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Amos Whitney

Modified on 2015/11/16 17:03 by Joel Havens Categorized as Biographies

      Amos Whitney died at the Poland Springs House, Poland Springs, Me., August 5, after an illness which had lasted about four weeks. He was 88 years old.

      Mr. Whitney came from distinguished Colonial and English ancestry. Whitne-on-the-Wye, from which the family takes its name, is mentioned in the Doomsday Book. One Sir Randolph Whitney accompanied Richard Coeur de Leon to the Holy Land and was there victorious in a single-handed combat with three Saracens—one of them a brother of Saladin.

      One of Sir Randolph's descendants came to America in 1635 and was known to the Plymouth colonists as John Whitney. In this country the family has continuously held a prominent and substantial place—many of its members showing decided mechanical tastes, as Eli Whitney, Inventor of the cotton gin, Baxter D. Whitney, the Winchendon machine builder, and—Amos Whitney.

      Although the name of Amos Whitney is inseparably connected with the city of Hartford, Conn., and the Pratt & Whitney Co., he was born in Biddeford, Me, on Oct. 8, 1832. Moving to Lawrence, Mass., he was apprenticed at the age of fourteen to the well-known Essex Machine Co. of that city, going to Hartford in 1852, at the age of twenty. There he was employed at Colt's Armory, at that time the Mecca of many New England mechanics, where he met Francis A. Pratt and Asa S. Cook. Pratt left shortly afterward to take charge of the Phoenix Iron Works (now the Taylor & Fennl Machine Co.), run by Levi Lincoln and his two sons, George S and Charles L. Mr. Cook in 1853 also went to the Phoenix works, as a contractor, taking young Whitney with him, in spite of his youth, as a full partner. This took something of a struggle on Whitney's part as he was making $8 a day at Colt's and the new job offered only $2 at the beginning. But the future looked promising and he made the change.

      As many of the present generation have never seen a contract shop, it may be well to explain that the firm furnished materials, machinery, tools, and shop-room supplies, while the men were directly employed by the contractor. Wages, however, were usually paid by the firm and charged against the contractor's account. At the Phoenix Iron Works Pratt designed the "Lincoln" lathes, the "Lincoln" milling machines and other products of the Phoenix plant Whether the idea of the milling machine came originally from Windsor, Vt., as some claim, or originated in Hartford, is difficult to prove at this time—but at any rate the machine is known as the Lincoln milling machine all over the globe.

      Pratt & Whitney each recognized the ability of the other and they became closely associated. The same ambition which urged Whitney to go to Colt's Armory and later to the Phoenix works, drove him into business for himself, with Pratt. While still at the Phoenix, they formed the Pratt & Whitney Co., hiring a room 40 ft. square nearby and employing two men. There they began manufacturing in 1860. They made f little machine for winding thread known as a spooler. The business grew, soon requiring ten men and outgrowing the original quarters. The next shop was in the Wood Building, which has been the early home of several successful concerns, so that there is a feeling around Hartford that any business starting in the Wood Building is bound to be successful. In the little shop John Johnson, Mr. Whitney's father-inlaw, acted as pattern maker, millwright, bookkeeper and handy man generally.

      A few years later Pratt & Whitney moved into their own building, the old shop having been destroyed by fire. The first structure of their new plant was built in 1865. The firm was known as the Pratt & Whitney Co., and was incorporated in 1869, with a capital of $350,000. At first the upper floor was leased to the Weed Sewing Machine Co., but after a short time the whole building was needed and the Weed Company moved across the river (known as the Hog River by the unregenerate) to what was later part of the plant of the Pope Manufacturing Co. The capital stock was increased, in 1875 to $500,000 and in 1893 to $3,000,000. There has been a constant rapid growth since. In 1893 Mr. Whitney was made vice president. Later he was made president, in which office he continued until January, 1901, when the control of the company was acquired by the Niles-Bement-Pond Company. Mr. Whitney remained as one of the directors. At the time of his death he was president of the Gray Telephone Pay Station Co. and treasurer of the Whitney Manufacturing Co., organized by his son Clarence.

