Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, edited by James
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COLT, Samuel, inventor, born in Hartford, Connecticut, 19 July, 1814; died there, 10 January, 1862. His father, descended from an early settler of Hartford, was a merchant and afterward a manufacturer. At the age of ten he entered his father's factory, and remained there and at school till his fourteenth year, when he was sent to a boarding-school in Amherst,, Massachusetts, but ran away, and in July,1827,shipped as a boy before the mast on an East India voyage. After his return he was placed in his father's factory at Ware, Massachusetts, in the dyeing and bleaching department, under the tuition of William T. Smith, a scientific and practical chemist, and as soon as he had become a dexterous manipulator he again left home to seek his fortune, and though but seventeen or eighteen years of age, with a meagre education, yet, under the assumed name of Dr. Coult, he traversed the Union and British America, lecturing on chemistry, and, owing to his success as an experimenter, drew full houses. The profit from these lectures, which was very considerable, during the two years that followed, was devoted to the prosecution of the great invention connected with his name. The first model of his pistol was made in wood in 1829, with the imperfect tools at his command, while he was a sailor-boy on board ship. The money acquired by his chemical lectures enabled him to manufacture other models, and in 1835, when only twenty-one years of age, he took out his first patent for revolving fire-arms. Patents having been issued in England, France, and the United States for the revolver, he induced New York capitalists to take an interest in it, and a company was formed at Paterson, New Jersey, in 1835, with a capital of $300,000, under the name of the Patent Arms Company. For a long time the officers of the government and of the army and navy objected to the percussion-cap, to the supposed liability of the arm to get out of order, to the tendency of several of the charges to explode at the same time, and to the greater difficulty of repairing it than the arms in common use. These objections Mr. Colt met by careful explanations, by repeated experiments, and by modifications in the construction of the weapon. In 1837, during the Florida war, the officers of the army were baffled in their attempts to drive the Indians from the Everglades, until a few of the troops, under the direction of Lieut.-Col. Harney, were armed with Colt's revolvers, and their success was such that more were at once ordered, and the Indians were easily disheartened and defeated when they found that their enemies could fire six or eight times without reloading. In 1842 the Patent Arms Company were forced to suspend, the speedy conclusion of the Seminole war having put an end to their sales, and from that time till 1847 none of the repeating fire-arms were manufactured. Meantime the market was drained of them by the demand from Texas and the Indian frontier. In 1847, the Mexican war having begun, General Taylor sent to Col. Colt for a supply. There were none to be had, but he contracted to make 1,000 for $28,000. He had parted with the last one to a Texan ranger, and, after advertising in vain for one to serve as a model, he was compelled to make a new model, and in so doing added improvements. This first thousand were made at an armory temporarily hired at Whitneyville, near New Haven, Connecticut Other orders following immediately on the completion of the first, Col. Colt procured more commodious workshops at Hartford and filled the orders with promptness. The emigration to California, and afterward to Australia, increased the demand for the revolvers and assured the permanence of the business. Soon after the Mexican war, the suggestions derived from the use of these arms by the military forces led to improvements in their construction and to their adoption by the government of the United States as a regular weapon for the army. Subsequently the Crimean and Indian campaigns suggested still further improvements and simplifications. Finding in 1852 that more room and greater facilities for manufacturing were required, Col. Colt purchased a tract of meadow-land lying within the City limits of Hartford, about 250 acres in extent, protected it from the annual freshets of the Connecticut River by means of a dike, and there built an armory, consisting of two parallel buildings three stories high and 500 feet long, connected by a central building 250 feet in length, with other buildings for offices and ware-rooms. In 1861 a second building of the same size as the first was erected. All the balls, cartridges, bullet-moulds, powder-flasks, and lubricators are manufactured at the armory, and most of them, as well as the greater part of the machinery for manufacturing the arms, were the invention of Col. Colt or the development of his suggestions by skilful workmen. A part of the establishment is devoted to the manufacture of machinery for making the fire-arms elsewhere, which has already supplied a large portion of the machinery for the armory of the British government at Enfield, England, and the whole of that for the Russian government armory at Tula. On the land enclosed by the dike he also erected dwellings for his employees, the entire expenditure upon the grounds and buildings amounting to more than $2,500,000. The dwellings erected for the employees are unusually comfortable and convenient. Col. Colt also provided the workmen with a public hall, a library, courses of lectures, concerts, a set of instruments for a band of musicians, and a uniform for a military company organized among them. He invented also a submarine battery for the defense of harbors against naval attacks, and was the first to conceive and practically test the project of a submarine telegraph-cable, having laid and operated with perfect success in 1843 such a cable from Coney Island and Fire Island to the City of New York, and from the Merchants' exchange to the mouth of the harbor. This cable was insulated by being covered with a combination of cotton yarn with asphaltum and beeswax, and the whole enclosed in a lead pipe, gutta percha being then unknown. A beautiful Episcopal church was erected to his memory by his widow, who with their only son still continues the manufacture of arms.
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