1790- Pliny Earle makes card clothing for Slater Mill
In 1790 Samuel Slater built America’s first textile mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He had immigrated from England the year before, where textile mills and machinery were common. He brought with him the technical knowledge necessary to build and operate a mill, but because the English goverment forbade its exportation he could not find machinery suitable for his purposes. Among other things, he found it difficult to obtain “clothing”–belts of leather pierced with wire–for the carding machines that prepared fibers for weaving. Pliny Earle, a Leicester hand card manufacturer, agreed to furnish the card clothing for Slater Mill. He made it by hand, pricking leather with holes and inserting wire teeth. Pliny Earle went on to invent a machine for pricking the leather, for which he received a patent.
1811- William Hovey invents shearing machine
Mechanic William Hovey advertised a new shearing machine in 1811. It consisted of a spiral revolving shear or blade moving against a straight blade. He claimed his invention would speed up cutting cloth ten-fold, and assured potential customers of its convenience: it could be carried anywhere in a one-horse wagon, and could be operated either by hand or water power. In 1812 he designed another machine that worked on the same principal as hand-shears. That is, two straight blades cutting. As the 1856 advertisement shows, Hovey’s more conventional shearing machine was adopted and improved by other makers over time. Alone and in partnership with William Howard, Hovey manufactured shears, strawcutters, looms, and other machinery.
1825- William A. Wheeler & Co. iron foundry established
William Wheeler moved from Brookfield to Worcester in 1823 and opened a blacksmith’s business at the corner of Thomas and Union Streets. In 1825 he and three partners established William A. Wheeler & Co. They were the first to experiment with using a steam engine for power in Worcester. In 1840 the foundry was enlarged and a machine shop was added to the business, equipped with the first iron planer used in town. The foundry produced iron and brass castings for tool makers, water-wheel irons, plowcastings, safes, stoves, fire-proof doors, among other things. The architectural elements of the facade of Mechanics Hall are of cast iron and were made at William Wheeler’s foundry.
1835- Boston & Worcester Railroad opens
“The railroad between Boston and Worcester is to be open throughout on Monday,” twelve-year-old Louisa Jane Trumbull wrote in her diary on July 1, 1835. Somewhat in disbelief she noted that “they leave Boston at half past nine Monday morning and reach Worcester in three hours. They will stay there two or three hours and ride back in the afternoon.” It took seven hours to make the same trip by stage coach or on horseback. Railroads revolutionized travel, communication, and commerce. With the advent of the railroad, stage- and carriage-maker Osgood Bradley turned to making railroad cars, becoming the largest producer in the country.
1837- William Crompton patents fancy looms
In 1836 William Crompton left Lancaster, England, and settled in Taunton, Massachusetts. He was a weaver, thirty years old. He found employment with Messrs. Crocker & Richmond who requested that he weave a pattern that existing looms were not equipped to produce. Crompton invented a fancy loom for this purpose that was wider, faster, and more versatile than anything available. His new loom made it possible to weave complicated patterns by power. It revolutionized the textile industry and won him patent #491. After a brief return to England, Crompton arranged with Worcester machinists Phelps & Bickford to build his looms, a deal facilitated by developer Samuel Davis. William Crompton’s son George settled in Worcester in 1851. He eventually acquired his father’s patent, plus more than one hundred loom-related patents of his own.
1841- Coes brothers patent screw wrench
Loring and Aury Coes were woodworkers. In 1835 they purchased Kimball & Fuller’s woolen machinery business at Court Mills, and continued the shop at until fire destroyed the building in 1839. At that point they moved to Springfield where they invented a new and improved wrench, a tool they used constantly in their line of work. Unlike earlier wrench designs, which required both hands to open and close, their new screw wrench could be adjusted with one hand. They returned to Worcester, acquired a patent in 1841, and with the assistance of Henry W. Miller began to manufacture wrenches. They were immediately successful. For more than one hundred years the Loring and Aury Coes’ factory buildings and mansion houses dominated the landscape around Webster Square.
