York, London and Calcutta".Colt conceived of himself as a man of science and thought if he could enlighten people about a new idea like nitrous oxide, he could in turn make people more receptive to his new idea concerning a revolver. He started his lectures on street corners and soon worked his way up to lecture halls and museums. As ticket sales declined, Colt realized that "serious" museum lectures were not what the people wanted to pay money to see and that it was dramatic stories of salvation and redemption the public craved. While visiting his brother, John, in Cincinnati, he partnered with sculptor, Hiram Powers, for his demonstrations with a theme based on The Divine Comedy. Powers made detailed wax sculptures and paintings based on demons, centaurs and mummies from Dante. Colt constructed fireworks to complete the show, which was a success.According to Colt historian Robert Lawrence Wilson, the "lectures launched Colt's celebrated career as a pioneer Madison Avenue-style pitchman".His public speaking skills were so prized that he was thought to be a doctor and was pressed into service to cure an apparent cholera epidemic on board a riverboat by giving his patients a dose of nitrous oxide.
Having some money saved and keeping his idea alive of being an inventor as opposed to a "medicine man", Colt made arrangements to begin building guns using proper gunsmiths from Baltimore, Maryland. He abandoned the idea of a multiple barreled revolver and opted for a single fixed barrel design with a rotating cylinder. The action of the hammer would align the cylinder bores with the single barrel. He sought the counsel of a friend of his father, Henry Leavitt Ellsworth, who loaned him $300 and advised him to perfect his prototype before applying for a patent.Colt hired a gunsmith by the name of John Pearson to build his revolver. Over the next few years Colt and Pearson fought over money, but the design improved and in 1835 Colt was ready to apply for his US patent. Ellsworth was now the superintendent of the US Patent Office and advised Colt to file for foreign patents first as a prior US patent would keep Colt from filing a patent in Great Britain. In August 1835, Colt left for England and France to secure his foreign patent.
In 1835, Samuel Colt traveled to the United Kingdom, following in the footsteps of Elisha Collier, a Bostonian who had patented a revolving flintlock there that achieved great popularity.Despite the reluctance of English officials to issue a patent to Colt, no fault could be found with the gun and he was issued his first patent (Number 6909). Upon his return to America, he applied for his US patent for a "revolving gun"; he was granted the patent on February 25, 1836 (later numbered 9430X).This instrument and patent No. 1304, dated August 29, 1836, protected the basic principles of his revolving-breech loading, folding trigger firearm named the Colt Paterson.
With a loan from his cousin, Dudley Selden, and letters of recommendation from Ellsworth, Colt formed a corporation of venture capitalists in April 1836 to bring his idea to market. Through the political connections of these venture capitalists, the Patent Arms Manufacturing of Paterson, New Jersey, was chartered by the New Jersey legislature on March 5, 1836. Colt was given a commission for each gun sold in exchange for his dam of patent rights, and stipulated the return of the rights if the company disbanded.
Colt never claimed to have invented the revolver; his design was a more practical adaption of Collier's earlier revolving flintlock incorporating a locking bolt to keep the cylinder in line with the barrel.The invention of the percussion cap made ignition more reliable, faster, and safer than the older flintlock design. Colt's great contribution was to the use of interchangeable parts. Knowing that some gun parts were made by machine, he envisioned that all the parts on every Colt gun to be interchangeable and made by machine, later to be assembled by hand. His goal was the assembly line.This is shown in an 1836 letter that Colt wrote to his father in which he said,The first workman would receive two or three of the most important parts and would affix these and pass them on to the next who would add a part and pass the growing article on to another who would do the same, and so on until the complete arm is put together.Colt's US revolver patent gave him a monopoly on revolver manufacture until 1857.His was the first practical revolver and the first practical repeating firearm due to progress made in percussion technology. No longer a mere novelty arm, the revolver became an industrial and cultural legacy as well as a contribution to the development of war technology, ironically personified in the name of one of his company's later innovations, the "Peacemaker".
Later years and death
As the American Civil War approached, Colt supplied both the North and the South with firearms. He was a capitalist and did not see slavery as a moral issue. He felt if left to its own devices it would fade away as an inefficient system.He had been known to sell weapons to warring parties on both sides of other conflicts in Europe and saw no difference with respect to the war in America. In 1859 Colt considered building an armory in the South and as late as 1861 had sold 2,000 revolvers to Confederate agent John Forsyth.Although trade with the South had not been restricted at that time, newspapers such as the New York Daily Tribune, the New York Times and the Hartford Daily Courant labeled him a Southern sympathizer and traitor to the Union.In response to these charges, Colt was commissioned as a Colonel by the state of Connecticut on May 16, 1861 in the 1st Regiment Colts Revolving Rifles of Connecticut armed with the Colt revolving rifle.Colt envisioned this unit as being staffed by men over six feet tall and armed with his weapons. However the unit never took the field and Colt was discharged on June 20, 1861.
Samuel Colt died of gout in Hartford on January 10, 1862, and was buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery. At the time of his death, Colt's estate, which he left to his wife and three-year-old son Caldwell Hart Colt, was estimated to be valued at around $15 million ($350 million by 2009 standards). His professional responsibilities were turned over to his brother-in-law, Richard Jarvis.The only other person mentioned in Colt's will was Samuel Caldwell Colt, the son of his brother, John.
Colt historian William Edwards wrote that Samuel Colt had married Caroline Henshaw (who later married his brother, John) in Scotland in 1838, and that the son she bore later was Samuel Colt's and not his brother John's.In a 1953 biography about Samuel Colt based largely on family letters, Edwards wrote that John Colt's marriage to Caroline in 1841 was a way to legitimize her unborn son as the real father, Samuel Colt, felt she was not fit to be the wife of an industrialist and divorce was a social stigma at the time.After John's death, Samuel Colt took care of the child, named Samuel Caldwell Colt, financially with a large allowance and paid for his tuition in what were described as "the finest private schools." In correspondence to and about his namesake, Samuel Colt referred to him as his "nephew" in quotes. Historians such as Edwards and Harold Schechter have said this was the elder Colt's way of letting the world know that the boy was his own son without directly saying so.After Colt's death in 1862, he left the boy $2 million by 2010 standards. Colt's widow, Elizabeth Jarvis Colt, and her brother, Richard Jarvis contested this. In probate Caroline's son Sam produced a valid marriage license showing that Caroline and Samuel Colt were married in Scotland in 1838 and that this document made him a rightful heir to part of Colt's estate, if not to the Colt Manufacturing Company.