After he and Amos Whitney formed Pratt & Whitney in 1860, Francis Pratt served as president until 1898, while Whitney was the general superintendent.
Their personal and joint histories prior to forming the company are well documented in many sources. Comparison with other records suggests only one discrepancy, but to historians it’s a whopper. The issue: where was Francis Pratt born and who can claim him as their own?
The only online source that appears to have it right is Wikipedia (surprise!), and thanks for that likely goes to a knowing North Country resident. (Those websites who “borrow” from Wiki have it right as well.) Many Internet references with the erroneous information likely picked it up from old books and magazines that were scanned by Google and others and made available to the public.
Among the periodicals from more than a hundred years ago that have it wrong are these three: “The Iron Age,” “Steel,” and “Hardware.” Among the books: “English and American Tool Builders,” “Biographical Dictionary of the History of Technology,” and “The Illustrated Popular Biography of Connecticut.” Also featuring erroneous historical information: Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford, Connecticut; the American Society of Mechanical Engineers; and, in Windsor, Vermont, the American Precision Museum.
They all cite Francis A. Pratt—inventor, historic mechanical engineer, and co-founder of Pratt & Whitney—as a native of Woodstock, Vermont. No doubt, those sources sound very authoritative. After all, why and how would they all be wrong?
Some time ago, with a local history article in mind, I had saved a notation about Pratt’s North Country origins. Following up recently and piecing together the story, I concluded that all those sources had erred.
The Pratt & Whitney website says he was born in Jay, New York. That adds to the mystery somewhat, but it seems to be the only mention anywhere of Jay as his possible birthplace (it doesn’t appear in old materials, which all mention Woodstock, Vermont). About five years before Pratt’s birth, Peru did cede some land to the town of Jay, but it’s not clear that the transfer is at all pertinent to Pratt’s story. If Jay is a modern reference on the P&W website, was it simply an error by someone who was recently adding a historical snippet on Pratt’s past?
In four different federal census years listing Mr. Pratt’s family, he is the only individual recorded as a New York native. That is consistent throughout all four listings, casting strong doubt on claims of Vermont as his birthplace. Pratt’s parents were Vermont natives, and many family members lived there. Thus the naming of Woodstock as his birthplace may have originated in a natural but mistaken assumption made long ago.
The clincher, at least for me, is Francis Pratt’s 1872 passport. Clearly stated above a notary public’s signature is, “I, Francis A. Pratt, do swear that I was born in the town of Peru, New York, on or about the 15th day of February, 1827.” The birthdate exactly matches that cited by all the aforementioned books, magazines, websites, and Windsor, Vermont’s museum. His trade: machinist and toolmaker. There’s no doubt they are one and the same man.
All things considered, that’s the strongest piece of evidence addressing Francis Pratt’s place of birth. It’s doubtful a man of such great intelligence was mistaken about his own origins.
Too bad Pratt & Whitney has since left Plattsburgh – the connection to their roots would have made great publicity. At any rate, perhaps it’s time for Peru to claim a very famous native. Maybe Pratt & Whitney would sponsor a historical marker in his name. Better yet, they could craft it on one of the precision machines that have earned billions for the firm during the past century, thanks to the company’s namesake.
Following is an update on this piece, which was originally written in 2014. Upon reading the article, officials at Pratt & Whitney reached out to me for confirmation of Pratt’s birthplace. Using the materials I provided, they revised the company’s historical information, including their website, and planned to reach out to the federal archives for a copy of Pratt’s passport made directly from the original, which is in storage. It will be part of a historical display honoring the company’s roots.
Photo: Francis A. Pratt