Samuel Colt was born July 19, 1814 in Hartford, Connecticut.
In 1830, a July 4 accident caused a fire that ended his formal education, and his father sent him off to learn the seaman’s trade.
On a voyage to Calcutta on board the brig Corvo, he noticed that regardless of which way the ship’s wheel was spun, each spoke always came in direct line with a clutch that could be set to hold it.
So he took this idea and made a wooden model of a pepperbox revolver out of scrap wood. It differed from other pepperbox revolvers at the time in that it would allow the shooter to rotate the cylinder by the action of cocking the hammer and a pawl locking the cylinder in place, rather than rotating the barrels by hand and hoping for proper indexing and alignment.
When Colt returned to the United States in 1832, he went back to work for his father, who financed the production of two guns, a rifle and a pistol.
The first completed pistol exploded when it was fired, but the rifle performed well. His father would not finance any further development, so Samuel needed find a way to pay for the development of his ideas.
He had learned about nitrous oxide (laughing gas) from the factory chemist in his father’s textile plant, so he took a portable lab on the road and earned a living performing laughing gas demonstrations across the United States and Canada, billing himself as “the Celebrated Dr. Coult of New-York, London and Calcutta”.
He started his lectures on street corners and soon worked his way up to lecture halls and museums. As ticket sales declined, Colt realized that “serious” museum lectures were not what the people wanted to pay money to see and that it was dramatic stories of salvation and redemption the public craved.
While visiting his brother, John, in Cincinnati, he partnered with sculptor, Hiram Powers, for his demonstrations with a theme based on The Divine Comedy. Powers made detailed wax sculptures and paintings based on demons, centaurs and mummies from Dante. Colt constructed fireworks to complete the show, which was a success. According to Colt historian Robert Lawrence Wilson, the “lectures launched Colt’s celebrated career as a pioneer Madison Avenue-style pitchman”. His public speaking skills were so prized that he was thought to be a doctor and was pressed into service to cure an apparent cholera epidemic on board a riverboat by giving his patients a dose of nitrous oxide.
Having some money saved and keeping his idea alive of being an inventor as opposed to a “medicine man”, Colt made arrangements to begin building guns using proper gunsmiths from Baltimore, Maryland. He abandoned the idea of a multiple barreled revolver and opted for a new design, a rotating cylinder which would come into alignment with a single barrel due to his idea of a pawl engaging the cylinder and holding it in place. He sought the counsel of a friend of his father, Henry Leavitt Ellsworth, who loaned him $300 and advised him to perfect his prototype before applying for a patent.
Colt hired a gunsmith by the name of John Pearson to build his revolver. Over the next few years Colt and Pearson fought over money, but the design improved and in 1835 Colt was ready to apply for his US patent.
Ellsworth was now the superintendent of the US Patent Office and advised Colt to file for foreign patents first as a prior US patent would keep Colt from filing a patent in Great Britain.
In August 1835, Colt left for England and France to secure his foreign patents.
Despite the reluctance of English officials to issue a patent to Colt, no fault could be found with the gun and he was issued his first patent (Number 6909).
Then upon his return to America, he applied for his US patent for a “revolving gun”; he was granted the patent 9430X on February 25, 1836.
With a loan from his cousin, Dudley Selden, and letters of recommendation from Ellsworth, Colt formed a corporation of venture capitalists in April 1836 to bring his idea to market. Through the political connections of these venture capitalists, the Patent Arms Manufacturing of Paterson, New Jersey, was chartered by the New Jersey legislature on March 5, 1836. Colt was given a commission for each gun sold in exchange for his dam of patent rights, and stipulated the return of the rights if the company disbanded.
Samuel Colt’s US revolver patent gave him a monopoly on revolver manufacture until 1857. His was the first practical revolver and the first practical repeating firearm due to progress made in percussion technology. No longer a mere novelty arm, the revolver became an industrial and cultural legacy as well as a contribution to the development of war technology, ironically personified in the name of one of his company’s later innovations, the “Peacemaker”.
It is estimated that in its first 25 years of manufacturing, Colt’s company produced over 400,000 revolvers. Before his death, each barrel was stamped: “Address Col. Samuel Colt, New York, US America”, or a variation using a London address. Colt did this as New York and London were major cosmopolitan cities and he retained an office in New York at 155 Broadway where he based his salesmen.
Samuel Colt died of gout in Hartford on January 10, 1862, and was buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery. At the time of his death, Colt’s estate, which he left to his wife and three-year-old son Caldwell Hart Colt, was estimated to be valued at around $15 million.
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