This article presents success stories of James Hartness, American Society of Mechanical Engineers President, aviator, and governor of Vermont. Hartness, who started his working life an apprentice machinist, became a major inventor of improved machine tools and measuring techniques. He made pioneering contributions in the fields of astronomy and aviation, and mentored and inspired others. Hartness's improbable career opportunity occurred in 1889, when the small and struggling, privately owned Jones and Lamson machine shop moved from Windsor to Springfield, Vermont. Hartness wrote of the need for respect and the importance of considering the factory worker who operates the machines. He explained that habit is good, and that improved machine tools would be successful only if they could be operated effectively. Hartness had a brief political career as a one-term governor of Vermont. He had served well on several state commissions and in 1920 he was nominated as the Republican candidate.


All the manufactured products that provide us with basic necessities, comfort, and luxury result from the inspiration of inventors and designers. They are also made possible by the great achievements of the engineers who have developed the machine tools operating in the factories that finally convert ideas into affordable finished products.

A distinguishing characteristic of humans among all other species is a sophistication in the making and use of tools. As our species evolved, we became increasingly dependent upon specialized tools for hunting, agriculture, and building.

A parallel advance was the development of tools that were used to make tools. The stone that shaped an arrowhead has advanced to modern machine tools.

James Hartness helped make that happen. Hartness, who started his working life as an apprentice machinist, became a major inventor of improved machine tools and measuring techniques. He also became a company president, an ASME president, and a governor of Vermont. He made pioneering contributions in the fields of astronomy and aviation, and mentored and inspired others.

The Machinist’s Son

Hartness was born on Sept. 3, 1861, in Schenectady, N.Y., where his father was a machinist and foreman at the American Locomotive Co. At an early age, James moved with his family to Cleveland. He completed his formal education at the age of 16 and became an apprentice machinist.

When he was 21, he traveled to Connecticut where, over the next few years, he served as the foreman of several small job shops that made customized products. He would study each of the manufacturing processes, consider the shortcomings, and discuss possible improvements. During these years, he was awarded patents for an improved metal screw machine, a clutch, a cleaner for gun barrels, and a carpenters plane.

He also developed a reputation for being too innovative. A banker refused to lend any more money to one of these shops because he considered Hartness’s ideas unsound and the business a bad risk.

Hartness’s improbable career opportunity occurred in 1889, when the small and struggling, privately owned Jones and Lamson machine shop moved from Windsor to Springfield, Vt.

The company needed a plant superintendent. The preferred candidate declined to move to such a backwoods location, whose nearest railroad link was across the river in New Hampshire. The owners reluctantly offered the position to the 28-year-old James Hartness.

He turned out to be the right person at the right time. The development of low friction ball bearings had led to roller skates and bicycles and to the development of the internal combustion engine. Electricity was becoming available to power machines and was also creating a major new industry of manufacturing electric apparatus. The challenge and opportunity existed for the development of a new generation of electric motor-driven ma-chine tools that could combine a new level of precision and mass production capabilities.

Hartness made an immediate impact with his invention of a flat turret lathe, which combined multiple task capability with higher precision and longer cuts. The operator would not have to shut down as frequently for tool changes, so the product turned out not only better, but also cheaper.

He had no patent agreement and offered an exclusive rights license to Jones and Lamson for $10,000. The company responded by offering Hartness a $100 royalty on each machine.

Jones and Lamson had previously advertised all kinds of machinery made to order. Hartness proposed that the company standardize production and specialize in the manufacture of the improved lathe, which was priced at $1,100. Acceptance by machine shops and factories was rapid, with orders reaching 10 units per day. Hartness, who recently had been employed for a few dollars a week, was soon receiving up to $1,000 per day in royalties.

Better Next Time

Hartness had acquired a professional tenet that anything he achieved could be done even better the next time.

Over the next 44 years, he would be awarded 120 more patents related to improved machine tools, measurement techniques, and final products.

These patents included an automatic die, a hydraulic feed, grinding taps, a safety razor, and an optical comparator for inspecting threads.

The optical comparator was inspired by his interest in astronomy. He had built and patented a telescope mount with the revolving dome on an equatorial plane. Because the dome revolved, it did not need to be open to allow the telescope to move. An observer could remain warm inside, even during a Vermont winter.

The Jones and Lamson Machine Co. soon promoted Hartness to company president and restructured to provide him with a controlling interest. Under Hartness, the company became an incubator for other gifted machine tool engineers with creative ideas.

Edwin Fellows and William Leroy Bryant, who became precision tool entrepreneurs in their own right, both worked for Hartness at one time. Fellows conceived a better method to make gears and founded the Fellows Gear Shaper Co. in 1896. Bryant devised a method of grinding with less friction, and in 1909 he started the Bryant Chucking Grinder Co. Both companies were headquartered in Springfield. The rustic town, once too small and geographically isolated for Jones and Lamson’s first choice as plant manager, became home to three major machine tool companies. All three companies are in operation today under the ownership of the Goldman Financial Group of Boston.

