Keeping America Rolling: A Brief History of New Departure Manufacturing


I spent Labor Day cleaning and adjusting the brakes on Oscar under a blowtorch of 98 degree heat with no shade. Despite the weather, it was a blast. After a few thousand miles with fresh brake parts I figured it would be smart to make sure everything bedded in nicely and that there were no leaks on the rebuilt wheel cylinders. Everything was dry as a bone and looked great, proof that my Dad and brother Gordon do excellent brake work. While the front drum and hub was off, I cleaned and repacked the front wheel bearings as well for good measure.  I soaked the bearings in solvent, washed them off and blew them dry to prepare for fresh grease. While they were drying I noticed the words "New Departure" and "Made in USA" stamped onto the side of the bearing retainers and races.


The bearings showed some use, but honestly were in pretty good shape. I know Dad didn't replace them so they must have been original equipment or they were replaced many moons ago. They held up very well so I repacked them and reinstalled everything and the car is set for several thousand more miles. I'd never heard of New Departure before, so my curiosity got the better of me and I learned some fascinating details about the company that helped Oscar roll down the highway for 66 years. It all started in 1888 with a mechanical doorbell and two brothers from Connecticut.

Here is a brief history of the New Departure Manufacturing Company.




In the late 1880's, small manufacturing businesses in Bristol, Connecticut capitalized on the region's clock making connections. In that time, Bristol was known as one of the premier clock-making cities in the United States. Springs, gears, and bushings were all part of the horological process, so naturally there was a market for smaller niche manufacturers to feed the larger corporations. That's were Albert and Edward Rockwell came in. The brothers started out in Jacksonville, Florida but migrated to Bristol after a yellow fever epidemic. Albert had a knack for inventing things and both were mechanically gifted. They rented a portion of the Thompson Clock Factory on Federal Street and invented a doorbell design that used a wound clock spring to ring the bell multiple times in succession, without the use of electricity. Success would soon follow, and sales of their new doorbell were strong. Below are some of their ornate ringers circa 1890.


With the popularity of their new bell, the brothers worked to adapt their products to use electricity, still a luxury for many households at that time. A more profitable enterprise would be for them to cash in on the popularity of the bicycle, which was taking the United States by storm in the late 19th century. What did every bicycle need? A bell to warn passers-by that you were zipping past, of course! Remember those handlebar-mounted bells some of us used to have on our Schwinns? The folks at New Departure Bell Company helped spread thousands of the accessories across the cycling world, and by 1898 they had started working on other bicycle parts to design & manufacture. By 1901 the company had changed its name to New Departure Manufacturing Company and spread their time between doorbells, ball bearings, and cycle parts. This is the New Departure's patent # 807,077 for their invention of the coaster brake in 1907.

Tidbit: New Departure's Patent Counsel Gales P. Moore (see above) was the nation's first registered patent attorney.


Although the significance of the invention of the coaster brake may be lost on modern cyclists, prior to its development a cyclist would have to pedal without free-wheeling. That meant your knees and feet were constantly pedaling at whatever speed the rear chain sprocket turned...which probably would have been dangerous if you lived in a hilly part of town. Speaking of danger, brakes on a bicycle of the late 1800's were also notoriously unsafe. The coaster brake allowed for sure-footed braking for all.



New Departure wasn't just content with their successful cycling venture, the Rockwells also drew up plans for an automobile. In 1904 one was produced. Three years later after an overseas fact-finding trip to learn about taxi cabs & some assistance from Albert Rockwell's brother-in-law DeWitt Page, the Rockwell Taxi rolled out of the Bristol plant. The cab would become the workhorse of several fleets including the Connecticut Cab Company.


As the popularity of automobiles caught on with American consumers, New Departure enjoyed the distinction of being an original equipment manufacturer for numerous makes. When 1908 arrived, New Departure patented several styles of ball bearings with the United States Patent Office. Cars and bearings were a perfect match for the Rockwells and the future looked bright. Albert and his engineering staff worked to design new types of bearings for increasing industrial demands. During the company's golden years, the city of Bristol's population tripled between 1880 and 1910. A new factory on Main Street was constructed and the future looked bright for everyone.

Naturally, this is the part of the story when something bad happens.

Albert founded the Yellow Taxicab Company in New York City in 1912. This is notable because Rockwell supplied 1,000 cars and some capital to get things rolling... and soon after the company went into receivership. At the time, Yellow faced a nasty fare war among cabbies, and stiff competition in the New York market. Albert pulled out of the taxi and automobile business entirely but still had dreams of larger ventures. Back in Bristol, New Departure's treasurer Charles Treadway had grown tired of Albert Rockwell's unique mannerisms and "champagne and caviar" aspirations, so he organized a takeover of the company and forced Albert to retire. Remember Albert's brother-in-law DeWitt Page? Well he became the company's president and decided it was best to focus on the simpler "bread & butter" parts that made the company successful in the beginning.
Small parts such as ball bearings would be a smart bet. Ball bearings proved a smart bet, and in 1916 Rockwell saw the company he founded get swallowed up along with several others (Remy Electric, Dayton Engineering Labs Co., and Hyatt Roller Bearing) by William Durant, and run by Alfred Sloan. The new giant subsidiary would be known as United Motors. United Motors was then purchased by General Motors in 1918. The company churned out precision bearings of all types and this is where New Departure would succeed for the next five decades.

