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John E. Sweet Obituary

Modified on 2018/06/14 12:55 by Joel Havens Categorized as Biographies
     John E. Sweet     

      John E. Sweet, president of the the Straight-Line Engine Co., past-president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and one of the best known mechanical engineers in America, died at his home in Syracuse, May 8, aged eighty-three years.

      He was born at Pompey, New York, in 1832, and his boyhood, spent on his father’s farm. was given up to the varied work that a farmer’s boy is called upon to do and to securing a common school education at the local schools of his native town. His mother, Candace Avery, was of the Avery family, which numbered among its members many able mechanics, among them the Avery who patented the first American steam turbine, which was one of the earliest turbines in the world to be put to any practical use. In 1835 several of these were in operation, one being used to drive a saw-mill at Syracuse, N. Y. It is probable, therefore, that young Sweet was by inheritance destined to become a machinist and engineer; and this in spite of his early training, which was in quite a different sphere. That he had a mechanical bent was early evident, one of his achievements as a boy being the construction of a violin, which so pleased his parents that he had the distinction of being sent to take violin lessons—a very unusual event at that time for a farmer lad.

      At the age of 18 he was apprenticed to learn the carpenter's and joiner’s trade and his time was devoted to carpentry and building until nearly 30 years of age. After completing his apprenticeship, he secured a. position in the first architect’s office opened in Syracuse conducted by Elijah T. Hayden, where he had an opportunity to become familiar with drawings of framed structures and building details. The laying out of such details passed for "architecture" in those days, since the artistic side of building design had not then received much attention, particularly in the smaller towns and cities.

      The building plans of Sweet, the architect, bore the stamp of originality that characterized his later work. One of his most successful efforts, from a utilitarian point of view, was a set of plans for a model farm barn; and so great was the call for these that they were several times published in the Rural New Yorker and led to a series of articles in this publication by the young architect. His last work as an architect was in connection with the building of a hotel in Alabama, which was in process of construction at the outbreak of the Civil War. In common with many Northerners then in the South, he came North with the opening of hostilities. Later he went abroad, traveling in England and on the Continent, the immediate reason for his trip being the famous London Exposition of 1862. While abroad he contributed a series of letters to a Syracuse paper, showing him to be a versatile writer along popular as well as technical lines.

      Singularly enough, the beginning of his mechanical career was made in England. He secured a patent on a nail machine in which the Patent Nut & Bolt Co., of Birmingham, England, took an interest, so he went there and entered their employ while superintending the making of his machines. While there he began writing upon technical subjects, contributing to London Engineering.

      His mechanical career in America began in 1864 when he was employed by the firm of Sweet, Barnes & Co., of Syracuse, as draftsman. He was here engaged upon a varied line of machines, one of which was a matrix-impressing machine arranged with a keyboard and aiming to do away with the use of movable type. This machine was really a progenitor of the present linotype machine, and the first and only one constructed was exhibited at the Paris Exposition of 1867 and later presented to Cornell University, where it now is.

      In the early seventies Mr. Sweet‘s efforts were extended in still another field—that of bridge building. At about this time, however, he had conceived the idea of his Straight Line engine which is inseparably connected with his name and is perhaps his most characteristic piece of work. The features of the engine are too well known to require extended description. Nearly every feature was different from what had been done before. The straight lines of the frame, the oiling arrangement, the governor, the arrangement and location of the flywheel, the substitution of a plain sleeve for piston rod packing, etc., have been much discussed and have influenced machine design in general.

      Prof. Sweet‘s connection with Cornell University began in 1873 and terminated in 1879. One of the first college machine shops in the country was established at this institution, and Prof. Sweet gave instructions both in shop work and in machine design. The second Straight Line engine built was made by students in this college shop and exhibited at the Centennial Exposition. The Sweet measuring machine was developed while he was at Cornell and was the first machine for accurate measuring made in this country. He introduced into the Sibley shop the making of scraped surface plates and straightedges, and of ground standard gages, at a time when such auxiliaries to shop processes were considered unnecessary refinements. Another of his Cornell products was the Sweet engine lathe, having a cone of change-gears located in the headstock beneath the main cone of the lathe and so connected that any feed or thread could be obtained without putting on or taking off change-gears as in the ordinary type of lathe. Another feature of this lathe was the support of the bed upon three points, a principle that he had adopted, also, in the Straight Line engine frame.

      In this period of six years with Cornell University Prof. Sweet arose from a position of comparative obscurity to one of national prominence. Mechanical engineering as a department of organized education was a new thing. There were no precedents and regarding its practicability there was almost universal skepticism. Its plan, its scope, its aims, were unformed even among its friends—and its friends were few. There were no experienced educators. His work was first that of a teacher, and second, that of a pioneer in mechanical construction. In the latter capacity he laid an enduring foundation for interchangeable manufacturing. His experience as a draftsman in England had shown him the fundamental importance of the work of Joseph Whitworth. which heretofore had found little appreciation in America. Combining a keen appreciation of Whitworth’s advanced standards of accuracy with original conceptions of correct principles, he established a school of construction, the influence of which was far-reaching. Along with this went an application of art in design—not the art of organization, but the art of perfect adaptation to purpose.

      Shortly after his resignation from Sibley College, the [^ | Straight-Line Engine Co.was organized at Syracuse, with Prof. Sweet as president and manager. In the building and equipment of this plant his originality was manifest. as always. It was one of the first sawtooth roof shops to be erected in this country and among the tools was a planer-type milling machine, then not a common machine in America, designed by him and built at the Straight Line Engine Co.’s works. The conduct of the plant was unique. greeting was the sign over the door, “Visitors Always Welcome.” Prof. Sweet made it a rule to welcome and entertain the callers who had legitimate interests in mechanical engineering work. His shop contained no secrets and he freely gave advice and counsel to all who sought him.

      Prof. Sweet was one of the founders of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, was elected its third president and was accorded the honor of presenting the first paper, in recognition of his untiring services during its organization. He was also later elected an honorary member of the society. was one of the judges on machine tools at the Chicago Exposition; an expert for the government on gun lathes; and one of the founders and first president of the Engine Builders' Association of the United States. In 1914, Syracuse University conferred upon him the degree of Doctor of Engineering. He was awarded the John Fritz medal in December 1914, “in recognition of his achievement in machine design and his pioneer work in applying sound engineering principles to the construction and development of the high-speed engine."

It was one of the great his career that the reciprocating steam engine was displaced by the steam turbine, and the years of thought, research and labor that he had expended had come to naught. He saw many of his engines taken out and thrown into the scrap heap to be replaced by the steam turbine, but he accepted the changes with philosophical cheerfulness. Sweet was twice married; his first wife, Caroline V. Fulton, died in 1887, and his second, Irene A. Clark, died last year.

Information Sources

  • Machinery Magazine, V22, Jun. 1916, pgs. 922 & 924

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