Christopher Miner Spencer was born in Manchester, CT and died in Hartford, but he spent the bulk of his adult life right here in Windsor. Here, in a home on Orchard Street, he raised his family, put down roots, and perfected many of his notable inventions.
Spencer was an almost compulsive inventor and tinkerer, from his childhood into his old age. The people who knew him best describe long hours of puzzling over problems he hoped to solve and designs he hoped to improve—either ones he marketed, like his rifles and automatic screw machine, or those for private use, like his steam-powered boat and automobiles. They also describe a man who was kind, generous, and friendly.
Christopher was born on June 20, 1833, to Ogden and Asenath Hollister Spencer. When he was 11, Christopher went to live with his grandfather, Josiah Hollister, who encouraged his inventor’s spirit by allowing him to use his lathe as well as to modify his old Revolutionary War musket. Little did Josiah know then what an important role firearms design would play in Christopher’s future work.
Spencer began working for the Cheney Brothers at their silk mill in Manchester when he was 14, later becoming their machine shop apprentice in 1850. Spencer wrote that it was at the Cheney’s mill that he “first became imbued with the idea of becoming a mechanic.” Frank Cheney gave Spencer the opportunity to experiment in making machinery for the mill. Between 1853 and 1855, Spencer set out to learn more about shop methods, manufacturing machine tools and working in repair shops for the New York Central Railroad in Rochester, at the Ames Works in Chicopee, MA, and at Colt’s Armory in Hartford. He returned to Cheney’s Mill in 1855, becoming superintendent of their machine shop. At this time, he earned his first patent, for an automatic silk winding machine, which reduced the number of mill girls needed to operate the spool winders. The Cheneys also encouraged Spencer’s development of a repeating rifle, allowing him the use of their machinery for that purpose in his free time. He obtained a patent for it in March of 1860.
Following the Civil War, Spencer and Charles E. Billings formed the Billings & Spencer Company, manufacturing sewing machine shuttles and drop forgings. He obtained another patent at this time, for a machine that automated the turning of spindles and bobbin heads used in sewing machine construction. This invention led to another patent, for his automatic turret screw machine, which in turn led to the formation of another business, The Hartford Machine Screw Company.
Spencer’s screw machine was an improvement upon the turret lathe with the addition of cutting tools attached to rotating cams. It enabled rapid production of metal parts, notably screws, with minimal operator involvement, and far less operator skill than previous methods. His Double Turret Automatic Screw Machine, developed later, allowed cuts made to the part of the screw that would normally be held by the chuck (a type of clamp). Spencer patented his first automatic screw machine in 1873 and continued working on improvements to this technology until his death in 1922, until that point working as a consultant to the New Britain Machine Co.
Spencer’s true passion, however, remained the improvement of firearms. In 1882, he patented the Spencer Repeating Shotgun, and soon formed the Spencer Arms Company, with its factory located in Windsor. The shotgun was a hit with sportsmen due to its innovative slide action, but a financial failure, so the patent rights were sold. Spencer returned his attention to the automatic screw machine, which, of all Spencer’s inventions, was arguably the most important. It was this machine that many have credited with changing the face of manufacturing.
In the midst of all of his professional work, Spencer had time to devote his mental energies to inventions related to several hobbies, including steam-powered automobiles and boats. In a lecture delivered at the first meeting of the Windsor Historical Society in September 1922, his daughter Vesta wrote, “As early as 1862 he successfully operated a steam wagon in Manchester & in Boston and used it in going to & from his work…The earlier model had been, of course, coal burning, but those built in 1902-1908 used kerosene for fuel and were the forerunners of the steam towing cars of today.” Our Historical Society holds several automobile registration certificates issued to Spencer for his home-made automobiles which illustrate the shift from steam power to the combustion engine. Spencer’s youngest son, Percival, later created his own “steam wagon,” which he drove here in Windsor as a youngster.
Of his steam-powered boats, Vesta wrote in the same 1922 lecture, “As early as the ‘70s the beauties of the Connecticut and the Farmington Rivers beckoned to him, and he applied steam to a boat only 12 feet long which held but 2 persons and was known to riversiders as the ‘Fiddlebox.’ …This boat was supplanted in father’s interest and affections by the steamer Luzette which has been in commission nearly every year since 1884…during the long summer days Father’s greatest enjoyment was sharing with neighbors and friends the delights of a sail down the picturesque Connecticut or cruising on Long Island Sound.” Spencer’s children seemed to enjoy the time they spent with their father on the Luzette.
Christopher Spencer was acutely aware of the obsessive mental energy his work demanded. A poem he wrote and delivered at a banquet for the New Britain Company in 1917, titled “The Inventor” is excerpted below:
Month after month passes, year after year;
Thinking, Thinking, Thinking;
Jeered at and ridiculed, thought of as “queer”;
Thinking, Thinking, Thinking.
Perhaps Spencer’s contemporaries ridiculed him, but history has proven the importance of his designs. All that thinking was worth it.
At the end of his life, Christopher Miner Spencer lived in Hartford. In the 1920 census, at age 86, Spencer was still listed as a working engineer. When he died in 1922, he was buried in Windsor’s Palisado Cemetery, alongside his wife and children.
Spencer’s children, particularly his sons, were deeply influenced by their father’s inventive spirit and his work. Roger operated an automobile dealership on Main Street in Hartford around 1913, where he sold Kissel Kars, automobiles praised for their beautiful lines and roomy interiors. In the late 1920s, he won several races in his boat, the Spencer Spec, which was powered by an outboard motor. He later worked for Pratt and Whitney in West Hartford and then the Republican Aviation Company of Amityville, New York, and continued his work with automobiles in both of those locations as well before retiring in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Spencer’s youngest son Percival’s primary interest was in aviation, which his father encouraged. His first flight was in a self-built glider in 1911. He was best known for his work with amphibious aircraft and was well known for designing The Republic Sea-Bee and the Spencer Amphibian Air Car. Of his father, Percival wrote, “His faith in me must have been extra-ordinary, for how many fathers encourage a ten-year-old boy to build a hang glider, then see him graduate to a water-borne glider (to be towed behind the fishing boat by his older brother), and finally purchase an airplane engine so that he could make and fly an aircraft?” Their sister Vesta believed her brothers had inherited their father’s “mechanical mind.”
Christopher Miner Spencer has long captured the imagination of Americans, particularly firearms enthusiasts. He embodies the ideal of ingenuity, constantly tinkering and reworking designs to solve problems and improve upon his previous ideas. His inventions, particularly his automatic screw machine, changed the face of American industry. What his children remembered, however, was his generosity of spirit and unyielding faith in their abilities. They carried on his legacy of innovation.
by Kristen Wands, Curator
1. Letter from Christopher Miner Spencer to Miss Cheney, Windsor, CT, March 21, 1904, Windsor Historical Society Collection.
2. Quoted in preface to Roy M. Marcot, Spencer Repeating Firearms, Livonia, New York: R&R Books, 1990.
3. Vesta Spencer Taylor manuscript from September, 1922 Lecture, Windsor Historical Society Collection.