Between the floorboards, water glistens far below; air flows freely through the high, vented ceilings. It’s a naturally refrigerated building, cold even on the hottest summer day. The machines stand silent as footsteps echo through the empty site. There are fish scales on the ceiling and on the walls but absent, is the stinking odour of fish. This is the Gulf of Georgia Cannery, built in 1894, the last vestige of Steveston’s once active cannery row.
Across town, on Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet, the Gold Seal Cannery, this one noisy and active where fish and cans fly past too fast for the eye to see.
Both of these canneries still have a unique machine, invented over one hundred years ago by Canadian, Edmund Augustine Smith.
In the entrance to the Gulf of Georgia Cannery, there is a machine on loan from the Glenbow Museum in Calgary Alberta. The attached brass plate clearly shows the name:
The Iron Chink - Model G.
Patented Feb 7 1905 April 3 1906 Nov 6 1906
Dec 10 1907 May 18 1909 Oct 2 1917 July 14 1925
May 8 1929 Mar 20 1937
Smith Cannery Machines Co
Side view of the Iron Chink in a Richmond, BC cannery
BC Archives E-05035
This is a “Do Not Touch” museum piece. While on the canning line they exhibit another Iron Chink, this one pieced together from a variety of machines. At the Gold Seal Cannery, three carefully maintained Iron Chinks or Smith Butcher Machines are still hard at work, essentially the same as the Gulf of Georgia’s they do have some modifications such as, extra safety guards and additional computer controls.
E.A. Smith, born in 1872 in London, Ontario, was a large, intelligent, inventive man who loved practical jokes. His parents were farmers and moved to British Columbia when Smith was young. He started working life as a teen-age cook, at one time running a cookhouse in Cascade, B.C. Moving around in search of work was common in those economic times and he moved to the Puget Sound area in 1898, where he joined with several businessmen in starting the Harper Brick and Tile Company at Harper in Kitsap County, Washington. Besides bricklaying and terracotta pressing, Smith toyed with the idea of making reinforced concrete pilings to replace the wooden ones rotting in salt water but eventually abandoned this idea.
Selling his shares in the brick company in 1900, he invested in the Alaska Fishermen's Union, which had a cannery at Chilcat, Alaska. Despite the salmon runs being very good, he was disconcerted to discover his investment did not pay off due to labour problems. He was told the butcher crews could not clean the fish fast enough to earn a profit.
The problem was increased mechization of the canning line. Automation first came to the canneries in the form of more efficient can making systems at the end of the 1800s. Machines took over the canning process incrementally with steam closing machines, can fillers, steam cookers (retorts) and conveyors which sped up the whole process of putting fish into tins, though no one believed a machine could ever work as efficiently or economically as the Chinese butcher crews. But as the speed of the line increased these human butchers could not keep up. Gangs of thirty men had to process 1500 to 2000 fish in time spans of ten hours and more. Quality slipped, as the men grew weary.
The mechanization of fish butchering, using limited numbers of men to run and supply the machines with fish, was a challenge many at that time were trying to solve. Butcher machines were patented in Sweden, Britain and North America and between 1856 and 1905, twenty-one patents were granted in North America alone. However, early machines were bulky and very long requiring large areas of floor space. Plus speed seemed to equate with waste.
Smith now lived in Seattle, where he had a 10 x 12 workshop on a back lane and a company called Smith Manufacturing. He took up the challenge to invent a butcher machine. He worked unsuccessfully for eight months, finally, $60,000 in debt, he admitted defeat to his wife and decided to get a job to repay all the money. That night he awoke with a flash of inspiration. His daughter recalls that at 3:00 a.m. there was no transportation available and he ran all the way to his workshop where he remained for ten days and nights emerging at last, wreathed in smiles.
Borrowing more money, he headed to Washington D.C. to register the patent for his “Iron Chink” machine. This name is written in the first patent and it stuck. In later years, the patented name changed to “Smith Butcher Machine” but “Iron Chink” was used on the manufacturer’s plates on all machines for many, many years.
At a cannery in Fairhaven, Washington, Smith persuaded friends to test the new machine. His invention was in need of constant repair so Smith moved into the plant with the machine, sleeping in a canvas chair, keeping it operational and learning hands on about necessary modifications.
The ingenious feature of Smith’s design was that the process of fish butchering was compact and circular, freeing up valuable floor space for storage. Two men were needed to work with the machine: one with a band saw to remove the heads, the other with a rotary knife to remove the tails, then to feed the bodies into the machine. This did mean more labour than required by other early butchering machines but it avoided the wastage the others generated.
Smith persevered, tackling wastage and maintenance. Reliable machines were essential to canneries, which could not afford down time during peak processing. His small workshop expanded into a manufacturing plant at First Avenue and Stacy. (This plant was demolished in the 1960s to make way for parking expansion for Sears Roebuck.) In 1904, he developed a new, smaller, more efficient model and this version was patented on August 8, 1905.
The Smith Butchering machine was suited for the salmon canning industry in British Columbia and Washington State since it was originally designed to fit sockeye and pink salmon, which were found in abundance in this area, but the early models could not clean the larger Chinook salmon.
An article in a 1906 Pacific Fisherman quotes Smith as saying: “If you want an exemplary instance of the success of the machine I have but to cite the work done by them at the Pacific American Fisheries cannery at Bellingham. This is the largest salmon canning plant in the world and they operated in the past season seven lines of machinery. The two [Iron Chinks] they had in use there supplied the seven lines of machinery which packed an average of 9,000 cans of sockeye salmon a day and two or three days ran over the 10,000 mark.”
