Solomon A. Woods Obituary

Modified on 2015/02/24 16:48 by Joel Havens — Categorized as: Biographies

      Solomon A. Woods attended the district school, part of the time taught by his father, and later pursued a course in Farmington Academy. But his talents were not scholastic; on the other hand, he had a great natural love for machinery and tools and devoted many spare moments to their use in a neighboring carriage shop. In the spring of 1847, before he was twenty years of age, he engaged with a local carpenter, who was impressed with his ability, to learn the house building trade. Mastering this business, in 1851 he went to Boston with a view of purchasing a steam engine and boiler, together with machinery for the manufacture of sash, doors and blinds, and erecting a mill in his native town, as he contemplated forming a co-partnership with his former employer. That prolonged trip, however, gave him the idea of securing a wider and more varied experience in the city, and resulted in his abandoning the factory enterprise and engaging as a journeyman with Solomon S. Gray, who was engaged in the same business in Boston, and this relationship continued from April to December, Mr. Woods then purchasing the business for the sum of three hundred and fifty dollars, his own earnings, and with a few crude machines started in business for himself. At about this time Mr. Gray conceived the idea of a machine for planing wood that would not infringe on the then all powerful Woodworth patents, but because of the lack of capital he was only partially successful. Mr. Woods, having purchased this mechanical device together with his business, by his ingenuity and skill made the machine practicable. The machine afterward became world famous under the name of the Gray & Woods Planer. It was considered a decided improvement on the Daniel's Planer, with which every old time woodworker is familiar, and was particularly acceptable at that time on account of overcoming the Woodworth patents. This machine was exhibited by Mr. Woods in 1855 at the Smithsonian Institution fair in Washington, where it was awarded a gold medal, the first of many received by Mr. Woods. In 1854 the firm of Gray & Woods was formed for the manufacture of this planer and this copartnership lasted for five years, when Mr. Woods again assumed the interests of Mr. Gray and conducted business on his own account. In 1865 he added to his business the manufacture of the Woodworth planer with the James A. Woodbury patent improvements, of which he was the sole licensee. To meet the demands of his growing business, which had by this time become extensive, he erected works in South Boston and established branch houses in New York and Chicago, still, with additions, in existence. In 1873 the business was incorporated under the style of the S. A. Woods Machine Company, with a paid up capital of $300,000. Of this company Mr. Woods became president. To the successive concerns of Gray & Woods, S. A. Woods and the S. A. Woods Machine Company have been issued more than eighty patents for machines, devices and improvements for the manufacture of dressed lumber and moldings. It was this business of which Mr. Woods at the time of his death was the head, though the more active management of the business had for years been delegated to his son, Frank F. Woods.

