PALMER’S EARLY MICROMETER
210 years ago, in 1811, on Feb 10th, Jean Laurent PALMER was born. Anyone who has ever used a MICROMETER should wish him a Happy Birthday, as he invented the hand held micrometer as we know it today. Others before him had made measuring tools using the same principle of a screw, but those were for laboratory or observatory use. Palmer’s design was simple, cheap and has been used by millions in workshops throughout the world. The shape, and the way it works, has changed little since he patented it on Sept. 7th 1848 (#7518) in France. Palmer did get some credit for this invention because just like a vacuum cleaner is known as a “Hoover”, named after the inventor, a micrometer is known as a “Palmer” in France and a few other parts of the world. However, if you read anything in English you get a very different story. To quote a “Machinery” magazine article from June 1915, "There did not seem to be any general appreciation of the importance of this tool until the year 1867, when it was seen by Joseph R. Brown and Lucian Sharpe,…”. Anything you read in English basically says the same thing, that nobody cared about the micrometer until the Brown & Sharpe tool company saw this at a trade show in Paris and started making them when they got back to Rhode Island, USA. At that point history left Jean Laurent Palmer in the dust bin.
Part of Palmer's 1848 patent drawing
There are only 4 of Palmer’s early micrometers known to exist today and I own one of those. See the PALMER’S BACK STORY below to read how that happened. BTW, if you know of any please let me know!
As I sat in the leather club chair in my study handling it, I tried to get it to tell me its story. This is just a 3 1/2” long piece of steel that won’t say a spoken word, but it would reveal some hints to its history. I kept thinking of the statement "There did not seem to be any general appreciation of the importance of this tool until the year 1867,…” and questions occurred to me. Why would you take a 19-year-old invention to a trade show if it had not been widely accepted in use? Don’t you take your new stuff? You’re good stuff? Is it possible Brown & Sharpe (B & S) could not take credit because it was well enough known in France at the time? B & S said they improved it, what real improvements did they make from Palmer’s form? Maybe just in the method of manufacture? Why would the French call a micrometer a "Palmer" if Palmer's micrometer had not gained acceptance? There was nothing more to add other than what B & S had presented. I started noting a number of articles about the invention of the micrometer were credited to a Luther Burlingame, a turn of the century tool historian. Well, back in the 1980s, I spent a few days going through the micrometer papers of the Brown & Sharpe company that were then in the attic of the American Precision Museum. This was in the days before they did that huge window replacement job so it was quite open to the elements. The cold I could take, but pigeons, no, think rats with wings that had nested in many of the boxes of books, papers and records. One very interesting thing was seeing Luther Burlingame’s book plate in so many of the books. It seems since he was employed at B & S, he was very good at spreading their company line when it came to the early history of the micrometer and hence there is nearly nothing written about Palmer.
I felt there had to be more and started searching far and wide. Here is some of what was found by me and others in the search of Jean Laurent Palmer. From the Dictionnaire des Fabricants Francais d’Instruments de Mesure du XV au XIX siècle” by Franck MARCELIN;
Palmer De 1837 à 1854
Gendre et successeur de LAC, Fabricant d’ Instruments de Mesure Linéaire.
Paris, 26 rue des Gravilliers de 1837 à 1841
Paris, 16 rue de Montmorency 1842 à 1849.
Palmer & Cie même adresse de 1850 à 1853
Paris, 64 rue Amelot en 1854
Cité dans les annuaires
The first thing is he married a well established instrument maker’s daughter. His name was LAC , a Fabricant d’Instruments de Mesure Linéaire working from 1823 to 1836. It seems Palmer became very well known in his time and the micrometer business was so good he had moved to larger quarters at least 4 times to have room for his ever-expanding enterprises. I have been to all the addresses above and nothing appears to remain from Palmer’s time, so we can’t get even a glimpse of his shop. He specialized in wire drawing and other metal work. He even had a display at the Great Exposition in 1851, held in the famed Crystal Place in London, where he displayed “instruments for gauging” among other things. He was listed as being in what might be location 042? Is this a booth or display case in some basement passage where no one saw him? Did Elliot Bros. of London see it as they were making micrometers before B & S? Why wasn’t it written about at the time?
Close-up of Palmer's stamp
If you want to read more about Palmer’s micrometer and see the original texts cited check out This was a thread on a internet forum with postings made as this research was being done.
What we do know is this, Jean Laurent Palmer deserves more credit than he was given in the history books. He invented an affordable tool that put the ability to accurately measure (to within a thousandth of an inch or a 10th of a MM) in the hands of men and women working at benches or their lathes throughout the world. So a big HAPPY BIRTHDAY MR. PALMER.
THE BACK SIDE OF PALMER’S MICROMETER AND THE BACK STORY OF HOW I GOT IT.
