[A series of never-before-published photos from the National Archives]


It’s difficult to imagine today, but at the dawn of the 20th Century the United States had a tiny military, and its foreign policy was steered by the majority pacifist inclination of its people.  Leaders of the ‘no war/no military’ camp included the Church (especially Protestants), the women’s movement, the large farming lobby, and scholars/left-leaning thinkers who feared the USA becoming a militarized state.  World War 1 (as it became known after WW2) dramatically changed American politics, priorities, infrastructure, and economy in the ways we see today, with most Protestant sects identified with military boosterism and conservative political activism, and over half the federal budget dedicated to military spending.  While the US was ‘only’ involved in the European war for 20 months, it proved the hinge that pivoted America in a totally new, militarized direction, and boosted the fortunes of motorcycle companies able to secure government contracts to supply military equipment.

The assembly department at the Indian factory, where motorcycles are built up from pre-assembled units (engine, gearbox, chassis) arriving from other parts of the factory. Note these are spring-frame chassis, with Indian’s patent leaf-sprung rear suspension. [National Archive]
The USA did its best to stay out of the European conflict of 1914, remaining technically independent as war raged.  America was a growing economic force in the early 20th Century, but its military was very small: in 1915 the US Army included 100,000 men, and the National Guard another 100,000, but combined this was less than 20% of Germany’s military, and smaller than the militaries of all 14 combatants of the war.  The American Navy was tiny, and ‘modern’ military ideas like airplanes, tanks, trench warfare, and poison gas simply weren’t discussed.  Even Henry Ford (ironically to become a supporter of Hitler in the 1930s) financed a ‘peace ship’ that sailed to Europe to negotiate an end to the war, without success.

“The first motorcycle battery of New Jersey, showing the method of mounting a Colt-Martin rapid fire machine gun on a sidecar.”(Note the acetylene gas generator and lamp, and the lack of armor-plating; this machine was intended for use against civilians! Labor strikers, political demonstrations, etc.  Note also the machine gun is not as captioned in 1918 – it’s actually a Colt-Browning M1895 “potato digger”) [National Archive]
America’s vision of itself was very different in 1914 than today, and its politics were far less homogenous (regardless of our current, apparently at-odds moment), with the Church playing an important role in shaping public opinion towards pacifism, along with large groups of socialists, anarchists, labor unionists, and syndicalists, as well as the very large agricultural population, which leaned socialist, and distrusted Eastern industrialists.  The majority of the country was deeply suspicious of the ulterior motives of pro-war industrialists who stood to benefit handsomely from war, such as the DuPonts (the largest gunpowder supplier), the Carnegies (who supplied steel for ships and armor), and the Morgans (who loaned European combatants huge sums, and would likely finance a revamp of the American military).

The Indian spare parts department, crating up finished pieces for dealers around the world. Note the general lack of work aprons – this was a clean area.  [National Archive]
Regardless that thousands of German-Americans had tried to enlist in the German military at the outbreak of the war in 1914, by 1916 most Americans were still against the war, and President Woodrow Wilson offered a military budget that kept the status quo, arguing that disarmament was the key to lasting peace.  Germany had stoked resentment after a U-boat sank the passenger ship Lusitania in May 1915, (with 128 Americans on board), and took Wilson’s unwillingness to bolster the US military as a license to sink any ships supplying Britain and France by 1917.  Germany calculated it could sink as many American ships as it wanted, as it would take the US several years to build up its military, by which time Germany would have won, or so it thought.  America tilted further towards war in January 1917 after British intelligence intercepted the ‘Zimmerman telegram,‘ in which Germany offered Mexico to return the territories it lost in the Mexican-American War – Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona – for joining its side against the USA!

“Final inspection of the finished machines after testing” (note the lack of work aprons here too – a clean work room)[National Archive]
When U-boats sank 7 American merchant ships in April 1917, the US declared war on Germany, which initiated a massive restructuring of the American economy.  The Selective Service Act drafted 4 Million men, and by the summer of 1918 2 Million American troops were in France, with 10,000 fresh soldiers arriving daily.  The effect of this on the German military was demoralizing, as they were unable to resupply their manpower, and after losing several key battles and the final, ‘Hundred Days’ Allied offensive, Germany surrendered on Nov. 11, 1918.

“New York’s ‘finest’ march in the annual Police Parade. The motorcycle squad and the machine gun in New York City’s annual Police Parade, May 11, 1918” (note the machine gun – as noted above, this machine gun was intended for use against the domestic civilian populations, in the case of labor or political unrest.  Organized crime gangs wer always present, but a militarized response to gangs/Mafia only emerged during Prohibition, under FBI director J. Edgar Hoover) [National Archive]
Entry into the war brought a rapid change to the American military; suddenly they were forward-facing, and investing heavily in modern tools for warfare, including aircraft, tanks, and – of course – motorcycles.  The largest motorcycle company in the world in 1917 was Indian, so naturally they pursued contracts to supply the military, as did Harley-Davidson and Excelsior; the Big 3.  The American motorcycle industry shrank dramatically in the ‘Teens, a combined effect of the inexpensive Ford Model T with rapidly rising wage and raw materials prices, mostly due to the war in Europe, but the Big 3 were in a position to gear up for war production, and each made their bid to supply military machines.  Keen-eyed observers of WW1 photographs will note Harley-Davidsons, Indians, and Excelsior-Henderson v-twins and fours among US military motorcycles.  Ex-military Henderson fours were coveted by the officer class, and tended to survive – George Orwell (‘1984’, ‘Animal Farm’) even rode an ex-WW1 Henderson in Burma!