      It was the inventors and perfectors of woodworking machinery who made possible the thousands—yes, millions—of comfortable homes and the business edifices that are tangible evidences of our country's prosperity and wealth. Without them men would still have had places in which to live and to conduct business, but progress would have been slower and at much higher cost. Perhaps the most notable service which Mr. Woods rendered to the business world, and which endeared him to the entire woodworking fraternity, was in connection with the successful defense of the famous patent suit brought by the Woodbury Patent Planing Machine Company against Allen W. Keith for the alleged infringement of the well known hinged pressure bar or chip breaker. This defense Mr. Woods organized and conducted at a heavy expense in time, energy and money. It is, perhaps, not generally known to the present generation of planing machine users that the right to employ this familiar device, without the payment of exorbitant royalties, was the subject of one of the greatest patent suits in this country, and forms one of the most interesting chapters in its patent history. To the men who spent their time and money to free the planing machine owners from what threatened to be an oppressive monopoly every credit is due, and it is of interest to review the events leading up to this critical period in the history of the planing machine. It seems that in 1848 Joseph P. Woodbury applied for a patent for a yielding pressure bar for planing machines, to act on the stock preceding the cutter head. As yielding pressure rolls and flat springs supported by bars had previously been used for the same purpose it was rejected by the patent office and in 1852 he withdrew his application, relinquished his claim to the model and received back a part of his fee, as provided by law. The alleged invention was then abandoned to the public and for over eighteen years no claim was made to it. During this time a bar similar to that claimed by Woodbury was adopted and used by nearly all planing machine manufacturers and hundreds of machines were sold embodying this device. In 1869, an act of congress permitted the taking up of certain rejected applications, and in 1870 Woodbury again applied for a patent upon this device and on April 29, 1873, it was granted. Thereupon he organized the Woodbury Patent Planing Machine Company, which immediately put forth its claims to royalties on all machines embodying a yielding pressure bar and threatened suit and claims for damages to all who failed to comply. This was practically exacting a tribute from every planing machine owner and operator in the country. Mr. Woods was approached by Mr. Woodbury and a tempting offer was made to him to enlist his co-operation in favor of the new patent. He, however, rejected all advances of this nature, considering them dishonorable and against the interests of the users of his machines. To defeat these claims several manufacturers of planing machines gathered in New York and, at a meeting over which Mr. Woods presided as chairman, proceeded to organize what was termed the Planing & Molding Machine Manufacturers' Association. By an active campaign through the mails and the press, notifying the planing machine users not to yield to any demands for shop licenses or royalties, the association partially blocked the efforts of the Woodbury company, although many millmen did take out licenses, in order to avoid possible trouble. In 1875, however, the Woodbury company, seeing that its demand could not be enforced without the backing of a court decision, began suit against Allen W. Keith, a mill operator in Maiden, Massachusetts, for alleged infringements and damages. The defense of this suit was immediately taken up by the Planing & Molding Machine Manufacturers' Association and the case was bitterly contested by both sides. The deposition and testimony of over eighty witnesses were taken and extensive experiments were made by Mr. Woods in his factory, establishing the fact that a pressure bar patented by one Burnett in England in 1839 accomplished all the results claimed by Woodbury and was its mechanical equivalent. Mr. Woods was also instrumental in showing up a sash sticker built in Norwich, Connecticut, by one Alfred Anson, in 1844. embodying all the features of the Woodbury bar. The builder had attempted to obtain patents, but had been unsuccessful long before Woodbury's original application. The machine was found still running with the original pressure bar in it in a Connecticut mill, and was purchased and taken bodily into the court room as one of the exhibits in the case. In view of all this overwhelming testimony the claims of Woodbury were overthrown and the yielding pressure bar once more became free to the public. Mill operators were saved the payment of many thousands of dollars in royalties yearly, which would have continued through the life of the patent, or until 1890. The entire expense of the litigation on both sides aggregated nearly $100,000.

      Mr. Woods never sought public recognition, but from 1869 to 1871 was a member of the city council of Boston; for 1870-71 he was a director for city of the East Boston ferries, and from 1870 until his death was a trustee of the South Boston Savings Bank and for many years was chairman of its board of investors. From a technical standpoint his career was remarkable, but it was made more noteworthy by his fidelity to the highest business ideals, by the public spirit which he carried into his business life and by his practical philanthropy. He was a man who, while devoted to business, recognized higher claims than those involved in the mere making of money in his vocation. He stood for what we sometimes call old fashioned honesty and independence in his business life. His life history was the outgrowth of hereditary influence, guided by his own high conceptions of personal and business character. He was at time of his death probably the largest manufacturer of wood planing machines in the world.

      Mr. Woods married (first) August 21, 1854, Sarah Elizabeth Weathern, of Vienna, Maine, who died in 1862. He married (second) in 1867, Sarah Catherine Watts, of Boston, Massachusetts, who died in 1905. Mr. Woods died suddenly of apoplexy, at his home in Brookline, Massachusetts, October 1, 1907. He was survived by three children: Frank F., treasurer and general manager of the company organized by his father; Florence; and Dr. Frederick Adams Woods, the biologist and author.

(Most of the facts contained in this sketch were taken from the "American Lumberman", a Chicago paper, issue of October 12, 1907).

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