Somewhere on the high seas between Boston and Calcutta in the year 1830-31, a sixteen-year-old sailor fell to studying the movement of his ship’s wheel. He noticed that it could be spun in either direction but would lock into position when still. Since age seven, when he was found reassembling a pistol he had taken apart, this youth had displayed an affinity for firearms and explosives. As he reflected upon the wheel’s mechanism, he realized it could be incorporated into firearms, and, seizing a discarded tackle block, he began whittling what would be the first model of a rotating cylinder intended to hold six balls and charges. Several years later, on February 25,1836, young Samuel Colt received Patent No. 138 for his invention, the revolver.
Although the operating principle behind Colt’s revolver may have come easily to him, creating prototypes was hard work. Colt’s father indulgently paid for the first two, one of which exploded; the other refused to fire at all. From then on, financing the prototypes was up to the inventor. Undaunted, he took to the road as the “celebrated Dr. Coult of New York, London and Calcutta” for a threeyear stint around the United States and Canada as a fast-talking showman whose entertainment consisted of administering nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, to volunteers. Their absurd antics delighted spectators, who paid twenty-five cents a ticket for the privilege.
Colt intermittently sent a portion of his earnings to his chief gunsmith, John Pearson of Baltimore, who manufactured several revolvers with the aid of hand tools and some primitive machinery. In 1835 Colt traveled to Europe with his finished prototypes and secured his first patents in England and France. The following year he was granted the U.S. patent that would give him a monopoly on the repeating pistol for more than twenty years.
It would be a decade before Colt began to profit from manufacturing his revolvers, but once he did, he couldn’t be stopped. Flamboyant and strong-willed, Sam Colt became one of America’s first industrial tycoons. In the interest of sales and patent legislation, he bribed congressmen and military officials with loans, women, and engraved revolvers. He fired employees who voted for the party he disapproved of, and he sold arms to both the North and the South at the outset of the Civil War. “It is better to be at the head of a louse than at the tail of a lyon,” Colt once wrote. “If I cant be first I wont be second in anything.” He never was.
•March 28: Roger B. Taney is appointed Chief Justice of the United States and serves thirty-four years. In 1856 he wrote the decision denying Dred Scott the right to sue in a federal court.