Davenport Dinosaurs

By Lloyd Graff

Is it really possible that the “thing,” the loud, relay operated, cam directed monstrosity called by the name of a sofa, is on the comeback trail? 

Is it possible that the “thing” named for a little burg in Connecticut that chews up brass like it’s a kosher hot dog, still has a following? 

Could it be possible that the stodgiest of plodding metal dinosaurs that uses so many cams for one job that it requires voluminous shelves to categorize them, still has a fan club? 

Folks, it may just be possible in this weird, finally unmasked, industrial moment, that the multi-spindle automatic screw machines, known by archaic names like Davenport, New Britain, Acme-Gridley, and Wickman are making one of the oddest comebacks since cauliflower became a “hot” vegetable.

William Simeon Davenport started the Davenport Machine Tool Company in 1894 to produce clock pinion turning machines, and then progressed into building the Davenport multi-spindle turning machines, which he patented in 1902. In his words, the development of a machine is a growth process: “My first machine had about 350 parts. Improvements and simplification added the other 1,500. A machine grows out of a crude infancy like a boy into manhood.”

It was also said that old Mr. Davenport could make anything but money, but his student, an ambitious mechanic named Earl Brinkman, who began working at Davenport in 1925, turned it into a money-making machine as he became the leader of the firm.

A Davenport dinosaur, headed to a customer

My father, Leonard Graff, met Brinkman when he was first starting out in business. He regaled me with Brinkman stories when I was a kid. He connected with Earl when he was taking a train to Chicago on his way to Milwaukee to see his father during World War II. My dad convinced him to come to his shop on a Sunday and introduced him to a farm boy turned mechanic named Paul Carlson, who had recently gone to work for my father’s nascent screw machine shop, which had six Davenports then.

Brinkman coached Paul for several hours and told my dad that he was gifted, and that he could place him at any shop in America. Paul soon ran the shop and stayed with my dad for 30 years. 

When Graff Pinkert moved into our new warehouse in Oak Forest in 1975, we had a celebration and Brinkman came back to speak as a featured guest. And now in 2021, that ancient machine, not much changed from the original design of Mr. Davenport and upgraded to the Model B version by Brinkman in the 1940s, is still productive, and still amazingly successful at whacking out 1/4″ and 1/2″ parts, tapped and deburred, 10 times faster than a Citizen or Star.

Today that awkward 5-spindle, ridiculous looking, 3,000 pound erector set is in demand to make fittings and car parts in Nashville, Shanghai, and Bangalore. They’re stupid noisy, so many people shroud them with fancy Noise Tamers, which cost more than the dinosaurs themselves. Some of the true aficionados like to run them without the Tamers so they can tune themselves into the machine’s rock and roll. 

The Davenport. Is it an amazing screw machine or a dumb couch? The New Britain is named for a sleepy Connecticut town. The Acme-Gridley was invented by George Gridley, who studied stenography in his spare time while he invented his brilliant but clunky multi-spindle warrior that helped win two World Wars.

These loud tyrannosauruses still bang out parts by the multimillions each month. To my amazement, after spending a lifetime listening to their Timkens, they are making another comeback.

When everybody believes an idea is dead, it may well be the time to buy.

Question: What is the oldest machine you use in your shop?

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14 thoughts on “Davenport Dinosaurs

  1. Michael R bowser

    1946 Leblond Regal 17×60.
    Still turns to tenths if you know it’s quirks.
    Changes feedrates and carriage directions without stopping the spindle.
    . . . but no metric threads!

  2. John

    We still run a pair of 1937 Kent-Owens hand mills. Both are complete with WWII War Board approval stamps on them.

  3. fred f

    Great machine tool history story Lloyd!
    I have a collection of manual machines as well. Was told to scrap them and update but I hung on. Then several years ago the gas drilling boom came to be and my old turret lathes and small Bullard VTL (bought years ago for pennys on the dollar) got dusted off and made record hourly rates for several years in a row. Now I just grin when I walk past the dinosaurs. They’re not going anywhere till I’m gone first.

