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E.W. Bliss Co: Torpedoes and Telegraph Codes

Jan 6, 2011 2:04 PM | 13 comments

Among the much-appreciated gifts that have found their way to my desk in recent weeks, is one from Michael D. Barber of Leeds, U.K.  Mr Barber's parcel contained  a 1901 catalogue of the products made by Brooklyn's E.W. Bliss Co, bearing  a bookplate from the "Projectile Co. (1902) Ltd, of New Road, Wandsworth, S.W., sole agents for E.W. Bliss Co, , Brooklyn, NY, Presses, Dies and Special Machinery." There must have been a ready market for Bliss products in industrial West Yorkshire, and so it is in no way strange that the 534 page catalogue of heavy machinery should have found its way there. A "Bliss" Automatic Muck Bar Shear sounds as if it ought to have come from Yorkshire, in fact; but it didn't. It and its confreres, such as the Brass-founders' Sprue Cutter, or the Horizontal Boring Mill, were made right here in Brooklyn from 1857 for about a hundred years. These powerful twisters and pressers of metal with names that evoke the torture chamber, inspire awe. The "Bliss Gang-Slitting machine" could have been used by Mafiosi for quick dispatch of multiple rivals; the "Double Crank Press" and the "Double Eccentric Press, Geared" could be intended for the suppression of crackpots; while the "Bliss" Reducing Press could have found a hot market among slimmers in search of an alternative to dieting. I have a special soft spot for the Power Press No 18 on Short Legs and the Double Seamer for Flat Bottoms with collapsible chuck. It sounds so human, and so like myself.

E.W. Bliss counted its first year in business as 1857. It was incorporated in 1885 by Eliphalet W. Bliss, Anna M. Bliss of New Utrecht, and William A. Porter, Frank M. Leavitt and Charles L. Hart of Brooklyn. The capital was fixed at $100,000 divided into 4,000 shares of $25 each. Originally located at the foot of Adams Street, the Bliss company bought property in Bay Ridge in 1890, until eventually their plant occupied two entire long blocks between Second Ave and the shoreline and 53rd and 54th Streets.

As well as making metal pressing machines, Bliss produced pressed metal products. During the Spanish-American War and World Wars I and II the company obtained important defense contracts for the manufacture of torpedoes. As early as 1892 the E.W. Bliss Company was testing torpedoes in Peconic Bay, once accidentally  ripping through the hull of a nearby small boat when a shell veered off course.  (Luckily neither of the boat's occupants was directly in its path, and both could swim.) In 1898 the company took special precautions against Spanish spies who, it was feared, would penetrate the secrets of torpedo production, and "cranks" who might wish to obtain dynamite.

Bliss company workers belonged to the American Federation of Labor in the 1890s, and in 1891 they went on strike, demanding a reduction in work hours from  fifty-nine to fifty-three at wages of $2.50 to $4.50 a day. After seven weeks labor and management reached a compromise: the men would work fifty-five hours and be paid for  fifty-six and a half.

The impressive images of heavy machinery in the Bliss catalogue are keyed to an intriguing dictionary of telegraphic code words listed at the end. Every machine and many actions and functions on which the Bliss business depended, as well as ports and shipping lines, had  their own code words. Frequently asked questions such as "How do you propose to pay, and what are your references?" or "By what line or road did you ship, and when?"  had their own codes: Pleadings and Plumule, respectively. Some of the nicest words, such as "plumpest," had rather unpleasant meanings; in this case "We cannot ship until funds are received."  One could imagine wanting to order a  "Steam Power outfit for making tops and bottoms for 5-gallon cans," just for the pleasure of using the code word Queentruss. "Plaster Platonacid Polecat Rotgut Pockish" translates as  "Ship at once to Hull 25  x No 253 "Stiles" Tackmaking Shears. Shall we attend to insurance?" The dictionary of code words goes on for 80 pages of small print. Syntactic rules governed the ordering of square as opposed to round holes (add an "s"  to the end of keywords.) So complex are some of the rules that orders must surely have been misinterpreted from time to time. For example, "If oblong holes (are wanted) take the two keywords corresponding to the two dimensions and let the one for front to back precede the other." Right.

Like so many Brooklyn businesses, E.W. Bliss quit operations in the borough in the 1940s. Three reasons were given for the move to Englewood, N.J. and Toledo, Cleveland and Salem, Ohio. Two cents a pound were added to freight costs for machines shipped to the midwestern automotive, electrical and domestic applicance market; there was duplication of facilities after mergers with former competitors; and the multi-storey buildings in Brooklyn were found to be "unsuited for the most efficient manufacturing." It was in fact on Christmas Eve of 1947, after 90 years in Brooklyn, that the plant closed its doors and the 500 remaining workers out of 1800 at the company's high point, packed up their tools and went home to contemplate what must have looked like a bleak future. 

