Undershaft's Ancestry: or A Connecticut Yankee on the London Court's Stage

By John Emigh


Various people have been proposed as the model for Andrew Undershaft - Nobel and Krupp among them; but according to Holroyd, Shaw himself mentioned Henry Ford as his initial inspiration. But Ford patterned his mass production techniques after Samuel Colt of Hartford, inventor of the "Peacemaker" and the underwater mine (i.e. an undershaft?). Colt was a self-made man: rogue, charlatan, purveyor of genocide, patriot, showman, huckster, philosopher, fireworks maker, dike builder, bane of local authorities, citizen of the world, whoremaster, ruthless businessman, and model employer who developed medical insurance plans and exemplary housing for his plant workers. Growing up around Hartford and passing by the bizarre Russian domed factory he built in the shadow of the Charter Oak, I've been fascinated by Colt for a very long time and once started to write a musical about him. It struck me even then that he was precisely the sort of paradoxical character surprising expectations at many a turn that Brecht once praised Shaw for inventing - the obvious example being Undershaft.  Colt (the Uncle of RI's Samuel) died, of course, in the 1860s; so a direct influence seemed a stretch. Though Colt did, it turns out, give well-covered lectures in London about how his weaponry would bring peace to the world (developing the patter later used by Nobel), he was the first American made a member of the English Society of Civil Engineers, and, for four years, he operated a plant in England. (He complained in the end that the English couldn't get the hang of making truly interchangeable parts). This was long before Shaw's play was written, and there doesn't seem to be any recorded mention of him by Shaw. Still, it turns out that in 1905 - the year that Major Barbara was produced - Colt's widow died after a distinguished career as art lover and philanthropist, during which she was dedicated to remaking the brilliant scalawag's legacy. Her illness and death would certainly have been in the London papers, along with remembrances of her late husband and her more recent philanthropy in his name. I can't prove that Colt was the single model for Undershaft - he probably wasn't - but the fit is intriguing, and I can at least show that Colt he was a Shavian character! And a fitting Undershaft ancestor. And how appropriate if a person who got the cash for his first six-shooter by demonstrating the humorous effects of laughing gas on audiences during self-advertised "scientific lectures" by "Dr. Coult, recently returned from the great cities of Europe" should end up ghosting the London stage.


Well, I meant to float an idea, but seem to have written an abstract. Let me know if you want it in a proper format . This just might be the audience for this half forgotten notion, and if nothing  else, the details of Colt's life would draw a few laughs. If he wasn't the model he should have been!  John  

would have gotten a blurb out. Would it still be useful? Best, John