“Making motorcycles for the Army at Hendee Mfg Co plant, Springfield Mass. Chamfering gear teeth; this is a form of hollow milling designed to permit the sliding gears in a three-speed gear set to enter mesh with each other readily” (note the short-armed work smock, to keep sleeves out of the machinery) [National Archive]
As part of US government oversight of military motorcycle contracts and production, teams of investigators and photographers visited the factories of the Big 3 to document their production methods and capabilities. It wasn’t known how long the war would last, nor if it would continue even if Germany surrendered (the US didn’t declare war on the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Ottoman empire, and other Central Powers enemies), so the ramp-up in production was considered open-ended.

“Factory of the Indian Motorcycle (sic) Co, Sprinfield Mass” (The main photo shows the offices, the lowest photo the banks of factory windows over a central courtyard) [National Archive]
Something as vital as the military supply chain needed documentation, and these photographs of the Indian production line in 1918 are part of the National Archives.  They represent a rare look into the working methods of the largest and most modern motorcycle manufacturer in the world.  Indian Motocycle Company founder George Hendee had expanded Indian’s production facilities in Springfield with a modern, pre-stressed concrete factory of enormous size, which used mostly natural light from very large industrial windows.  A few electric lights are visible in work areas, but for most tasks natural light was sufficient, as the windows were 20′ tall and ran across the entire length of the building.

“South side of the testing department; inset, tester with cooling fan” (This is where the carburetor would be adjusted and the engine checked for good running – requiring a fan for cooling and ventilation) [National Archive]
The Indian factory had not yet adopted Henry Ford’s assembly-line techniques, and relied on the old piecework system, in which workers machined parts or bolted-up sub-assemblies (gearbox, frame, sidecar body, engine), which were then moved along to other areas of the factory, where further work would be done or the parts kept in stores, until the whole machine was assembled. Then the finished bikes were tested and inspected on a series of individual ramps, and taken to the shipping department to be packed in crates.  From there, they were loaded from a railroad siding at the factory into boxcars, each headed to a distribution center for various parts of the US, or to the docks for international markets.  The work ranged from the hellishly hot and noisy forging hammers to the watchmaker’s quiet of the gearbox assembly and pinstriping benches, no doubt with the nastiest work on the lower floors, and the clean work up top.

“Stringing-up the wheel and truing up assembly of the wheels before spraying (with paint) and fitting tires” (the hand drill is for tightening the spoke nipples on pre-drilled rims when lacing the wheel) [National Archive]
Enjoy this remarkable record of the American motorcycle industry at its first flush of strength!  We’ll be posting more on the subject, with photos of the Harley-Davidson and Excelsior-Henderson factories in 1918.

“Fitting bushings, line reaming, and other operations. Motor base (crankcase) department” (Note the line of finished crankcases at the very bottom of the photo, and the rows of empty crankcases on the right.  Note also the common shaft drive on the ceiling for the belt-driven polishing machinery)  [National Archive]
“Side car department, showing assembly stands” [National Archive]
“Main shipping platform”(Note the knocked-down, crated motorcycles having their cover nailed on, and the row of workers’ bicycles beneath the platform) [National Archive]
“Making the motorcycles for the Army at the Hendee Mfg. Co. plant, Springfield Mass. A punch press forming the clutch front plate in one stroke” (The din of Odin’s hammer!  A very noisy place to work…) [National Archive]
“Shipping department.” (Note the crated motorcycle on the lower right, which is shipped intact. Many motorcycles were shipped ‘knocked down’ with their wheels removed.  Note also the hat and coat hung beside the window, the packing wood shavings, the shop coats, the waistcoats, etc) [National Archive]
“Belgian mission arrives in New York City. Detachment of motorcycle policemen of the Police Department who escorted Mission to City Hall waiting in plaza for them to come out after their call on Mayor Mitchel.” (Apparently the NYPD perferred Indians!) [National Archive]
“Machine for hollow milling seat post cluster. Five operations at once.” (and a beautiful composition of lights, darks, and shapes…) [National Archive]
“Part of the three speed (gearbox) dep’t. showing testing and assembly of the three gears complete.” (The large barrel on the right presumably contains grease for filling the gearboxes once assembled.) [National Archive]
“Frame dept. where frames are cleared of spelter (excess brazing), etc.” [National Archive]
“One of a battery of drop hammers for drop-forging.” (The hammers of Hades; can you imagine the din of ‘battery’ of these working all day?) [National Archive]
“Grinding cylinders.” (Cylinder boring bars – note the Powerplus cylinder assembly, Indian’s sidevalve motor, post-1915) [National Archive]
“Camp Meade, Admiral, Maryland. Soldiers on motorcycles by a tree in the open, lightly camouflaged with straw and tree tops.” [National Archive]
“Enamelling department.” (Indians were painted in several ways – with sprayed enamel, with dipped enamel, and with hand-painting – these frames are being hand-painted!) [National Archive]


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