A couple of months ago, I was working on a dining table in a corner of a buddy's shop -- an old unheated warehouse, all concrete and dripping pipes. It was freezing cold, and he drove under the roll-up with his pick up truck, loaded with a vintage Shopsmith. As I helped him wrestle it out of the truck, he told me all about this amazing all-in-one shop. The beast was fifties-era, all steel, heavy as hell, and featured a table saw, a jig saw, a drill press, and a lathe. It was missing a few other parts, but apparently you could jack on an air compressor too.
It sounded improbable. The imbalanced, spindly machine looked utterly incapable of doing much of anything. Over the next few weeks, my friend dusted it off, cleaned it up, and put it to work. I never saw it in direct action, but it was frequently snowcapped with sawdust, so I took him at his word. And, of course, it made me curious. I was skeptical (as I often am), imagining the work to reconfigure it for each separate task must outweigh its general utility and compactness. So, I went to the Internet (typical mistake) and fell down a rabbit hole of epic proportions.
The Shopsmith was prototyped in 1946 by Hans Goldschmidt, a German Jew who had fled the Nazi regime and settled in America sometime in the 1930s. He worked in a shipyard in California during the war, then picked up a job making cabinets. His experience as a woodworker led him to start tinkering with what would eventually become the Shopsmith: an electric motor to a chassis that slid on two parallel rails, allowing the power plant to be mated to different attachments.
One thing led to another, and Goldschmidt found some partners, tooled up a factory, got distribution through Montgomery Ward, and sold 100,000 machines by 1952. Their market was the ex-G.I. handyman suburban dad, looking for a compact machine that they could fit in a garage or basement without upsetting the wife too much. The rise of Shopsmith coincided with a boom in post-war D.I.Y. culture, trumpeted in Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, and Modern Mechanix. These magazines were the male equivalents of Good Housekeeping, offering both concrete tutorial articles and escapist fantasies about souped-up cars and speedboats.
By the late fifties, Goldschmidt had moved on to other pursuits and sold the company to Yuba Manufacturing. It went bankrupt in 1966. The manufacturing plant, in Mississippi, was shuttered. This kicked off another foundation myth -- the rebirth of the company in 1972 at the hand of John Folkerth, a story recounted in exhaustive detail on the Shopsmith website. Frustrated by a garage-sale bargain (a Shopsmith) that used non-standard parts that were out of production, he bought the rights to the name, re-opened the factory, and got back into business.
The Shopsmith is still in production, although the company has struggled through some further reorganizations. Their website reads like a classic infomercial -- 7 woodworking tools in just 12 square feet -- and it doesn't appear to have any distribution with retail partners. It has enormous following online, with a lot of forum posts on a lot of woodworking sites devoted to care, upkeep, accessories, and ideas.
However, at its core, the Shopsmith is like so many all-in-one appliances: awkward and underwhelming, a jack-of-all trades but a master of none. John Folkerth's original problem -- finding a saw blade for his machine -- arose out of a non-standard 8" diameter arbor. He solved the problem by resurrecting the whole company, but it points out the basic inflexibility of the system. In order to fit a whole woodworking shop onto a single frame, a lot of compromises had to be made, resulting an unstable bed for the table saw, an underpowered motor, and a suite of non-interchangeable parts.
Ironically, Shopsmith has survived long enough to see the rise of a class of machines that truly deliver on its original premise: the desktop CNC. Shapeoko started life as an open source CNC machine on Kickstarter; it's now a robust platform that leverages global supply chains, a lively online community, and off-the-shelf parts to deliver a kit for a very reasonable cost. It's a perfect example of what Chris Andersen talks about in his book Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, which I'm currently reading. The old paradigm of prototype -- capitalize -- patent -- produce -- retail (Shopsmith) has been upended by a nimble, networked system that moves at lightning speed.
The machines are just metaphors.