Iron Chink beheading salmon
BC Archives E-050536
Not only speed but waste was cut: an average of one to one and a half fish per case. This went a long way towards payment for a cannery’s investment.
In August 1906, the Smith Cannery Machines Company moved to its modern, well-equipped factory on the Seattle tide flats at 2416 Utah Street; built in anticipation of the company’s growth. As soon as they were settled, they proceeded to remodel and improve the 1906 machine despite cannery men believing this machine to be ultra efficient. At great cost, patterns, jigs and templates were discarded. It meant constant study, continual endeavour and an added investment of over $65,000.
It was a fixed policy of the company to turn out the best and most perfect machine possible, irrespective of cost. To the cannerymen’s benefit, a portion of proceeds from all sales was reinvested in development and research.
Smith, a personable man listened carefully to everyone in the fish industry, paying close attention to suggestions and criticisms. Thanks to this design input newer models continued to evolve and by 1907 the Smith machine cleaned the whole fish automatically, making it superior to any other competitor.
The 1908 Iron Chink was described in the 1907 edition of the Pacific Fisherman as “The Perfect Fish Cleaning Machine.” It continued to have the same method of operation but was of different construction with several innovations. The automatic heading and tailing was now placed on the machine, taking the fish as it arrived from the water and putting it through an entire cleaning operation, meaning both the ‘sliming’ and butcher gangs were eliminated. Plus, the machine was reduced in size but not production, it could provide fish for two or even three canning lines.
The Model G manual foreword reads as follows:
“The Model G Iron Chink is rapidly replacing the older models and since there are radical differences in design and consequently differences in adjustment it is felt that some simple instructions would be of value.
While there are many points in the instructions that are familiar to the large number of experienced Iron Chink operators it has been found that in many cases the machine has not been producing its best work through lock of familiarity with the changes in design. Again where the machine has produced work as good as the older models the operators have felt that the machine was doing all that could be expected of it and consequently made no effort to improve its operation. The Model G when carefully adjusted and kept in perfect condition is capable of producing work far in advance of the older models.”
“ In setting up the machine, choose a location preferably over a cap or as near to one as possible... It is advisable to place header between joists to aid in reducing vibration to a minimum.
Avoid a location in the center of a bent. The machine is invariably set up in advance of the canning season when no fish are on the floor or in the bins. A machine lined up at this time will be found to be out of line considerably when the fish house is full.
Instances have been noted where the vertical shaft has been found out of line two inches due to subsequent settling of the fish house floor. This misalignment is, of course, the cause of burnt out bearings, excessive wear on the gear teeth, and a hard running machine generally.”
Another short quote illustrates the dangers of the job:
“ The automatic feed has been designed with two main points in view:
Safety to the operator
A more positive cut and consequent reduction of waste... Many feeders accomplish excellent results ...but they are men of experience; they must keep their eyes at all times upon the knife and they are constantly subject to the danger of occident to hands and arms from the knife.”
In January, 1902 Smith entered into an agreement with three partners, which proves his interest in developing an automatic weighing machine was long standing. (A document at the Museum of History and Industry, Seattle, WA.)
The agreement reads as follows:
“Between E.A. Smith of Seattle, Washington, to be hereafter known as the party of the first part, and FE Barlow, B.R. Brierly and John Wallace, to be hereafter known as the party of the second part.”
The party of the first part hereby agrees to spend his time in the perfection of a certain automatic weighing machine; a machine for removing fins from fish; and a machine for the gutting of fish; when so perfected is to secure a patent on same, if possible, both in the United States and Canada. The parties of the second part hereby agree to furnish all necessary money for the expense connected therewith, together with the sum of Ten ($10.00) Dollars per week for the services of the said party of the first part.
In consideration of the above, and the sum of One Hundred and Fifty ($150.00) Dollars, receipt whereof is hereby acknowledged. The said party of the first part hereby agrees to assign to the said party of the second part, after the patents have been obtained, as above set forth, a three quarter (3/4) interest in said weighing machine, and a one half (1/2) interest in each of the other two machines.
When patent on each has been secured and the proper assignments made by the party of the first part to the parties of the second part, this agreement shall be considered at an end.
WITNESS our hands this 9th day of January, A.D. 1902
(The four signatures are here affixed.)
Smith continued to invent machines for fish canning. He did develop an automatic weighing machine, which proved more complicated than he anticipated and took time to perfect, finally being produced after his death with the help of E.H. Waugh. It proved its worth and was used extensively for salmon, meat, fruit and vegetable canning.
By 1909, Smith had money and his butcher machines were in canneries all along the coast. To his delight, the Iron Chink was to be shown at the Yukon Alaska Seattle Fair. Determined not to miss any part of this exhibit, Smith took his sister with him for the opening on June 1, 1909. They spent two happy days there. Driving home, his car hit a rock and burst into flames. In saving his sister, Smith was badly burned and died two days later.
An extensive collection of Smith’s original drawings is stored at the Seattle Museum of History and Industry.
The company Smith started continues to make marine hardware and salmon processing equipment, doing business as Smith Berger Marine Inc. at 7915 10th Avenue South, Seattle, WA.
Jo Scott B has been researching and compiling information on cannery machines for an upcoming book. She was inspired by the builder’s plates found at the Gulf of Georgia Cannery in Richmond, BC. She is an artist whose subject matter frequently involves the history and heritage of BC. If you have information you’d like to share please contact her at: email@example.com
|Courtesy of :||BC History|