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Friday, July 17, 2015

An Arsenal of Innovation, Part I

Image courtesy of the Putnam Museum

When I began to research different aspects of the Rock Island Arsenal for our ongoing series of articles covering the island, I made the happy discovery that a local museum was running an exhibit about the arsenal as well.  Titled "Arsenal of Innovation" it focuses on the island's manufacturing prowess, the contributions it has made to the U.S. military, and how its role has changed over time and in various conflicts.  The exhibit is currently on display with many items on loan from the actual Rock Island Arsenal Museum and will run through Sunday, November 15.  By chance, the Putnam is also showing "D-Day: Normandy 1944" in its IMAX theater, so U.S. history buffs and military enthusiasts will have no problem spending an afternoon at the facility.

The Putnam Museum in Davenport, IA

I took photos of just about everything on display, but have tried to narrow it down to a few of the most fascinating or impressive things that the Rock Island Arsenal has done in its nearly two centuries of existence.  With that said, and the founding of Fort Armstrong in 1816, Rock Island Arsenal will be celebrating its bicentennial next year.  It's good to see interest in local history and few such interests are fortunately enough to be graced with a timely museum exhibit.  A tip of the hat to the Putnam for their work and recognition of such an event.  Now let's take a look inside and see what historical militaria they have on display.

Right off the bat you can see that there are some really good aspects of the exhibit and some things that could be improved.  Then again, since this is a temporary exhibit and a museum in a small market, I'm sure that options and funding are more limited than they are at say the Smithsonian or Chicago's Museum of Natural History.  That said, the amount of material that was shown readily achieves its goal of showcasing a wide variety of what the Rock Island Arsenal has produced through the decades.

In showing these manufactured goods, I'll try to go as chronologically as possible.  However, one of the things I felt was a shortcoming of the exhibit was the lack of chronological presentation.  Granted, some of the earliest items (leather goods, mess kits) are in front and the most modern (Humvee armor) are in the rear, but ultimately things are organized into groups.  A group of Great War items here, a group of Cold War goods there, etc.  I do like that aspect of the exhibit, as it gives a true scope of the items produced during each era.  Two other shortcomings, I felt were the lack of firearms shown (then again, I'm admittedly very biased toward that), and the missed potential of vertical space in the exhibit.  As seen above, it's a very tall room and the only large item to use that space is the clock face.  Placing tall items against walls or even hanging things from the ceiling could have given the exhibit a more "permanent" feel, shown some neat items, and really been attractive to the eye.

On a more positive note, they do have some interesting, easy-to-use, and in-depth interactive displays in the museum (like the one shown below specifically made for the Arsenal Exhibit).  They also had a Jeep and artillery piece on display in the lobby for their IMAX theater, which helped promote the exhibit as well as the D-Day movie.

This display gave first hand account of former arsenal employees, many of which related to items in the exhibit.

These are just my opinions.  I'm sure there are designers of museum exhibits out there just itching to tell me that the arrangement of this exhibit encourages exploration or is better in one way or another.  To that I say, you're probably right.  The "shortcomings" mentioned above are merely the opinion of someone with zero experience in that field.  Please take any criticisms with that grain of salt.

Canvas goods produced for the Army by the Rock Island Arsenal.

1863, Clock Tower Construction Begins

The original 1867 clock hands shown here were donated to the Putnam in 1954.
Current day Clock Tower as seen on Google Earth.  Photopgrapher: Robert Maihofer II, © All Rights Reserved 

Not so coincidentally, one of the very first things that you see when walking into the exhibit is the life-size replica of the arsenal's clock tower face that bears the clock's original hands.  The face is roughly 12 feet in diameter and the hands are five and six feet long.  The first clock was purchased from A.S. Hotchkiss of New York City for the large sum of $5,000.  That's especially impressive since the Clock Tower, finished in 1867, was the first permanent government structure on the island.  It was originally built on top of what was then known modestly as "Storehouse A," but by 1868, had three more clock faces added to the remaining sides of the clock tower.  The original hands were replaced in 1954 and donated to the museum.  Today the Clock Tower building serves as an office building for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (since 1934) and the clock still operates as installed.

