A Brief History of the Oliver Machinery Company
The following excerpt is from the book
Vintage Woodworking Machinery
By Dana Batory
Available from Astragal Press
5 Cold Hill Rd. #12, P.O. Box 239, Mendham, NJ 07945,
Joseph W. Oliver was born in Oswego, New York, in 1864 and
moved to Grand Rapids in 1878 at the age of 14. He became
an apprentice machinist at the Bissell Carpet Sweeper Company
and later at Butterworth & Lowe Co., which originally
made wood trimmers.
The first wood trimmer was made in 1879 at Middletown, Connecticut,
and patented by W.R. Fox. A wood trimmer or miter trimmer
stands midway between a hand tool and a power machine tool.
Hand or foot activated, two razor sharp knives, operating
somewhat like a guillotine in a cast iron frame, offer controlled
shaving of stock.
Oliver left Butterworth & Lowe and became a salesman
for The Fox Machine Co. In 1890, certain that he could do
better marketing his own trimmers, Oliver designed a new
and more advanced line. By 1891 the Builders Iron Foundry,
Providence, Rhode Island, was manufacturing the machines
for Oliver's company, now called The American Machinery Company.
In 1896 Oliver made a personal tour of pattern shops all
over England, Ireland, and Scotland, demonstrating trimmers
and selling them from a flamboyant custom-painted horse drawn
lorry. By 1898 Oliver, tiring of the headache of jobbing
the work out, decided it was high time American built the
trimmers itself; he opened the companyís first factory
in a basement shop.
In 1903 it was decided that the company's name needed to
be changed, since it was being confused with the huge American
Wood Working Machinery Co. of Rochester, New York, a major
competitor. "The Oliver Machinery Co." was chosen. Employees
in 1903 numbered about 25. The average hourly wage was 17
cents an hour for a 60 hour week. That same year Oliver moved
into and even larger factory.
The company was incorporated January 7, 1907, with capital
consisting of $100,000 in common shares and $50,000 in preferred
stock. The net worth of the company was listed as $436,152
on October 1, 1907. Still working 60 hour weeks, the average
Oliver worker earned 21 cents per hour.
Oliver began putting serial numbers on its machinery in
1907. Serial Number 1 went on a Type B tablesaw. (As a point
of reference, the serial number of the first machine shipped
after January 1, 1990 was 207,675.)
Perhaps the greatest innovation in woodworking machinery
was the introduction of the round cutterhead. The head was
first developed in England (1901) and later in Germany, where
it was patented January 21, 1908. Oliver purchased the German
patent the same year. Every circular safety cylinder in the
United States today is basically a copy of the one brought
out by Oliver.
On December 31, 1919, Oliver Machinery, now owned by V.M.
Tuthill and F.A. and R.F. Baldwin, purchased the ownersí own
company - Baldwin, Tuthill & Bolton ñ factory,
inventory, and equipment. In other words, the companies merged,
becoming the Oliver Machinery Co. The title "Oliver" was
retained, since it was a well established and respected name.
Oliver calculated that more than 1500 high, grammar, and
intermediate schools with manual training
departments used Oliver Machinery. Between 1908 and 1922,
for example, the Minneapolis Board of Education purchased
over 264 Oliver machines.
In 1929 the company took in 9406 orders. The depression
did not hurt Oliver immediately, but eventually, sales began
to slacken. By 1931 Oliver was suffering. The bottom was
hit in 1932 and 1933; business had fallen off by 92%!
Oliver gradually emerged from the Depression, overcoming
a sudden recession in 1937 and a small dip in sales in 1944
and 1945. Oliver calculated in 1950 that its machinery was
being used in over 2200 vocational shops. In that year, Oliver
employed a total of 500 people, about 200 of whom were engaged
in building woodworking machinery, earning $1.77 per hour
for a 40 hour week.
Through the years Oliver has dropped and added various machines
to its product line. By 1994, the company had produced over
150,000 machines and Oliver estimated that over 75,000 were
still in operation on a daily basis worldwide.
Perhaps the best compliment to its line was made by retired
shop teacher Stephen Rose of Tucson, Arizona who described
Oliver's lathes to me as "boy-proof." A true test of durability
if there ever was one!
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