1842- Worcester Mechanics Association formed
One hundred and fifteen men joined together in 1842 to establish the Worcester County Mechanics Association. Their purpose was to encourage “the moral, intellectual, and social improvements of its members, the perfection of the mechanic arts, and the pecuniary assistance of the needy.” By 1854 membership had grown significantly, and the association decided to build a hall for lectures, meetings, classes, and exhibitions. It was designed by Elbridge Boyden, and built at a cost of $140,000. Much of the iron facade was cast in the foundry of William A. Wheeler, the Association’s first president. By the 1950s, the building had fallen into disrepair and the Great Hall was closed. In 1974 the Association launched a major restoration effort that received strong community support. On November 26, 1977, a majestic Mechanics Hall reopened.
1855- Joshua Stoddard invents calliope
Vermont native Joshua Stoddard was a beekeeper by trade. He liked to tinker with machinery and in 1855 he invented a musical instrument, powered by steam, that used whistles of various sizes. He called it a calliope, after the Greek muse of eloquence and heroic poetry. People were amazed at the sounds it made. The National Aegis reported, “The idea of producing music by steam, of playing popular tunes with fifteen horsepower so that it can be heard six or eight miles distant . . . is rather astonishing to most people.” Stoddard found backers to establish the American Steam Musical Company. His calliopes were installed on river boats for the amusement of passengers and inhabitants of river towns, and they soon became a familiar part of every circus parade.
1865- Business leaders establish WPI
In 1865 tin manufacturer John Boynton gave $100,000 to the city to establish Worcester Free Institute of Industrial Science on land donated for this purpose by Stephen Salisbury II. Ichabod Washburn and others contributed funds, and Washburn commissioned Elbridge Boyden to design and build mechanical shops on the premises. As the founders envisioned it, the Institute would provide its students with a strong education in the liberal arts and practical hands-on application of mechanical science. It opened its doors in 1870. Now known as WPI, the college is one of the nation’s leading schools for science and engineering. Among many other things, WPI offers programs specifically designed to train leaders in industry.
1880- Winslow Skate Company is America’s largest
Brothers Samuel and Seth C. Winslow moved from Newton Upper Falls to Worcester in 1856. They rented space in the Merrifield buildings and began to make a variety of metal parts to order for other companies. In 1857, responding to the public’s growing fascination with ice skating, the Winslows made twenty-five pairs of skates. They sold nineteen. The following year they made and sold 2,500 pairs. After Seth’s death in 1871, Samuel moved the company to a new factory on Mulberry Street. By 1880 Samuel Winslow’s company was the largest producer of skates in the country. Production figures for 1889 indicate that the company turned out 1,200 pairs per day: forty styles of ice skates and fifteen styles of roller skates.
1888- Charles H. Morgan starts Morgan Construction Company
For more than one hundred years, Morgan Construction Company has been a world class leader and innovator in its field. The company specializes in designing and building the most accurate, advanced, efficient, and reliable equipment available for steel and copper rod mills. Morgan-engineered equipment is used in more than half of the world’s rod mills. Charles H. Morgan founded Morgan Construction in 1888. Phillip R. Morgan is the fifth generation of the family to lead the company. In addition to its Worcester headquarters, the firm has offices in Pittsburgh, Singapore, São Paulo, Brazil, and Sheffield, England.
1891- First lunch wagon patent goes to Charles H. Palmer
Industrialization created new needs, one of them being food service for late-shift workers. In 1891, Charles H. Palmer received the first patent issued for a night lunchwagon. Initially, these were wagons drawn by horses to the factories. As clientele and service expanded, lunchwagons moved from their curbside positions to permanent locations on city lots. By 1900, they were very much part of the northeast urban scene, frequented by all sorts of people at all times of the day and night, and Worcester led the nation in making them. By the 1930s they became known as diners. Thomas H. Buckley, whose sprawling Grafton Street plant consisted of four connected buildings with 15,000 square feet, was Worcester’s largest manufacturer of the popular eatery.