1871, Recycling

In 1871, Colonel Thomas Jackson Rodman, largely considered to be the "Father of the Arsenal" for his work in its initial design and subsequent growth, began building a blacksmith shop and later that same year would add blast furnaces to that facility.  Besides allowing the arsenal to produce building or ordnance materials, they could also implement another innovation: recycling.  Rodman would die in June of that year, but his successor, Major Flagler, was very ready to utilize these cupola furnaces to minimize construction costs, save time on the delivery of new materials, and increase the island's self sufficiency.  Tons of scrap metal existed from the Civil War: cannons, bullets, horse shoes, and more.  Previously all this material would be sold to dealers, but now the arsenal was making all sorts of material for their own use such as castings, iron columns for construction, sewer pipes, fences, railings, trusses, weights, pulleys, machines, and many other types of fixtures.  Brass was also re-purposed for construction needs.

Post Civil War shot yard full of unused ordnance at the Rock Island Arsenal.

That ordnance after being repurposed at the arsenal.

A staircase on the arsenal made from recycled metal.

1875 - 1921, Leather Equipment

Early in 1875, General Stephen V. Benet, later the Chief of United States Army Ordnance, sent the Rock Island Arsenal Commander an order for 3,000 sets of infantry equipment  and 3,000 saddles. This would mark the beginning of manufacturing for the Army at the arsenal. Prior to 1875, the arsenal's foundry and other buildings were very active producing construction material and shop equipment, but it was for the proliferation of the island's facilities and not the U.S. Army.  Also, the arsenal had been refurbishing small arms at this point, mostly Trapdoor rifles, but had not yet begun manufacturing them.  Throughout this time of cavalry use, the Rock Island Arsenal would produce saddles, bridles, reins, harnesses, stirrups, gun belts, saddles bags, cartridge pouches, slings, holsters, and scabbards.  The large boost in the production of leather goods was largely due to the Spanish-American war and gave rise to the island's Metal Polishing & Plating Department for all the rivets, buckles, and hardware on the aforementioned leather goods.

Note the crest on the front of the machine framework, also made by arsenal employees.
These were people proud of their job and their quality.

The finished products.

The sewing machine shown were originally made by Wheeler and Wilson, which, after their bankruptcy, was purchased by Singer who would continue to provide machines for the arsenal.  Many times large inventions or innovations (like the following section on the Telodynamic power) receive all the attention, but it was refreshing to see in this exhibit the many small ways that arsenal employees took it upon themselves to make small changes in their environment and work space to become more efficient.  The sewing machine table shown below is a prime example of this.  Basically, it's just a longer sewing machine table, but it was adapted from its original, standard size for use on the arsenal.  The longer table allowed the larger or longer objects to be supported while the employees worked on them, thus completing the task more quickly and easily.

Another example of these small innovations can be seen on the wooden saddler's bench shown below.  Notice the pad on the wooden seat?  Notice what it is made from?  Someone had that seat put together from the materials the arsenal was using to make the U.S. Army's canvas goods.  It's just a simple cushion, but once it was created and seen by coworkers, I bet it wasn't the only one in the shop.  Just another small way the employees of the arsenal addressed a problem and tackled it themselves.

Some of the mess kits and smaller leather goods also created by the arsenal.

1879, Telodynamic Power

As the variety and load of the work increased at the arsenal, so did the demand for powered machinery.  New buildings were going up and an answer would be needed in short form.  Enter Major Daniel W. Flagler (eventually Brigadier General Flagler) who introduced an innovative new telodynamic system.  The system used the Mississippi River to turn several turbines that, through a series of gears, turned a huge drive wheel 15 feet in diameter.

This wheel spun a cable, much like a ski lift, that proceeded north to a series of large towers behind the work shops.  Wheels on the towers transferred that same energy into the shops by using wires to turn a centralized overhead "drive shaft" of sorts.

In this photo, workmen can be seen attaching the cables that would eventually
transfer power into the shops.

