Inventor, Industrialist. He is best remembered as the founder of Colt's Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company (now known as Colt's Manufacturing Company) that developed the legendary Colt .45 caliber Peacemaker six-shot single action revolver which would become a symbol of the American Frontier West. His marketing techniques transformed the firearm from a utilitarian object into a central symbol of American identity and his manufacturing methods were at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution. He became one of the first industrialists to successfully mass-produce the revolver by use of the assembly line process along with interchangeable parts, making it commercially accessible for the first time. Born in Hartford, Connecticut, his father was a farmer who had moved his family there after becoming a textile businessman. At age 11 he began working for a farmer while attending school at the same time, where he soon became fascinated by the inventions he read about in the "Compendium of Knowledge," a scientific encyclopedia. In 1829 he started working in his father's textile factory in Ware, Massachusetts and soon began experimenting with explosives and pyrotechnic devices. The following year, he attended a boarding school where a July 4th accident caused a fire that terminated his schooling and he was signed up to become a seaman. In 1832 he returned to the US to work for his father again who agreed to finance the production of a pistol and a rifle. While the pistol failed, the rifle was successful but his father refused to contribute any more money to his invention. To secure financing, he embarked on a tour across the US and Canada, demonstrating the use of nitrous oxide (laughing gas), billing himself as "the Celebrated Dr. Coult of New York, London and Calcutta." When business started to decline, he added fireworks to expand his demonstrations and, along with his public speaking skills, his show became a success. With the money he saved, he started building firearms using proper gunsmiths and traveled to Baltimore, Maryland to start his new venture. By 1835 he had perfected a prototype rotating cylinder revolver. He then traveled to England, where he applied for and received a foreign patent for the new design, then returned and applied for a US patent which was granted in February 1836. The following April he formed the Patent Arms Manufacturing Corporation of Paterson, New Jersey, which soon ended in failure due to the Panic of 1837, coupled with poor sales and his mismanagement and reckless spending. He took his invention on the road in an effort to raise money by "show and tell" demonstrations in general stores but was unable to secure the necessary funding to buy the equipment needed to make the required interchangeable parts. He demonstrated his firearm to President Andrew Jackson who approved it, but ultimately failed to obtain a Congressional appropriation for the US military to purchase them. In 1842 he developed an underwater mine for the US Navy, but it also failed due to lack of US Congressional support. He then turned his attention to perfecting the tinfoil cartridge that he originally designed for use in his revolvers and the US Army purchased a few thousand rounds for further study. In 1843 the US Army ordered 200,000 of the cartridges for use in muskets. Afterwards, he focused his efforts on manufacturing a waterproof telegraph cable that coincided with inventor Samuel F.B. Morse's telegraph, in hopes to raise enough money to reopen his Patent Arms Manufacturing Company which had closed due to poor sales. When it failed, he devoted his time to improving his earlier revolver design and had a prototype built, submitting it to the War Department as a "holster revolver." After the Mexican-American War erupted In April 1846, a Captain Samuel Walker of the Texas Rangers came to New York City, New York, looking to buy some of his revolvers (he had previous experience using them during the Seminole War). Walker placed an order for 1,000 revolvers with some requested modifications, which included increasing the chamber capacity from 5-shots to 6. Colt then hired Eli Whitney Blake, an established arms manufacturer to make his guns, which became known as the Colt Walker. After receiving a second 1,000 order, he was finally able to purchase the equipment and tooling from Blake and in 1848 he established his own firearms factory, the Colt's Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company, at Hartford, Connecticut. More contracts soon followed and his business expanded rapidly, and he opened a firearms factory in London, England. In 1855 he completed construction of his new Hartford manufacturing plant, which was the largest private arms manufacturing facility in the world. He established a ten-hour day for employees, installed washing stations in the factory, mandated a one-hour lunch break, and built a recreational facility, where employees could enjoy games, newspapers, and discussion rooms. However, he ran his plant with a military-like discipline, in which he would fire workers for tardiness, sub-par work or even suggesting improvements to his designs. Because he was only a private citizen, he could not secure audiences with foreign heads of state to market his revolvers, so he persuaded the governor of Connecticut to make him a lieutenant colonel and aide-de-camp in the state militia. With his new rank he toured Europe again, using innovative marketing techniques, including the gift of custom engraved revolvers to high-ranking persons. Beyond manufacturing arms, his use of art that depicted his revolvers being used in exotic scenes against Native Americans, wild animals, and bandits, along with celebrity endorsements, self-promotion tactics, corporate gifts, and even bribery to promote his firearms, made him a pioneer in the fields of advertising, product placement, and mass marketing. As the American Civil War approached, he sold firearms to both the North and the South and was known to sell weapons to warring parties on both sides of other European conflicts. Shortly after the Civil War broke out in April 1861, he received a commission as a Colonel of the 1st Regiment Colts Revolving Rifles of Connecticut, but he was soon discharged due to health reasons. He died of gout in Hartford, Connecticut at the age of 47. At the time of his death, he was one of the wealthiest men in the US with an estate valued at an estimated $15 million. During his lifetime and even after his death, he was often criticized for promoting his weapons through the use of unscrupulous methods. He vigorously protected his patent rights, and his personal vanity would prevent his own company from producing a cartridge firearm until 10 years after his death. In 2006 he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Bio by: William Bjornstad
Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt