My last post “Being G. Moffat” lead to an exciting conversation about tools with some of you readers. Fellow blogger Stu’s passionate comments about his South Bend bench lathe and his milling machine inspired me to do some research on that company. I discovered that South Bend Lathe Works, founded in 1906 in Indiana, was the largest manufacturer of precision lathes in the world. In 1975 it became the largest employee-owned plant in the US. And another interesting fact is that they supplied their machines to 75% of schools and colleges in North America. That reminded me of a place where I once taught Continuing Ed. jewellery classes, at Vancouver Technical Secondary.
The metal shop was located in a wing built in the 1920’s. I loved that it was a large space, brightly lit by tall windows and skylights, but what intrigued me was that it was filled with rows of mysterious machines, some of them clearly from another time, and most of them no longer used. I took a lot of pictures before I left, and then forgot about them. Now I wonder, was there one of these legendary South Bend machines in the Van Tech metal shop? I shall investigate.
Examining my pictures, looking for clues, brings me back to my university days, when as an archeology student I would clean and inventory hundreds of pieces of Roman ceramics. The cleaning part was really no more glamourous than washing a pile of broken old dishes, but the detective work was what I loved. What were these pots used for? Where did they come from? From what workshop? That was always exciting!
But today, these are the artifacts I need to inventory: shears, grinders, punches, tube and pipe benders, hydraulic presses, rolling mills, and of course lathes and milling machines. And now too, I look at the shapes, colours, trademarks, anything that can help me get a better sense of the world they come from. Some are newer models, and some go back several decades, with peeling paint, dents and scratches left by many generations of students.
In the casting area, abandoned tools are so rusty that they really do look as if they came right out of an archeological dig, a bitter-sweet still life set against the proverbial institutional green walls.
Logos and names tell a story as well. These machines come from all over the world: England, Austria, Canada and the United States, to mention just a few. These machines are giants with intimidating names like “Invicta Major” that speak of national pride, and of a time when Western countries reigned supreme over their manufacturing empires and were thought to be invincible.
Today the reality is different. For the first time ever, for a student graduating from a five-year machinist programme, job prospects are declining as manufacturing jobs are leaving North America and relocating overseas. China is now the largest manufacturing country in the world, overtaking the United States only a few years ago.
Sadly and slightly surprisingly, I did not find a South Bend machine in my Van Tech metal shop photos. But stepping back, I see the bigger picture. This shop is a time capsule of a world that we may take for granted, but is surely fading away and may soon disappear. As an instructor teaching Metal Techniques in a Jewellery programme, I do believe in the value of the skills I pass on to the next generation of goldsmiths. But, what will their place and their role be in the new age we are moving into?
PS: For those of you who are not familiar with Stu’s blog, here‘s the link.