When workers inside needed to power their machine, they would allow their machine's belts to come into contact with the drive shaft.  Such an idea of belt driven machines was not new, Winchester was using belts to polish his rifles almost as soon as the company bore his name, but the idea of transferring the available energy such a long distance and dispersing it in such a way was an early innovation in the history of the arsenal.  These belts powered machinery for all manner of tasks: sawing, grinding, polishing, cutting, and more.  The Teledyne system would eventually be replaced by electrical power generators in 1901.

1881, Printing Press

Not a huge innovation, but it's interesting to know that the arsenal also operated a printing press to print out many different types of targets for the Army.  They would create their own metal printing plates used in the process, and also created rolls of "target pasters," which were essentially stickers to cover bullet holes so that paper targets could be reused.  The pasters would be used through the Great War.

In another example of simple innovations at the arsenal, is what appears to be a heavy duty cane shown in the display case with the metal printing plates.  This big stick with a small leather loop was one employee's way to make life simpler.  Using this tool, a printing press operator could avoid smearing the fresh ink on the newly printed targets when removing them from the press.  This "target lifter" also likely prevented the operator's hands from being covered with ink.   Its inventor is unknown.

1885, Jewelry Department

We often associate the Rock Island Arsenal with military firearms, leather goods, and if you live in the area, you may even be aware that they currently produce armor for military HMMWVs (Humvees).  However, toward the end of the 19th century, "a Jewelry Department was added to the island to produce pins, badges, trophies, and insignia for saddle gear."  They would also electroplate items, repair saber scabbards & belts, and so on.  This lead to increased responsibilities for the arsenal in the ways of metalwork and soon the island was also tasked with making gun carriages, metal targets, horse equipment, siege carriages, caissons, forges, and eventually "gun tubes" (a.k.a. barrels).  The fabrication of artillery carriages remains to this day, an area of expertise of the Rock Island Arsenal.

The even made the boxes on the arsenal and the box liners

According to Thomas Slattery, author of An Illustrated History of the Rock Island Arsenal Island, "The RIA literally equipped the American soldiers who fought in the Spanish-American War."  He then mentioned a large number of items that when considered, would not be surprising if it were incomplete.  Not because Slattery's work is not thorough, but it simply would not be a shock to discover the arsenal made even MORE things since they seem to make everything else.  He lists: blanket bags, duffel bags, haversacks, canteens, their felt and thick duck covers, meat cans, plates, tin cups, utensils, bayonet scabbards, wooden saddle frames or saddle trees, rings, hooks, straps, carbine scabbards, saddle bags, saddles, stirrups, surcingles ("a girth that binds a saddle, pack, or blanket to the body of the horse), bridles, halters, artillery harnesses, picket pins, nose bags, horse brushes, curry combs, handgun holsters, spurs, saber belts, multiple carriage types, doors, door knobs, window frames, roof straps, pulleys, railings, iron trusses, iron columns, beams, staircases, stoves, desks, chairs, hinges, and more.

This article, even in its length, only covers SOME of the production of the RIA through the 19th century.  The museum also showed many of the items created by the arsenal during the 20th century and that's where things get really interesting for firearms collectors and people who like really big guns.  There's an "urban myth" of sorts in the Quad Cities, the metropolitan area that centers around the island.  It states that, due to the military production prowess of the arsenal, the Quad Cities was once very high on a list of potential bombing targets to be targeted by an opposing military force in a time of war.  The number or priority varies depending on who tells it, of course.  Some have the Quad Cities listed as the #7 location to be bombed, while others place it out of the top ten.  Nobody seems to know the source of such a dark piece of trivia, regardless of its accuracy.  The arsenal's Midwest location may have made such an attack a difficult task indeed, but you can find out in the second part of this article what the museum has on display that make this "urban myth" all too plausible.

-Written by Joel Kolander


Slattery, Thomas J., "An Illustrated History of the Rock Island Arsenal Island, Part Two" Historical Office, U.S. Army Armament, 1989

Display information at "An Arsenal of Innovation," Putnam Museum, Davenport, IA


  1. Very interesting and very well presented

  2. Vry interesting and even heart-warming. What a country!