Imagine sweltering hot summer day on a factory floor. Big multi-paned windows open, industrial fans on. The scent of machine oil and the noise of precision manufacturing in progress. A beehive of activity, foremen, machinists, gaugemen, assembly, maintenance – to get the work done. Management, sales, an employment office, medical, accounting, typists, filing. Materials arrive; freight elevators move goods to where they need to go; later, finished products – ball bearings from the size of seed pearls to mammoth bearings assemblies – trucked out. Shiftwork, training, promotions, life events, even romance. All happened here.
But first, a look back to an interesting show that took place in the building.
Meriden Show with Quarter Million Dollar Display Goes Big: Initial Venture Held in Mammoth Factory of New Departure Company Is Resultful to Degree Not Anticipated by Most Optimistic of Promoters – a report from The Accessory and Garage Journal Vol XI No 1 (1921), digitized by Google
“MERIDEN, CONN. – Expressions of amazement emanated spontaneously from the lips of those persons privileged to ‘peep in’ at the marvelous display of automobiles of many makes displayed at Meriden’s first automobile show in the New Departure factory building. Cars and accessories valued approximately at a quarter of a million dollars were exhibited The show was opened formally at 8 o’clock this evening when Mayor Henry T. King welcomed Meridenites and out of town visitors to the show.
“The New Departure orchestra of Bristol played throughout the afternoon. The New Departure factory auditorium was a splendid choice for the automobile show as it is completely adapted to the necessities of such a display. The show was arranged by men who have been connected with automobile exhibitions for many years and it was said by persons in a position to render a reliable verdict that the Meriden show was of a higher brand than any given in the state thus far this season. Enthusiasm over the affair had been keen for many days but it mounted higher and higher and the exclamations of surprise and wonder heard when the auditorium opened were numerous and frequent. The automobile agents expressed pride that the first venture should be so promising and out of town dealers commented on the excellence of the whole display from the hall decorations to the beautiful palatial sedans and suburban models which actually radiated their own pride and satisfaction in their graceful lines and glistening luster from their places on the floor. Practically all of the cars had been placed at an early hour and a corps of men were busy grooming and furnishing them that they might appear more dazzling and attractive to the hundreds of people who found their way into the great hall. The whole display produced a truly gorgeous effect the jaunty colors of sport models reflecting the light of the festoons of multi-colored electric light bulbs in a dancing iridescent sheen which was caught up with the darker and more conventional hues of the touring and town models. And there were trucks, too, which gave a variety to the automotive display. The committee in charge is headed by Charles Tredenick. The other members are Frank Ray and John Day, who was mainly responsible for the launching of the automobile show project. Due to the hearty cooperation of Charles M. Geering, division manager of the New Departure company, the committee has been able to avail itself of every facility that the manufacturing plant has been able to offer all of which has counted big in the success of the show.”
As to the exact location of the company auditorium and this jazzy auto show – no clues are given.
This description of the high standards of what was manufactured there is from Condensed Catalogues of Mechanical Equipment: Volume 12, 1922: “New Departure ball bearings are manufactured in a New England factory where high standards of quality have been maintained for a quarter of a century and have given the manufacturers a favorable reputation throughout the world. The sincere aim of this company has been and is to manufacture a ball bearing approaching as closely to absolute perfection as is humanly possible. In furtherance of this attainment, a highly specialized corps of laboratorial and mechanical engineers is employed, special machinery, exclusive processes and methods have been devised, and an inspection and testing system is in operation that is more exacting in its requirements of quality than found in almost any other industry under the sun.”
From doorbells to safety brakes for bicycles to wartime innovation and production – here is a brief summary of the New Departure Manufacturing Company by Bill Bowman, from the GM Heritage Center web site.
“New Departure Bell Co. was formed in 1888 by brothers Albert and Edward Rockwell in Bristol, Connecticut, as a manufacturer of doorbells. They began operations at one end of a clock factory, manufacturing door-bells. Soon after, they branched out manufacturing various other products. In 1898, New Departure introduced the bicycle coaster brake and in 1903 they also began making brakes for belt and chain-driven motorcycles. Large quantities of bicycle front and rear wheel hubs were produced. In 1904, the Rockwells produced an automobile and then in 1907, the Rockwell Taxi Cab. In 1911, the automobile production ceased. In 1912, Albert organized the Yellow Cab Co., which went into receivership in 1913. In 1908, New Departure developed the double row bearing capable of handling both radial and thrust loads from either direction and in 1909 obtained a patent for it. In 1910, the company developed the angular contact or Radax single row bearing that took radial loads, as well as thrust loads from one direction. In 1916, New Departure, Hyatt Roller Bearing, Westom-Mott Axle, Remy Electric Co., Perriman Rim Co. and Dayton Engineering Laboratories were purchased by William Durant, president of General Motors, and put under the United Motors Corp. name with Alfred Sloan as President. In 1918, General Motors acquired United Motors outright with Sloan becoming a GM Vice President and in 1923 he became the President of General Motors. During World War II, New Departure produced ultra precision instrument bearings that were used in the Norden Bombsight, one of the U.S. Air Force’s most powerful weapons. In the 1950s, New Departure invented the Roller Clutch used in automatic transmissions, allowing for smoother shifting. In 1965, General Motors merged the New Departure Division and the Hyatt Roller Bearing Division into the New Departure-Hyatt Bearing Division. In 1986, New Departure-Hyatt Bearing exited the commercial ball bearing business, retaining only the ultra-precision aircraft engine bearing segment. In 1989, New Departure-Hyatt Bearing Division and Delco Moraine Division were merged to create the Delco Moraine-NDH Division. In 1992, the Delco Moraine-NDH Division merged with Delco Products and became Delco Chassis Division. In 1993, the aircraft bearing operation was discontinued ending the era of bearing manufacture. Today, New Departure and Hyatt are brands owned and sold by General Bearing Co. of New York.”
The oldest portion of the fortress-like complex faces Pratt Street and originally was a woolen mill built by Jedediah Wilcox in 1848. Goods made there included carpetbags; later belts, corsets, and hoop skirts.
From the GM Heritage Center, about the modern factory: “During the period from 1919 to 1933 a second plant, established in Elmwood (Hartford, CT), was abandoned and moved into a new facility in Meriden, CT, a lively industrial town of some 40,000 situated about 15 miles from Bristol.” Bounded by Camp Street and Center Street, the complex is roughly in the shape of a triangle. Parking for employees was also located across the street from the main entrance on Pratt. Inside the open floor portion of the structure are businesses that include machine shops and other manufacturers and service companies. Beautiful modernized office space with air-conditioned space and 14-foot high ceilings that display the massive exposed wooden beams are located in the oldest section that parallels Pratt Street.
Note: In part two, more about the structure and present-day enterprises. And one interesting proposal for the future that could be built on the industrial framework from the past.