1918- City declared most efficient war production zone in U.S.
“Worcester gave Uncle Sam valorous fighting men, gave more than was asked of her wealth, conducted splendid welfare organizations and applied the prowess of her wonderful industries, these and innumerable other things, to make the world safe for democracy,” one newspaper reporter stated in commemoration of the city’s achievements. He listed thirty-four leading manufacturing concerns that were involved in war production, making things as disparate as military uniforms, office supplies, weapons, machine tools, toiletries, and vehicle parts. In short, Worcester industries supplied products to meet a vast array of wartime needs. Because men had gone off to war in large numbers, many women were operating the machines to turn out these products.
1926- Robert Goddard fires first liquid-fueled rocket
Robert Goddard is widely nown as “the father of the space age.” As a boy, he dreamed of going to the moon. After graduating from WPI in 1909, and earning a doctorate in physics from Clark University in 1911, he made a career of exploring the potential of rocket power. On March 16, 1926, he made history as the first person in the world to launch a rocket propelled by liquid fuel. Though he received little local support for his pioneering efforts, aviator Charles Lindbergh convinced the Guggenheim Foundation to support Goddard’s work. Money awarded by the foundation enabled him to move from Auburn to New Mexico, where he continued his experiments. During World War II, the U.S. government employed him to develop weapons.
1930- 5,294 newly-laid-off workers apply for assistance in one day
In 1929 the stock market crashed and the nation slumped into a depression. Reflecting national trends, by 1932 one-quarter of Worcester’s workforce was unemployed and those who were employed worked at reduced wages and hours. In an effort to stem the downward tide, City Hall instituted a public works program in 1930, hiring laid-off workers to pave roads, paint and repair buildings, and clean up streets and parks. In 1932 Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president. He launched the New Deal, a battery of federal programs and policies designed to get the country back on its feet. Still, Worcester and the nation at large remained dispirited and depressed until the outbreak of World War II, when jobs were once again plentiful and optimism was restored.
1938- Reed & Prince Mfg. Co. perfects recessed-head screw
Reed & Prince Manufacturing Company incorporated in 1902. By World War I it occupied 165,000 square feet and employed more than five hundred. By 1930, the company was a major player in the fields of making machine screws, wood screws, stove bolts, and similar fastenings. Its wire drawing capabilities gave the company a key advantage over competitors. In 1938, Reed & Prince became the first screw producers in the world to perfect the manufacture of recessed-head screws, a design idea originally patented a century earlier. With new patents granted, it became known as the Reed & Prince Recessed Head. Unlike the Phillips recessed-head screw, Reed & Prince’s product required only one size driver or bit to turn any size screw, saving time and money on production assembly lines.
1948- Kennedy Die Casting opens in Merrifield Shops
Kennedy Die Castings works around the clock to cast five million utility blades a year for the Stanley Works and other tool companies. Kennedy also manufactures aluminum and nickel parts used in computers, automobiles, and hand tools. The growing demand for its diverse products led the company to expand its factory space in 1994. Francis E. Kennedy established the company in 1948 in the Merrifield Buildings in downtown Worcester, moving to Harding Street five years later. In 1986, the business moved to a new facility in Airport Industrial Park. The company is directed by Paul S. and Robert M. Kennedy, sons of the founder.
1954- Howard G. Freeman founds Jamesbury Corporation
In 1954 Howard Freemen invented a unique high-performance ball valve that revolutionized the industry. With his brother Julian and friend Saul Reck, he established Jamesbury Corporation for production of these valves. The company grew from $35,400 in sales and six employees the first year to 1,300 workers and more than $100 million in sales by 1981. In the 1950s the U.S. Navy installed Jamesbury valves on their new fleet of nuclear submarines. In 1968 Jamesbury developed the high-performance butterfly valve. It was less expensive, more durable, and more versatile than other valve design, and established a new market niche. The company, now owned by a Finnish firm, is one of the world’s leading makers of valves and a mainstay of Worcester’s manufacturing economy.
