Worcester Historical Museum

The story of the Norton Company

In the beginning...
In 1858 Franklin B. Norton and his older cousin Frederick Hancock left Bennington, Vermont, and opened a pottery shop at Washington Square in Worcester. When they had to move in 1866 because of railroad-related construction, they relocated to Water Street. At first they made only redware pottery, but soon added stoneware to their production. They supplied Worcester and surrounding towns with an incredible variety of jugs, preserve jars, storage and cooking pots, pitchers, spittoons, beer bottles and water kegs.

Of pottery and grinding wheels...
New industries created a demand for new grinding wheels that could cut metals and other hard materials better than traditional sandstone wheels. Early wheels designed to meet this need were made of wood with a glue surface that was embedded with grains of emery (an abrasive). They were temperamental at best. In 1873 Norton employee Sven Pulson invented a wheel of superior quality by mixing clay with emery and water and kiln firing it. Frank Norton applied for a patent and in 1879 expanded the business to include manufacture of Pulson's wheels. Co-owner Frederick Hancock so opposed this move that he sold his interests to his cousin and retired. The enormous demand for Pulson's grinding wheels dramatically increased the factory workload. Due to deteriorating health, Norton sold the booming wheel business in 1885 to return to the quieter routines of making jugs and pots. Five years later his pottery closed its doors, the result of a decreased demand for stoneware.

When Sven Pulson left the company in 1880, his brother-in-law and fellow employee John Jeppson took over wheelmaking. When Frank Norton no longer wanted to manage the incredibly successful grinding wheel operation, Jeppson offered to buy it, in partnership with fellow employees Walter L. Messer and Charles Lucius Allen, WPI instructors Milton Prince Higgins and George I. Alden, and Washburn & Moen employees Fred H. Daniels and Horace A. Young. The partners purchased the business for $20,000 in 1885. As part of the deal, they acquired use of the Norton name, a share of the Water Street factory, and the rights to Pulson's formula.

Of grinding wheels and fortunes...
The newly incorporated enterprise, Norton Emery Wheel Company, held an advantageous position in the market. The company was producing Pulson's wheels at a time when the American Machinist advocated, "Every complete machine shop should have at least one emery wheel if only for grinding tools." In 1887 the company moved from Water Street to a large new factory at Barbers Crossing in the Greendale section of Worcester. A single wagon containing all the equipment, followed by the workforce of thirteen, carried out the move. The building, which stood along two railroad lines, contained 17,280 square feet of floor space and two kilns. It was probably the best-equipped grinding wheel factory in the country at the time. By 1890, the plant had expanded eight-fold. For all of the company's extraordinary growth, the partners ran it much like a family.

New direction, new heights
In 1900 Charles H. Norton -- no relation of the company's founder -- left a Providence firm and came to Worcester where he met with Norton Emery Wheel officers. He showed them plans for a revolutionary new cylindrical grinding machine. Seeing its market potential, Norton officers decided to incorporate a subsidiary company for its manufacture. On February 27, Norton Grinding Company was born.

The new machine was unparalleled in its precision, speed, and grinding capabilities, and was an enormous success. Subsequent inventions kept Norton Grinding at the cutting edge of innovation. In 1919 the owners formally announced a merger of Norton Emery Wheel and Norton Grinding Wheel. Norton Company entered a period of unprecedented production.

New developments, new mergers, new horizons ...
Norton adapted as market needs changed. Steel and the rough alloys that steel plants produced required a more consistent abrasive than natural products like emery. The company bought patent rights for the artificial abrasive alundum, which soon wholly replaced emery in wheel manufacture. Because production of this abrasive required intense heat, Norton erected a furnace at Niagara Falls (the height of the falls generated the necessary power). In 1904 Aldus Higgins invented a water-cooled furnace that dramatically cut production costs and gave the company a huge competitive edge.

Today Norton is the largest manufacturer of abrasives in the world, and it has also expanded into other fields. Their production divides into three groups: abrasives, engineering materials, and petroleum and mining. After more than a century of local ownership, the company was purchased in 1990 by Compagnie de Saint-Gobain of France. Norton Company remains a significant presence in Worcester.


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