Hartness joined the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1891. His growing prestige and leadership in the field of tool design inevitably brought him to the society’s committee work and other activities. He attended annual meetings and presented papers ranging from thread cutting practice to a description of his patented turret equatorial telescope.

In 1912, Hartness published an influential book, Human Factors in Works Management. This was part of the growing recognition that engineers should broaden and add engineering economics and management to their traditional technical topics. A year earlier, in 1911, Frederick Taylor published his classic, The Principles of Scientific Management.

Consultants who called themselves efficiency engineers, armed with Taylor’s work and a stopwatch, started knocking on factory doors with claims of big savings from their time and motion studies. Hartness was familiar with Taylor’s work and the consultants’ claims. His view was that this form of scientific management was too simplistic.

Hartness wrote of the need for respect and the importance of considering the factory worker who operates the machines. He explained that habit is good, and that improved machine tools would be successful only it they could be operated effectively. Hartness was also of the opinion that they should be designed so repetitive operations could be performed by habit, thus freeing the worker’s mind for more creative purposes.

Hartness advanced in ASME leadership positions. In 1909, he was elected to the council, as the board of governors was known at the time, in 1912 to a two-year term as vice president, and in 1914 he succeeded W.F.M. Goss as the 33rd ASME president.


Taking the Air

In 1910, Hartness had traveled with other members of the council for a joint meeting with the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in London. In 1913, he was invited to tour factories in France and Germany. His impression of Germany was of a nation so industrious, progressive, and competent that nothing could keep it from the industrial leadership of Europe.

During his 1913 visit, Hartness could hardly have anticipated that he would soon be asked to contribute his experience and expertise to his country’s war effort against Germany.

Aviation was then in its infancy, but was about to be demonstrated over the battlefields of Europe. Hartness had a passion for the sky. He had suggested that all houses should have a window in the roof to provide visual access to the skies. It was during his trip to Germany that aviation joined astronomy among his hobbies.

Hartness had made his first flight in 1913. It was in a zeppelin, the rigid-structure and hydrogen-filled airship pioneered by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin. Development was supported by the military, which recognized its potential as a mobile aerial observation platform and for bombing enemy targets.

The zeppelin would be a symbol of German military power during the war and a measure of recovering German prestige as a passenger airship afterward. Zeppelin airships safely transported thousands of passengers, who traveled in luxury on scheduled service throughout Europe and across the Atlantic to the United States, until 1937, when the Hindenberg burned while landing in Lakehurst, N.J., causing 37 deaths and effectively ending the commercial airship era.

Hartness was also interested in heavier-than-air flying machines. The Wright brothers had made their epic flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903. Over the next decade, they would produce the Wright B Flyer, which was very little changed from their original flying machine.

In 1914, Hartness, then 53, purchased his own Wright Flyer. The Flyer was inherently unstable and difficult to fly with its single 35-horsepower engine driving twin pusher propellers via a chain drive and with banking controlled by warping the wings. It was essentially the same plane that flew at Kitty Hawk 11 years earlier. The unnatural skill of piloting an airplane is best learned at a young age, but Hartness was determined.

He developed an airfield outside of Springfield and took flight instruction from the Dayton aviator Howard Reinhart, who had learned from the Wright brothers. James Hartness became one of the first 100 certified pilots in the United States.

While Hartness had first become involved in aviation for enjoyment, these experiences would become vital when he was asked to serve during World War I on the InterAllied Standardization Commission with aviation pioneers William Durand of Stanford University and Charles Manley, who at the turn of the century had designed a remarkable engine used in Samuel Langley’s flight experiments.

Langley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and one of the foremost American scientists of his time, flew model airplanes, powered by steam, over the Potomac and tried to perfect a full-size plane. His experiments failed—just a matter of days before the Wrights’ first successful flight—but his work supported Manly’s advanced engine, which weighed less than 150 pounds and generated more than 50 hp.

Hartness’s distinctions in aviation, besides serving on the commission during the war, included serving as president of the Vermont Aero Club. He donated his airfield to Springfield, and dedicated it to the soldiers and sailors who served in World War I.

After his trans-Atlantic flight, Charles Lindbergh made a tour to promote general aviation by flying the Spirit of St. Louis to every state, and when he came to Vermont, Springfield had the airport.

Hartness, as an ex-governor, organized a parade and speeches, and Lindbergh was an overnight guest at the Hartness home. Both men shared the rare distinction, in those days, of being fliers and promoters of civil aviation.