1956- FLEXCON Company begins operation
Armed with academic training in chemistry and hands-on experience with adhesives from his employment at Johnson & Johnson, Worcester businessman Myles McDonough established FLEXCON with $15,000 and two employees. Rapid growth has transformed it into one of the larger manufacturing firms in the area today. In addition to its headquarters in Spencer, the company has factories in Connecticut, Minnesota, and Nebraska. FLEXCON manufactures the labels and decorative trim for many familiar household products. It also makes self-sticking decals used on clock dials, televisions, radio and stereo control panels, and bumper stickers. All of the company’s products are made with thin plastic film.
1966- Plans announced for expanding Higgins Industrial Park
In 1965 a legislative act created Worcester Business Development Corporation (WBDC). The corporation began with a sum of $617,000 in cash from local industries, banks, utilities, and business firms, and a gift of land from Norton Company. WBDC was empowered to acquire land and buildings for industry. In the 1960s, a time when extensive urban renewal projects were under way, it was particularly important that they help displaced companies relocate. WBDC immediately created Higgins Industrial Park on the fourteen-acre Norton parcel. With the project a success, WBDC announced plans to expand the park in 1966. Since then, the corporation has built additional parks, and promoted commercial and industrial development. In 1994, Entrepeneur magazine listed Worcester as a “hot spot” for business development.
1969- Worcester firms make moon landing possible
On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. Employees of several Worcester companies watched Apollo 11′s progress, waiting to see if their products would work as planned. David Clark Company made the headset. Honematic Machine Corporation made the legs of the Lunar Excursion Module. Wyman-Gordan manufactured more than fifty forgings for the space craft. Norton Company produced the superinsulation and ceramic coating for the rocket nozzles. Sprague Electic (now AllegroSystems) made the silicon disc that was microscopically engraved with messages for Astronaut Armstrong to leave on the moon.
1977- American Steel & Wire closes its doors
Ichabod Washburn’s wire company became part of American Steel & Wire in 1899, and part of U.S. Steel in 1901. As a division of a larger company, it continued as a cornerstone of Worcester industry. Its massive South Works plant in Quinsigamond Village was a fully-integrated steel mill and wire product facility where, in 1956, three thousand workers made wire, electrical cable, springs, and razor blade steel. The open hearth furnace of the South Works closed in 1958, signalling an end to steel making in New England. Over the next two decades divisions of the South Works relocated or closed. The plant was completely shut down in 1977. The failure of the American steel industry to modernize and compete in the new global economy meant a significant loss of manufacturing jobs for Worcester.
1987- Massachusetts Biotechnology Research Park opens
The focus of Worcester’s newest industry, biotechnology, includes improving methods for diagnosing and treating cancer, developing environmentally-safe substances for pest control, and discovering cures for diseases. Biotechnology is the use of biological substances to perform specific industrial or manufacturing processes that address a wide range of commercial needs. The Massachusetts Biotechnology Research Park, a WBDC project, opened in 1987 as a center for research and development in this emerging field.
1990- Norton Company bought by Compagnie de Saint-Gobain
Norton is the world’s leading manufacturer of abrasives, making grinding wheels and coated abrasives that are essential in every industry where materials must be cut, shaped, finished or polished. Norton also makes ceramic and plastic products used by the semiconductor, chemical, and petrochemical industries. Norton Company began in 1885 as part of a pottery shop. Spurred by the demand for grinding tools in machine-making industries, Norton dominated the world market by the 1920s. The company has been the largest manufacturing employer in Worcester for several decades. After more than a century of local ownership, Saint-Gobain of France purchased Norton in 1990. With more than 100,000 employees and $14 billion in annual sales, Saint-Gobain is one of the hundred leading industrial companies in the world.