  4. Thomas

    Our first and oldest machine is a 1946 1-1/4 RA-6 Acme Gridley. It is still in good shape and running well.
    After high school my father was a B&S set up man for Westinghouse Electric. He left to serve in WW 2 and after the war he bought the Acme and put it in his father’s garage.
    On a side note, he bought the Acme instead of a B&S since National Acme would extend him credit and Brown and Sharpe would not. I think the price was about $12,500.

  5. Jon Moore

    When I was first running Davenports as a teenager in the 1970’s.
    Had a question about how to repair something on a Davenport.
    Had the luck of getting Mr. Brinkman on the phone at Davenport.
    He told me to ask for him when I called.
    Had many conversations with Mr. Brinkman after that great day.

  6. Billy Hogge

    I see such a market for it now, more so than ever, the problem is (at least down here in the south) i cant find a soul who can set these things up and run them. I have 4 that are re-built, another 6 I had planned to bring up on line, but I no longer have anyone that can set up and run them.. Fortunately I have over 100 CNC’s to do the work, but would love to get the Davenport shop up and running again. I have plenty of work for it.

    Any of yall want to move to south carolina and run Davenports let me know over at http://www.screwmatics.com

  7. Gloria

    our oldest machine is a Davenport. They are really built to last as long as you take good care of them. They can be noisy, dirty machines, but great at making long running parts.

  8. Steven Horn

    1945 2 5/8″ RB-6 Acme Gridley
    Still ripping out the parts on a daily basis.
    Unfortunately I had to scrap out a older 9/16″ war machine a few years back.

  9. Nathan Joslin

    We’re not 100% sure of its build date, but know for certain that one of our four-slide wire forming machines was built pre-1897. It produces two parts per second and will sing you to sleep with all of its cams, slides, ticks, and tocks. When the factory was still in business, during a phone conversation they asked about the crankshaft diameter. When we answered, they said “oh, that was before the fire.” When asked when the fire was, their response, “1897.” Well built machines will always stand the test of time. When I really take a minute to step back and look at what was built and how it was done “back then”, it makes be realize how little we’ve done in the last 100 years in regards to advancement…..with the obvious exclusion of the technology industry.

  10. Peter+Frow

    Thanks for the fascinating history lesson Lloyd. Question:
    How did Mr Gridley come to have his name added to the New Britain brand. The designs of the NB and Acme are quite different in many ways I wondered if this was to get around Gridley’s original patents.

  11. Lloyd+Graff

    Peter, New Britain Machine was primarily in the hand tool business during much of its history, making Craftsman socket wrenches and sockets and NAPA sockets as well as other tools. George Gridley bought it in the 1930s to further develop his screw machine ideas with a built in customer i
    n the socket division. I don’t know if his stenographers background ever helped in in screw machine building or wrenches.

  12. Peter+Frow

    Thanks for this info Lloyd. The New Britain has the spindle cartridge rotating anti-clockwise against the Acme’s clockwise, also the in the New Britain the spindles are oriented 30 degrees different to the Acme. So were New Britain producing multis to their own design before George Gridley bought them?

  13. Lloyd+Graff

    Honestly, Peter I do not know the answer, but New Britain Machine had a huge customer base in sockets and hand tools so George Gridley could afford to experiment.

  14. Steven+Balder

    Great article. I do not have screw machine experience but have looked at these machines in person and online and wonder if the old cam machines could be converted to servo-driven operation instead of machines “that uses so many cams for one job that it requires voluminous shelves to categorize them”. Isn’t a cam just a profile of the path the cutter will follow for the operation? If so, single axis servo controls can set the path for each axes and be switched and tweaked via computer-aided manufacturing CAM software rather than actual physical cams.

    Is there a market/desire for this kind of conversion and retrofit to Davenport or other types of screw machines or would screw machine owners and operators find it to be too much of a Frankenstein cross between old school and cnc/swiss?


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