In 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 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.
In 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 the 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.
Where Was Francis Pratt Born?
After he and Amos Whitney formed the company in 1869, Pratt served as president until 1898, while Whitney was the general superintendent. Their personal and joint histories prior to forming Pratt & Whitney 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 (not only the town, but the state), 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 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 involved from more than a hundred years ago 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, any of 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 was led to conclude that all those sources have it wrong.
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 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.
Photos: Francis A. Pratt; the Lincoln miller, one of Pratt’s most famous, lucrative, and influential inventions (Cassier’s Magazine, 1903)