Nuts, Bolts, and the Holt 75

Remember the Holt 75 tractor that volunteers and staff at the Museum are restoring? (If you don’t, see the entry for March 23, 2011.) Not long ago, they removed the steering mechanism for repairs and hoisted the engine from the frame (left). Then they disassembled the engine. People close to the project tell me that two cylinders need rebuilding and that several cracks in the cylinder heads need repair.

The grease-under-the-fingernails part of me finds this interesting. But it’s even more intrigued with a discovery that our Holt 75, which was built in Stockton, has nuts and bolts with different thread patterns. Today, this would be similar to my car having nuts and bolts patterned after both the metric and American standards.

I can only imagine how much frustration this generated among mechanics. But a bigger question I have is Why? Why did Holt use two different patterns instead of one?

In an online article from Wired, New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki discusses the movement that brought about standardized nuts and bolts in the United States. According to him, it started in the 1860s and got a boost shortly after the Civil War, when the U.S. Navy specified use of a single standard. The movement accelerated soon afterward as railroads and their suppliers realized that following suit would best serve the unified national market that was emerging in the United States. According to the author, reliance on a single standard, that of William Sellers, had all but won over manufacturers in the United States by the end of the nineteenth century.

I’m left wondering why Holt seems to have bucked the tide. Despite all its other innovations, was the company behind the times—at least on this issue? Is there a larger story about the company’s production strategy and technology? What compelling reason—if any—did Holt have to use two different standards instead of one?

I welcome your thoughts.

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