‘Everyone’s fighting over the skeletons of the Industrial Revolution’

December 6, 2013

(Brian Fung / The Washington Post)

The factory in Lawrence, Mass., was supposed to be an ordinary harvest. They'd heard of the shuttered plant through a woman at a cocktail party whose late father had worked there. Once upon a time, it had been inhabited by the Dillon Machine Co., a firm founded in 1890 to produce paper-milling equipment. Now its owners were liquidating everything inside, and for $5,000, Carter Anderson and Glen Stone could take whatever they wanted.

The two men did this often — visiting old, shuttered factories, salvaging what they could and turning it into new furniture. When they arrived, the milling machines were gone, sold already to another buyer who would either repurpose them or break them down for parts. Hardly a surprise, except that virtually everything else had been left untouched.

"People have usually gone into these factories they've liquidated," says Stone. "We might find old cabinets or a few pieces of old machinery. But this one just had everything in it. The offices were still intact. The infirmary was still there, with the bed set up, doctor's tools, medicine cabinets with medicine in them."

Then Stone and Anderson found their way to the basement.

Filling the room were tens of thousands of meticulously hand-drawn blueprints tucked away in imposing wooden cabinets. "Beautiful" didn't do them justice. The designs, for a set of giant paper-making machines, hadn't been touched for decades. It seemed too much of a waste to leave them; the factory owners wanted nothing to do with the plant any longer. So Anderson and Stone loaded them into a 53-foot tractor trailer along with their real prize — the plant's abandoned furniture — and brought much of the cache back to their warehouse in Alexandria.

If tech blogs had been around in 1890, this is what they would've written about.

Somebody actually drew these!

The designs mostly describe a product sold by Dillon Machine called the Jordan. Looking at it on paper, nearly a century later, you can almost watch the wheels turning, the chains clanking, everything a perfectly choreographed series of well-oiled motions.

(Brian Fung / The Washington Post)

Some of the oldest blueprints were preserved on a cloth-like paper whose fibers were plainly visible.

(Brian Fung / The Washington Post)

Others showed signs of erasure where somebody made a mistake.

(Brian Fung / The Washington Post)

Still others bore hand-scribbled notes, like "Changed like this when we made base larger."

(Brian Fung / The Washington Post)

The ones Anderson showed me were drawn in the 1930s. There are blueprints I didn't see that are even older.

(Brian Fung / The Washington Post)

This is what the Jordan looked like: The jagged lines in the middle denote sharp metal blades that churned pulp. Along with the blueprints, Anderson and Stone recovered both a person-sized mold of the Jordan and a miniature model that was used in the company's patent application.

(Brian Fung / The Washington Post)
(Brian Fung / The Washington Post)
(Brian Fung / The Washington Post)

Occasionally, another contraption would make an appearance.

(Brian Fung / The Washington Post)

(Brian Fung / The Washington Post)

(Brian Fung / The Washington Post)

(Brian Fung / The Washington Post)

Everything was drawn to exacting specifications. There were no photocopiers then.

(Brian Fung / The Washington Post)

What makes these artifacts of another age so remarkable isn't just the clear evidence of craftsmanship, but how easily an observer from the 21st century can intuit how the contraptions were meant to work. Cogs and gears and ratchets are instantly comprehensible in a way that even our most common gadgets today are not. Our cars are essentially giant rolling computers. Our smartphones are magical bricks. If an alien visited Earth long after we'd gone and picked up a mobile phone, it would have no idea what to do with it. Our technology is as sophisticated as it's ever been — but it's also more opaque than it used to be.

The refurbished industrialism

Anderson is a cross between an antique collector and an artisan. He's filled half his warehouse with cast-iron frames, creaky metal lockers and bowling-alley floorboards. Some of it dates to the 19th century. All of it is destined to become furniture.

Desks and coffee tables might not sound like they have a lot to do with technology. Indeed, for much of the '80s and '90s people like Stone and Anderson were restoring quaint old country-style beds and dressers in a fashion known as shabby chic. But the country's transition to an information economy has turned the last 15 years into a massive race to find the remnants of America's industrial heritage.

"Everyone's fighting over the skeletons of the Industrial Revolution," says Anderson. "In 10 years, it'll all be gone. ... Ninety percent of it will be scrapped or sent overseas."

Part of an industrial scale that Stone and Anderson brought back from Lawrence, Mass. (Brian Fung / The Washington Post)

For the reclaimed-furniture industry, it's as much a competition against the clock as it is a fight among craftsmen. Ironically, the pressure is only likely to grow as some companies begin moving manufacturing jobs back to the United States. That's because the kind of work these companies do — assembling Apple's Mac Pro, for instance, or Google Glass — isn't the type of manufacturing that defined much of the 20th century. Still other companies are dumping their old equipment on the market simply because they're doing well and need to expand. Anderson helped relieve Hershey, the candy company, of machinery that it didn't plan to relocate to a new factory it had built in Pennsylvania last year.

Anderson has an encyclopedic familiarity with the goods he often finds in factories around the country. He points out a greenish set of lockers to me.

(Brian Fung / The Washington Post)

"They only made furniture with this handle for about 10 years, from 1920 to 1930," he says. How does he know that? "I've been doing this for 25 years. And I talk to a lot of old guys."

(Brian Fung / The Washington Post) (Brian Fung / The Washington Post)

In an indication of our appetite for economic origin stories, Stone and Anderson's eight-man company, Carbon Industrial, does around $1 million in sales every year. The refurbished products rarely look anything like the crumbling factories they came from. The metal is practically reflective; the wood is golden. Yet there's no mistaking it — the stuff has clearly arrived from another time.

Anderson still isn't sure what to do with the blueprints he and Stone recovered in Lawrence weeks ago. He's considering donating them to a museum. Unlike cast-iron baseplates and old steel rods, you can't turn paper into a kitchen island.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecom, broadband and digital politics. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.
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