Photo of a person working on a complex motor
Christopher Payne

Fine Motor Skills

Photos from a factory where automation has yet to take hold

Image above: The stator generates the magnetic field of the motor. The ends of its copper coils are wrapped in tape for insulation and protection.

The workers at the Ward Leonard factory in Thomaston, Connecticut, build motors for heavy industrial and military use. Unlike most other motors manufactured these days—those found in household appliances such as washing machines and dryers, for example—Ward Leonard’s are fabricated and assembled by hand, in accordance with a painstaking process. That process involves inserting copper coils into metal slots fitted with insulating paper, wrapping the ends of the coils in tape, and dipping the whole thing in resin. It is still the best way to ensure that the finished motors are able to withstand the decades of wear they will face on Navy ships, oil rigs, locomotives, freight elevators, and the like. Some motors take two workers a full week to complete.

In November, the photographer Christopher Payne spent two days documenting the factory workers’ efforts. American manufacturing is something of a preoccupation for Payne; in 2016, he published Making Steinway, “a deconstruction of the piano’s unseen constituent parts and a glimpse into the skilled labor required to make them,” and he is working on a forthcoming book that will collect his photographs of factories around the country. Drawing inspiration from the work of Alfred T. Palmer, the lead photographer for the Office of War Information during World War II, Payne says he aims to capture workers in a heroic light.

At Ward Leonard, Payne was taken with the contrast between the apparent disarray of the cascading coils and the orderly structure to which they would ultimately conform. “It seems chaotic,” Payne says, “but it’s really not—all those little wires and coils have a very specific function and a very specific place.”

Motor assembled by hand
Christopher Payne
Two people assembling a large motor by hand
Christopher Payne

Making motors by hand enables a level of customization that is important to Ward Leonard customers such as the United States Navy, whose ships rely on motors that can weather harsh conditions.

A person wrapping a motor with special tape
Christopher Payne

This motor will eventually be immersed in a vacuum-pressurized tank of resin. The resin is absorbed into the tape, then hardened in an oven, creating a sealed insulation system.

A person wrapping motor wires with tape
Christopher Payne