Imagine you're a manufacturer whose business is on a downturn. Your primary product line has become passé, and you have a lot of raw materials and components just sitting around. What do you do next? You could limp along and hope that trends swing back in your product's favor, or you could sell everything for a fraction of your investment. But if you’re like 19th-century English steelmaker James Chesterman, you’ll get creative and develop a new use for your old wares.
Although his strategy is not original, Chesterman's recovery is nevertheless remarkable, as it involved a drastic change in his customer base. Until the early 1860s, his company had focused on making the steel inserts that supported hoop skirts. But when the skirts started to go out of style, Chesterman sought a different market for his inventory of steel wire, and in 1865 he created a new type of land-survey tool: the steel measuring tape.
Chesterman had received a British patent for a spring-powered rewinding mechanism some 40 years earlier, but the tape that it wound was made of cloth, which lacks dimensional stability. In 1853 he patented a heat-treating method to fuse flexible steel into longer strands as an improvement to the crinoline-skirt design (see photo below). When he shifted his focus from fashion to toolmaking, he found that lengths of flexible steel were also suited for accurately marking off large-scale measurements.
To make his 100-ft. tapes portable and compact, Chesterman equipped them with a spring mechanism and encased them in a leather disc (photo?). His new customers – land surveyors and engineers -- gladly replaced their heavy, bulky surveyor's chains with Chesterman’s devices. The British-made tape measures became available in the United States, but at a cost of $17 (equal to about $300 today), they were too expensive for home use.
The first U.S. patent for a steel-spring tape measure was given to Alvin J. Fellows in 1868 (illustration). The Connecticut inventor's application professed to offer only improvements to the tool, particularly on the spring mechanism. He invented a spring clip that would lock the extended tape in any position – a convenient feature now incorporated into any respectable measuring tape.
In the heyday of opulent Victorian dresses, just one crinoline petticoat required as much as 200 feet of flattened steel wire to keep its highly structural form. That's a lot of steel tape.
In 1876 New York manufacturer Justus Roe began to produce steel tape measures, and by 1900 his company needed to expand to a larger facility. To enable workers to test the accuracy of the 100-ft. tapes on a flat surface, Roe made his new factory 103 ft. long. The business grew and became the supplier of measuring tapes to the U.S. military during World War II. But for the DIYer, the less-expensive wooden folding rule remained a more popular option until after the war.
Nowadays, the very affordable spring-wound steel tape measure is essential to any tool arsenal and is often found (or at times, lost) in multiples within many households. Unlike fickle fashions, these indispensible measuring tools will likely continue to be long in demand, long into the future.
The case of the Chesterman tape measure (shown above) is 4-1/2 in. dia. x 1-1/4 in. thick. Its 100-ft. steel ribbon, which is about 3/8 in. wide, is made up of five pieces fused end-to-end.