New Departure advertisement from 1931    Credit: GM Heritage Center

Time rolled on and the New Departure division of General Motors helped keep the country rolling through the 1920's and 1930's. New cars and trucks came standard with New Departure bearings in their axles, steering gear boxes, and transmissions. With new designs to combat friction, materials didn't heat up as much and lasted longer. Other bearing manufacturers had comparable products, but New Departure had the backing of the world's largest corporation. That helped expand the company's customer base during The Great Depression when other businesses struggled.


New Departure display at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair.      Credit: GM Heritage Center
Cars and trucks consisted of the majority of the customer base for New Departure in the 1930's, but as this 1937 film exclaims, the bicycle business wasn't dead.



As the clouds of war loomed over Europe in the early 1940's, New Departure positioned itself for large government contracts for bearings for tanks, airplanes, and military vehicles. It would eventually receive the contract to refine and produce the Norden Bombsight, the device used by aircraft bombardiers to locate a target from several thousand feet up.

New Departure eventually employed more than 20,000 workers during World War II and needed to expand. The company moved to a new factory at 290 Pratt Street in Meridan, Connecticut where they would remain for twenty years. The factory remains today, and is home to Highpower Security Products.


The post-war years were even more successful for the bell-makers turned bearing-makers. More OEM applications and a manufacturing & construction boom meant stable demand for ball bearings. During the 1940's and 1950's, your automobile, bicycle, and washing machine likely had New Departure parts inside. The construction equipment used to build your subdivision, pave your road, and hoist the I-beam on your office building also likely had them. New Departure and General Motors enjoyed a fruitful partnership for decades. During the mid 1950's the company launched a colorful advertising campaign called "New Departures of Tomorrow", and predicted such breakthroughs as touch-screens, and voice recognition.





You would think grand visions for tomorrow would keep the legacy of Albert Rockwell alive. For a company that started out small and grew to the world's largest bearing manufacturer in less than 25 years, its assumed that the next 50 years would be a piece of cake! Not unlike so many other American manufacturing stories, New Departure's ends on a sour note. 

After a successful half-century run, mergers with other companies and foreign competition got the better of it. General Motors merged their Hyatt Roller Bearing division with New Departure in 1965. Twenty-one years later the company exited commercial market entirely and produced products solely for the aviation industry. This closely followed the 1985 GM acquisition of Hughes Aviation in an attempt to diversify. New Departure ceased operations in 1993, and exists today only in a name that's licensed to the General Bearing Company. How's that for a legacy?



At least Albert Rockwell got a park named after him. He should have, he donated the land and a few thousand bucks to develop it. If you're ever in the city of Bristol Connecticut  you can stop at Rockwell Park and enjoy a little piece of what his New Departure Manufacturing helped create. After all, its creating things that made this country great...and could help us be great once again. 


-D

Comments

  1. Thanks for the history. I grew up in Bristol, and we're still recovering from losing New Departure.
    Rockwell Park is a great place to relax.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you kindly for the message. Long-term I hope things improve for manufacturing in this country.

      Cheers,
      -D

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  2. Let's not forget Page Park, named for Dewitt Page! I learned to swim in its Olympic-sized swimming pool in the 1960's. At the time my Dad was an engineer at New Departure. During the 40's and 50's N.D. was the largest manufacturer of ball bearings in the world; and their new building, built in the early 1960's was for a time, the largest factory under one roof in the entire world. Sad to see the weeds and even TREES growing in the parking lot today.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for your comment! You help paint a picture of how big the company was in its heyday. Sad to hear its fallen into disrepair.

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  3. I grew up in a house just down the hill from the ND plant. My dad taught me how to get a car out of ice-induced donuts in the ND parking lot. ND could have survived in Bristol if it had gotten better access to highways, like the 72 expansion supporters have tried to do for decades. I no longer live in Bristol; haven't for 20 years, but I am Bristol born and bred, and New Departure's legacy is still a source of civic pride (as is Rockwell Park).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for sharing your story about growing up in Bristol and the ND link. I can imagine your driving lessons in the parking lot were quite fun! Thanks for stopping by and dropping us a line.

      All the best,
      -D

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  4. A note: the Pratt St plant was in "Meriden", not "Meridian".

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for the correction. I've updated the post.
      Cheers,
      -D

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  5. Thank you so much for this article... My father worked for that company his whole working career

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    Replies
    1. You're very welcome. What years did he work there? I'm grateful for his contribution to making quality parts. My '47 Chevy is still running strong on those bearings some 70 years later.

      Thanks again,

      -D

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  6. I currently work in a factory in West Hartford (Elmwood) and we have original blueprints of the facility from 1918. The blueprints say New Departure. Do you know anything about this? I am trying to find any info on the old building. I'm thinking they were only there for a few years but it's a large complex of buildings that must have taken a lot of money to build.

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    Replies
    1. Hello Rich, and thank you for your comments. What a story! Are the blueprints in good shape? I honestly don't have any info on the original building, but I'm sure you'd be able to get more information from the folks at the West Hartford Historical Society at the Noah Webster house. 227 South Main St. West Hartford, CT 06107. Their phone number is 860-521-5362 and their email is comments@noahwebsterhouse.org. Good luck, and thank you for sharing your story.

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