 

Comments

1/11/2011 11:51:40 AM #

I'm so glad the book ended up in the right place and with the right person to gloss it ! It will no doubt become a much sought item in the library..amongst mechanical engineers, anyway! If any one in Brooklyn has information about other links with Yorkshire I would be happy to correspond. Mike Barber , Leeds, Yorkshire, England.

Mike Barber

3/2/2011 9:45:22 PM #

The telegraphic code you describe sounds standard, and would not have posed difficulties for users of the time. 80 pages of code... nice!

John McVey

3/2/2011 9:49:30 PM #

ah, the code can also be found at books.google.com/books

John McVey

8/11/2011 9:41:06 PM #

In the era around-1937, C. Hobart Smith was E. W.'s private secretary.  Are there any photographs from that era?

Douglas smith

10/30/2011 11:06:48 PM #

The telegraphic code, while quite mysterious sounding, was only a "code" in the sense that it substituted something for something else. The purpose of this (and hundreds of similar such codes back in the day of limited long distance telephone service and the Western Union) was to save money on the cost of transmitting the wire.

Like much else in the world, telegrams were sold by the unit (in this case, the word). Sub in an odd word like "Plumbago" for "double eccentric gear-driven, full revolution power press", and you've just saved your firm a couple of bucks. Do the kind of business that old Eliphalet was conducting during the period, and your savings add up pretty quick.

Incidentally, old E. W. Bliss power presses are still very much in evidence throughout US industry. They aren't the most modern tools in the industrial toolbox, but for many repetitive and automated metal stamping purposes, they soldier on even to this day. Just don't count on one stopping in a hurry once the tripping means are activated.

Terry Stibal

1/10/2012 6:15:22 PM #

In 1974 I was a junior at Timken Vocational High in Canton, Ohio.  I joined the Junior Achivement  and was made the Production Manager.  By that time I was on my third year taking machine courses.

It turned out that E W Bliss was our sponsor.  After I designed the drill fixtures we needed to produce our product, supervisors at Bliss took me through a tour on the four factories in Canton.

They showed me the worlds longest metal lathe and I will never forget a machinst walking on the table of a huge vertical boring mill checking the cut.  They had a picture that showed 100 men standing on it's table.

Not sure of the details, but they showed me the huge overhead crane and said the columns supporting it were half furnished by the Navy and Army.

I will bever forget the size of those machines.

Joe

Joe Zugcic

2/14/2012 3:55:32 PM #

I'm in possession of a 1915 copy of:  USEFUL INFORMATION and illustration of a few STADNDARD MACHINES built by E. W. BLISS CO.  The price at that time was 25 cents.  There are many good photos of drop presses, hammers, many tables, etc.  Very neat little book.  Is it of any value at this time?

Jean Campbell
P O Box 168
Mountain Grove, MO.   65711

Jean Campbell

3/4/2012 11:44:08 AM #

I am presently working on a  Bliss power press which has a 54" flywheel, single crank, having an "air clutch" in the flywheel at the right end and a band brake at the other, the machine has a date stamped on its frame "1922"
If this was the date of manufacture. it would make Bliss a pioneer in modern Press design, Butterly of Derby England were still making "full revolution" presses in the early 70,s using half moon keys  for full revolution "unstopables".
I would be interested to know the history of this crucial developement on press control and the role it played in the safety aspect for the operator?
Did the presucution of Patents withhold this safety advantage?

GF

gfwhell

7/14/2012 1:00:07 AM #

MY FATHER W.R.EVANS(BILL) WAS THE CHIEF ENGINEER
AT THE BROOKLYN PLANT WHEN THEY WERE MAKING
TORPEDOES FOR THE U.S.A. DURING W.W.2 IN 1943.

KEN EVANS

4/26/2013 5:44:30 PM #

Here's a link to E.W. Bliss' building in Brooklyn being mentioned in the New York Times yesterday.
www.nytimes.com/.../94BDyw
follow me on twitter at @ewbliss

Eliphalet Williams

4/26/2013 5:47:28 PM #

Ken, I'm a big fan of the man, the building and his company, E.W. Bliss. Want to do a book on him someday! Would love to receive any material towards that end.

Eliphalet Williams

4/28/2013 11:50:25 PM #

My great, great grandfather was the Charles L. Hart of Brooklyn who was a founding partner of the E. W. Bliss Co.  He was their European Executive, and was in London, England with his wife on business when my great grandmother, Nellie Hart (Mott) was born on October 31, 1889, giving her dual citizenship.

Roger Wilmot Weldon

5/10/2013 2:09:50 PM #

Our family is going through our late father's posessions and discovered a commemorative coin of the company.  It has a picture of the man on one side and samples of machines on the other.  The booklet inside the box talks about the centennial and what the company did.  Please send me mailing information via e mail if either of you would like this coin.  I will be happy to mail it to you.

Karyn Schmidt

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