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Henry Disston, one of the most famous manufacturers of the age, and founder of the great saw and tool industry at Philadelphia and Tacony, was born at Tewkesbury, England, May 24, 1819, and died at his residence on Broad Street, Philadelphia, March 16, 1878. He was a son of Thomas Disston, also of Tewkesbury, but subsequently of Derby, England, to which place the latter removed shortly after the birth of his son Henry. Thomas Disston was a man of superior mechanical and inventive skill. During his residence of fourteen years at Derby he was engaged principally in the manufacture of lace machines. As Henry grew up, the father, perceiving that he inherited mechanical genius, fostered it by affording the lad every opportunity which would tend to develop it. He took him into his shops, instructed him in all that appertained to the manufactures conducted there, and also taught him the general principles of mechanics. When Henry was fourteen years of age his father decided to emigrate to America and with his two children, the other being a girl of tender years, sailed for Philadelphia, reaching this port after a tedious passage of sixty days. Three days after landing Thomas Disston was stricken with apoplexy and died. In a strange land, and thus have ensured his success in politics, had he aspired to office, but his tastes did not run in that direction. He was a Republican in principles, and was honored by his fellow-citizens in that party by being placed on the electoral ticket in the campaign of 1876, and as a Presidential Elector cast his vote for Hayes and Wheeler. Mr. Disston's five sons, Hamilton, Albert H., Horace C, William and Jacob 8., all grew to manhood and inherited the ambition and business tact of their father. After his death they took charge of the business and pushed it with such characteristic vigor that in ten years it had increased in volume and pecuniary results fully fifty per cent. The second son, Mr. Albert H. Disston, a young man of great promise, died October 21, 1883. The surviving brothers now conduct the business. The honored founder of this great industry will always hold a high place among those who have laid broad and deep the basis of American manufacturing prosperity. A born mechanic in the comprehensive meaning of the term, he combined in his business ideal aims with the greatest attainable practical excellence. He had the faculty of observing wherein a familiar tool, implement or machine was defective, and the genius to devise the means for improving it, with the skill to perform the manual work necessary to carry his own device into effect. He was thoroughly in love with his craft and to the last days of his life was never above doing with his own hands any of the labor incident to it. His qualities were of that sterling character which stamp true manhood and, not only command success but also the admiration of mankind. A day or two after Mr. Disston's death an editorial appeared in the Philadelphia ledger, which is so full of truth and eloquent eulogy of this worthy man, that it is quoted here as a fitting conclusion to this imperfect sketch of his useful and honorable life. It reads as follows:
"Although the great establishment founded by Henry Disston will continue to occupy the front rank it has now among the work-shops of the world, it is still a serious loss to Philadelphia that he is no longer among her living citizens. The death of a man useful as he has been, in what is generally the prime vigor of manhood, is an event to be marked by universal pnblic regret. He was one of the men whose works have made our city famous for the superiority of the products turned out from our work-shops, foundries, factories and laboratories. Wherever the Disston saws have been carried (and that is everywhere on this side of the Atlantic and to many foreign countries) they have carried the name of the city also, and their good name as the best products of the saw manufacture in the world has added so much more to the high credit of Philadelphia. In the foreign countries to which the Disston saws have made their way they have not only increased the reputation of our city, but have contributed largely to the credit of the whole country—they were not only 'Disston's Philadelphia saws,' but they were 'Disston's American saws.'
We have spoken of Mr. Disston individually, apart from the associates and partners gathered about him as a nucleus as his house grew in importance. Doubtless he had the aid in recent times of many a quick eye, ingenious mind and skilled hand, for he was the sort of man to attract these, and to train them up; but his was the devising and moving power—the creative and impelling force. When he came to the close of his self-imposed apprenticeship the saw manufacture, especially in this country, was crude, a very few varieties of implements, and none of them of superior quality, being made to do service in all kinds of work. Under his guidance the manufacture grew into a refined system and he left it almost an art. The production of such work will go on, now that he has passed away, just as it did while he was living, for he has given the impulse, shown the way and lighted the track a long way into the future. It is among the Providences that the impulses given by such men do not cease when their hands are stilled by death."
- Encyclopaedia of Contemporary Biography, of Pennsylvania, V2, 1890, pgs. 29-30