      The contract system was in vogue at the Pratt & Whitney plant, but Mr. Whitney, in addition to being general superintendent, always had a good sized force working directly under him on work that did not lend itself to the contract system. Although he was a strict disciplinarian, tolerating nothing irregular or inferior, on account of his own innate fairness, it was the ambition of everyone to work for "Whit" as he was called in loving abbreviation.

     Everybody has a hobby, and Amos Whitney's hobby (so far as the product of the shop was concerned) was "round corners." Even when the works had grown to employ several hundred men, he always had in his pocket a smooth file with which he would "round over" any sharp corner that did not suit his fancy on any machine in process of making. This hobby was so marked that when he got ready to build his house, everyone said the house would have round corners—but it didn't.

     He was a noted machine-tool salesman, and a pioneer in the methods which are now beginning to be understood as correct. He never belittled the other man's machine, never recommended his machine when the other man's machine was better for the purpose and would cheerfully recommend the machine that was best, never asking "What is there in it for me?"

     His unbounded optimism was well displayed when the Pratt & Whitney Co. went through its first panic. It kept right on making standard machine tools, but selling almost nothing, until all the available storage room was filled. Then a large space was hired from the Weed Sewing Machine Co. and when this was filled another large space was hired in Colt's "West Armory" and this in turn was filled with finished machinery. It is well to note, as a matter of history and as a suggestion for the future, that when this immense stock began to move it was practically sold out in 30 days.

     Mr. Whitney was very fond of horses—though he later said he was glad that he had lived to see the automobile—and the knowing ones who wanted a day off when the shop was busy, always, when possible, timed their requests for absence to agree with the days when there was horse racing.

     He was always an early bird, usually the first to reach the shop in the morning, in consequence of which there were few tardy workmen.

     It should also be remembered that Mr. Whitney took an important part in the development, in this country, of standard measuring instruments, one of the first moves being a determined effort to secure a standard inch block. His company purchased at considerable expense a standard rectangular bar, 1 in. square and 12 in. long, which had been used as a standard of measurement. Twelve 1-in. cubes were then made as accurately as possible and tested by the 12-in. piece. It was found that the twelve 1-in. cubes were not as long as the single bar, supposed to be exactly 12 in. long. Careful measuring and comparison with such standard instruments as were available led the company to believe that the individual inch-blocks were more nearly accurate than the longer piece, and this was afterward proved by the Rogers-Bond comparator, which was developed in the Pratt & Whitney works.

     At that time no one realized the effect of comparatively small changes of temperature on steel, which led to numerous interesting and embarrassing situations. Nor was it understood that a plug and ring gage might be put together and prove to be a nice fit if relative motion were maintained, but seize if allowed to remain stationary. The gages exhibited by the Pratt & Whitney Co. at the Centennial Exposition ran up to about 2 in. in diameter. To avoid leaving the hole "bell-mouthed," the ring gages were made with a slight projection on each end, which was afterward ground off. No one understood the effect of aging on steels or the changes that would take place after hardening and Mr. Whitney's own story of his experience with these Centennial gages is of interest. They were finished several weeks before the exposition and all completely tested before laying aside to await shipment. Just before sending them to Philadelphia he picked up a ring and plug gage to make sure it was right but could not make the plug enter. Every plug proved to be large and the gages had to be refinished before sending.

     All his life Mr. Whitney was doing something for someone else, but he disclaimed any credit for this, saying "I believe that every dollar I give to help someone who needs it more than I do, will come back."

     Mr. Whitney leaves a son, Clarence E. Whitney; a daughter, Nettie L. Whitney; a brother, Major George Q. Whitney of Hartford, and two sisters, Mrs. George H. Carey of New York, and Miss Fannie Whitney of West Newton, Mass.

Information Sources

  • American Machinist, V53, 19 Aug 1920, pg. 381

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