The Northern New York Roots of Pratt & Whitney

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01NYHFrancisPrattIn the year 2000, five years after Plattsburgh Air Force Base closed, Pratt & Whitney signed a lease, moved in, and set up shop on the former base property. Many jobs and residents had been lost in the air-base shutdown, making Pratt & Whitney a valued anchor business in the recovery effort.

Their arrival might have been a homecoming of sorts with historical significance, but persistent misinformation carried forward for more than a century appears to have robbed the region of an important link to the past.

The recording of personal histories is guided by a few informal rules. One is nativity: the birthplace of accomplished individuals might be honored by anything from a roadside historical sign to a museum. An example in the Adirondacks is Eben Rexford, who was born in the town of Johnsburg, where he lived until about age 7, but spent the great majority of his life in Wisconsin. Among other achievements, he wrote one of the most popular songs in American history. Rexford is memorialized in Wisconsin as one of their great citizens, while his birthplace in New York State is marked by a monument bearing a plaque inscribed with information about his wonderful song.

In the case of Pratt & Whitney, Mr. Pratt’s nativity is the issue. And why is that important? Well, for one thing, Pratt & Whitney has long been a titan of American and world industry. As is true of other companies, the contributions of Pratt & Whitney were critical to several of our nation’s war efforts, which means they played a crucial role in determining the country’s future.

The Second Industrial Revolution

Beyond that are the contributions to world industry itself. In the periodical American Machinist Press of 1902, it was noted that prior to the Civil War, “Machinery had not entered into the life of the people on a sufficient scale to call for highly developed methods in its manufacture. Few mechanical products were consumed in large numbers.”

A simple interpretation: since relatively few machines were used in the home, each machine ordered was built by hand. Parts were not interchangeable. A few great American inventors foresaw the next important step: machines built from parts that were created under uniform standards. Acquiring replacement parts would then be easy.

The hows and whys of that issue were solved by the ingenious team of Francis Pratt and Amos Whitney.

As the saying goes, “Necessity is the Mother of Invention,” and as so often happened, the “necessity” was war. As the Civil War raged, manufacturers developed newer, faster, and more powerful weapons. When the shooting stopped years later, the knowledge gained in producing “better” armaments was applied to industry in general. Pratt & Whitney was a leader during the war and remained a leader thereafter.

02NYHLincolnMillerIn the decades to follow, the folks at P&W became best known for precision machinery, and that is because they literally defined precision itself. The two world standards at the time—the British Imperial Yard and the French Meter d’Archives—were studied closely and finally duplicated, leading to the development of the United States Standards Yard, which became known as Bronze No. 11. Deeply involved in that project was P&W.

One of the most important results of that endeavor: the Pratt & Whitney Standard Measuring Machine. Prior to the Civil War, there had been no commercial standard inch, and a yard was pretty much determined by any yardstick found in a store. P&W literally defined the inch, and by 1885, their new device could accurately measure one-hundred-thousandth of an inch. A series of gages was developed, allowing prospective inventors to hone new ideas using very demanding standards. Inventions could be built from finely tooled, interchangeable parts, reducing costs enormously and opening up myriad possibilities.

There were two principal components driving what some historians call the Second Industrial Revolution. The first was use of steam-powered transportation. The second: large-scale production of machine tools and parts, a field led by Francis Pratt and Amos Whitney.

The new standards changed shops, factories, and businesses across America. Imagine the effect: lathes, drill presses, cutters, planers, mills, and all manner of machinery built to specific standards. They in turn produced components adhering to the most exacting measurements, ensuring that quality replacement parts were always available.

Besides establishing national measurement standards, P&W continued building a wide range of precision machines used to create a vast array of products. For bicycle manufacturers, they designed machines to drill spoke wheels and grind bearings. They created a cigarette-packing machine, an envelope maker, typewriters and associated parts, a tobacco-stripping machine, a soap-wrapper, typesetters, and a piston-driven hydraulic elevator. With the machinery to build high-quality duplicate parts, just about anything was possible.

The ongoing effect upon the nation and world during the past 130 years is immeasurable. There are many individuals critical to the processes and developments introduced by Pratt & Whitney, but none more than Francis Ashbury Pratt himself. His patents addressed metal-shaping, metal-shearing, upright drills, cranes, drop-hammers, lathes, and more. Many of his innovations were patented in the firm’s name.

Next: Uncovering the true birthplace of Pratt & Whitney’s Francis A. Pratt

Photos: Francis A. Pratt; the Lincoln miller, one of Pratt’s most famous, lucrative, and influential inventions

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  1. Pingback: Uncovering the True Birthplace Francis Pratt | The New York History Blog

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