Those that follow me know I love to tell stories. Earlier I told of Palmer’s Micrometer and here is how I came to own one of his earliest micrometers. WARNING; these stories might get long but will be filled with little tid-bits you may not have known and hopefully you will find sort of fun.
You have to understand as a collector there will be certain things one might refer to as a Holy Grail. An EARLY Palmer micrometer would certainly be the Holy Grail for an Antique Machinist Tool Collector like myself. Years ago every serious collector of this sort of thing was searching for one and every now and then someone would find a micrometer stamped Palmer, but they weren’t from Palmer’s time, they dated from around 1900. Remember in France a micrometer is called a “Palmer” or Systeme Palmer. It still is to this day. So when wandering around antique flea markets in France I would always ask if they had any “Palmers”, not micro meters as they seemed to think that was two words and you might be shown nearly anything. Since my French is really bad I would show a picture I carried in my pocket. It never worked, I never found one.
Now I did have an advantage in this search because not only had I seen one of the earliest documented Palmer micrometers, one with a written history back to Palmer’s workshop in the 1850s, I had even held it in my hand. It was at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. where I had been hanging out since a little kid and gotten to know many of the old time curators. I used to visit their offices and they gave me access to the libraries and collections in storage. It turns out these are extremely rare, as a matter of fact so rare that this one was the only example of a Palmer micrometer known at the time. The Science Museum in London and the Chicago Museum of Industry both had replicas. Even the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers in Paris, which I should add is only a few blocks away from where Palmer’s shop was, and the Deutsches Museum in Munich, did not have an original Palmer. As many of you know, these are among the finest technical museums in the world. I might add at this point the one the Brown & Sharpe company brought back in 1867 seems to have disappeared from their collection. So I’m in search of something nearly as rare as the Holy Grail. Now when I want something I often can be a very patient treasure hunter but like a dog in search of a buried bone, I am persistent and remember every detail.
Smithsonian's Palmer Micrometer Brown & Sharpe's Palmer, now lost
Enter Ebay, the place you go to find even the most obscure object provided it is listed reasonably close to what it might really be called. I can search very broad and fast as there were evenings where I might scan down over 50,000 listings. I spent quite a bit of time hoping a Palmer micrometer would pop up. I even started searching on French and German eBay in their appropriate language. Now in French this gets interesting because a search under “Palmer” will get you all sorts of collectables, Chateau Palmer wine labels and bottles, the albums of the band Emerson, Lake and Palmer (I saw them live back in the day), Huntley & Palmer biscuit tins and even signature sex toys from a porn star named Palmer (these have since been removed from eBay Francais). One night I was looking down the pages and spotted this listing “1 PIED A COULISSE 1 PALMER OUTILS ANCIENS”, this translates to “1 caliper 1 micrometer (remember the French call a micrometer a Palmer) old tools”, so of course I look at the picture. OMG, in the 4 photos they only show the back side of the micrometer. It is stamped “BREVETE S. GAR. du GOV?” and the description said it was marked Palmer on the other side. In the eBay seller’s mind, why put a photo of a micrometer that says micrometer on it? As much as I wanted to see the other side I did not dare ask for a photo for fear it might be added to the listing tipping off others. But I knew something else very few other collectors knew. What it said on the back was patented, that’s “Brevete” and a reference to a fairly obscure French law, Sans Garantie Du Gouvemement. In simple terms this means the government issues a patent but makes no guarantee the object works. This law started in 1844 and by the 1860s items were simply stamped S.G.D.G., so since this micrometer had it spelled out it had to be fairly early. But when you look at the stamp you see the last letter is deformed; it is deformed in the exact same way the example in the Smithsonian was, meaning they were marked by the same stamp! The Palmer stamp on the side also had flaws in two letters. I so wanted to see the other side of the one for sale in France but refrained from asking for fear of letting anyone else see it.
It had just been listed and I think it was at 2 Euros when I started bidding, I bid a Euro and within an hour was outbid by a Euro, so I bid another. This went on for days reaching 74 Euros. Back then you could learn more about an opponent on ebay. It seemed the bidder was a French antique tool dealer. I based this on what they bought, sold and time of day they bid. The auction ended just 20 minutes before the kick-off of Super Bowl that year. I thought this might distract some American bidders that I assumed were laying in wait. All week long I did not give a single hint to my many tool collectors friends that I was on to something. I researched all I could and was convinced it was early and tried to figure just how high I would bid. With a few hours to go I had a good respectable bid in just in case the internet went down. With 2 minutes to go I bid my real amount, one that if it went that high the owner would fall out of their chair and if I lost the high bidder would be shocked. There were no other bids! WOW I had won it but it had to get in my hands before I could celebrate or tell my friends. I mean it was thousands of miles away, it could get lost in the post, a plane could go down, a fire, a ship sinking. So many things could happen. I had the seller express mail it overnight which almost doubled the costs, still cheap at any price. It had to be in my hands before it could be mine. Within days I did and it was mine.