This Place in History: James Hartness

Vermont Historical Society


At ‘This Place in History‘ we’re in Springfield, Vt. with Executive Director of the Vermont Historical Society Steve Perkins. A few years ago, we visited the American Precision Museum to discuss the Precision Valley and innovation.

“We are going to touch on one of the big movers and shakers in creating the Precision Valley. It was the Silicon Valley of its time, right here in Vermont,” began Perkins.

“James Hartness. He’s always talked about as James Hartness, Governor of Vermont. His career encompassed so many other things and he was really this renaissance man when it came to mechanical engineering.”

“He wasn’t born in Vermont. He was born in Schenectady, grew up in Ohio and worked in Massachusetts in the machine tool industry down there. But, then kind of early in his career, ended up moving here to Springfield. Hartness made his fortune by inventing a lot of these tools, especially the flat turret lathe. Don’t ask me to describe exactly how it works, but this was a real leap forward in machine tools and he made a lot of money off this patent, which his firm then manufactured and shipped all over the world,” said Perkins.

“This is my favorite part [of his house] and why I really wanted to come to Springfield today. That’s an observatory. Equatorial Telescope is the exact terminology for that. A traditional observatory of the time had all of the mechanics and everything above ground. It was cold in Vermont. There’s a number of technical reasons why he built it this way, but one of the big ones was that he could be inside underground and using this telescope in any sort of weather and not be exposed. It was comfortable. And what’s really cool is that telescope is connected to his mansion by a series of underground rooms and tunnels.”

“He ran for and won election as Vermont Governor. He only served one term, a two year term. He ran on the idea that too many Vermonters were leaving the state. Sounds familiar, right? And that the jobs that industry would bring, as well as good transportation, good roads, airports, airplanes, would all lift the state up.”

“He felt the roads in Vermont needed to be improved. But even more so, he felt the future was in aviation. He got an aviator’s license in 1914. He was one of the very first people to get that license and he got it on a Wright Flyer, a Wright Biplane made by the Wright Brothers. He loved aviation and he built with his own money the first airport in Vermont. It was called the Springfield Aerodrome right here in Springfield and it’s now the Hartness State Airport,” concluded Perkins.

At ‘This Place in History’!

For more from our ‘This Place in History’ series, click here.

To view a map of Vermont’s roadside historic site markers, click here.

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