The war and the rapidly expanding automobile industry brought a new urgency to the performance and compatibility of nuts and bolts. Hartness represented ASME on the National Screw Thread Commission. The work was coordinated by the National Bureau of Standards. Along with the necessity of establishing standard sizes, there was a need for standardization of tolerances and for better methods to perform the measurements.

This experience led Hartness to consider alternative methods of measuring the threads. The traditional way was with a mechanical gauge. Hartness drew upon the knowledge of optics and magnification he had acquired from his astronomical work and devised an entirely new method for measurement. His optical comparator projected a magnified image of the finished thread upon an image of the design drawing of the thread. Thus, any variations between design and the actual thread could be directly observed.


Optics and Telescopes

For the perfection of this optical device, Hartness recruited Russell Porter, whom he called his Leonardo da Vinci. Porter was born in Springfield in 1871, and had studied architecture and taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He then studied art in Paris and was also a gifted mechanic, artist, astronomer, and scientist as well as being a once-stranded Arctic explorer.

Hartness had requested Porter’s advice a decade earlier for the optical portion of the revolving-dome telescope. During the war, Hartness had advised the Bureau of Standards to use Porters talents on optical-related problems. Hartness recruited Porter back to Springfield as his associate in optics and instrument design.

Once back in Springfield, Russell Porter surpassed Hartness’s expectations. Porter discovered that some of the shop workers were also interested in astronomy and making their own telescopes.

With the encouragement of Hartness and the help of journeyman machinist Oscar Marshall, Porter ordered the necessary materials of 9-inch-diameter glass discs and several grades of carborundum for grinding and polishing. In the winter of 1921, 16 plant workers enrolled in the club called the Springfield Telescope Makers. These workers, accustomed to precisions of a few thousands of an inch in their work, were shocked to learn that a millionth of an inch accuracy would be required for their hobby.

By summer, most of the Springfield Telescope Makers had completed telescopes. They organized their first demonstration by traveling to nearby Breezy Hill for a weekend conference devoted to sharing their experiences and observing the marvels of the magnified night sky with a scientific instrument of their own making. On this hill, they built a clubhouse they named Stellafane, or temple of the stars. Scientific American featured their activities.

The tradition continues. Each August, enthusiasts from around the world travel to Breezy Hill for a weekend of workshops on telescope building and star watching. They gather in the revival-meeting atmosphere of a circus tent and listen raptly as the masters speak. For instance, during last August’s meeting, a regular at Breezy Hill, John Dobson, held his audience spellbound as he spoke for at least two hours.

Dobson, who was born in China, joined the U.S. monastery of an eastern religion. During his time there, he began grinding lenses for telescopes and taking them out on the streets of San Francisco. He is now recognized as the founder of the international sidewalk astronomy movement.

The capstone project of Russell Porter’s career would be as the principal designer of the giant Hale Telescope to be installed on Mount Palomar. This 200-inch telescope, with its supporting structure and tracking capability, would be the world’s biggest scientific instrument and would require nearly 20 years to construct. The success that can be credited to Russell Porter can also be traced back to the opportunities provided by James Hartness.

Hartness had a brief political career as a one-term governor of Vermont. He had served well on several state commissions and in 1920 he was nominated as the Republican candidate. His platform promised an improved transportation system and more manufacturing to supplement the traditional agricultural economy. He won the election by a wider margin in the state than Warren Harding, who carried Vermont in the presidential race that year.

Hartness remained an active inventor and a participant in ASME activities until his death at the age of 72 in 1934. His last patent, issued in 1933, was an improvement on his earlier optical method of comparing a screw thread with a reference drawing. The instrument is called a hartometer.

Hartness had married Lena Pond in Connecticut in 1885. Daughter Anna was born in 1889 and Helen in 1891. In 1903, they built a spectacular mansion on a hill in Springfield where they lived for the remainder of their lives. He built his observatory at a distance of 240 feet from the house, which he connected with a tunnel. He also built rooms in the tunnel to serve as a home study free of household disturbances.

A Rich Legacy

Much has been preserved as the result of the combined corporate initiative by the Jones and Lamson, Fellows Gear Shaper, and Bryant Chucking Grinder companies. The Hartness House, operated as an inn and observatory, is open to the public. Guests may ask for the suite where Charles Lindbergh stayed or for the circular Turret Room.

The observatory can be accessed through the tunnel, which now houses the Stellafane Society Museum, including works by Russell Porter. At the end of the tunnel is the revolving-dome turret equatorial telescope that Hartness built.

Hartness was a major contributor to local tradition in that part of Vermont. The neighborhood, centering on Windsor, still goes by the nickname Precision Valley.

At Windsor, a few miles north of Springfield, the American Precision Museum occupies a stone armory that was built in 1846. This is a unique mecca for the display and story of the tools that industrialized America.