Of all our manufactures few have had a more rapid development than wire-making. During the last thirty years the world has been girdled by telegraphic wires and cables, requiring an immense and continuous supply of the article. In New York alone two hundred pianos a week have been made, each containing miles of wire. There have been years during which a garment composed chiefly of wire was worn by nearly every woman in the land, even by the remotest and poorest.
Who has supplied all these millions of miles of wire? A large part of the answer to this question is given when we pronounce the name at the head of this article, Ichabod Washburn. In the last years of his life he had seven hundred men at Worcester making wire, the product of whose labor was increased a hundred fold by machinery which he had invented or adapted.
It is curious to note how he seemed to stumble into the business just in the nick of time. I say, seemed; but, in truth, he had been prepared for success in it by a long course of experience and training. He was a poor widow’s son, born on the coast of Massachusetts, a few miles from Plymouth Rock; his father having died in early manhood, when this boy and a twin brother were two months old. His mother, suddenly left with three little children, and having no property except the house in which she lived, supported her family by weaving, in which her children from a very early age could give her some help. She kept them at school, however, during part of the winter, and instilled into their minds good principles. When this boy was nine years of age she was obliged, as the saying was, „to put him out to live” to a master five miles from her house.
On his way to his new home he was made to feel the difference between a hard master and a kind mother. Having a quick intelligent mind, he questioned the man concerning the objects they passed. At length the boy saw a windmill, and he asked what that was.
„Don’t ask me so many questions, boy,” answered the man, in a harsh, rough voice.
The little fellow was silenced, and he vividly remembered the event, the tone, and the scene, to old age. His employer was a maker of harness, carriages, and trunks, and it was the boy’s business to take care of a horse and two cows, light fires, chop wood, run errands, and work in the shop. He never forgot the cold winter mornings, and the loud voice of his master rousing him from sleep to make the fire, and go out to the barn and get the milking done before daylight. His sleeping-place was a loft above the shop reached by a ladder. Being always a timid boy, he suffered extremely from fear in the dark and lonely garret of a building where no one else slept, and to which he had to grope his way alone.
What would the dainty boys of the present time think of going to mill on a frosty morning astride of a bag of corn on the horse’s back, without stockings or shoes and with trousers half way up to the knees? On one occasion the little Ichabod was so thoroughly chilled that he had to stop at a house to get warm, and the good woman took pity on him, made him put on a pair of long black stockings, and a pair of her own shoes. Thus equipped, with his long black legs extending far out of his short trousers, and the woman’s shoes lashed to his feet, he presented a highly ludicrous appearance, and one which, he thought, might have conveyed a valuable hint to his master. In the daytime he was usually employed in the shop making harnesses, a business in which he became expert. He served this man five years, or until he was fourteen years of age, when he made a complete harness for one of his cousins, which rendered excellent service for many years, and a part of it lasted almost as long as the maker.
Thus, at fourteen, he had completed his first apprenticeship, and had learned his first trade. The War of 1812 having given a sudden start to manufactures in this country, he went to work in a cotton factory for a while, where, for the first time in his life, he saw complicated machinery. Like a true Yankee as he was, he was strongly attracted by it, and proposed to learn the machinist’s trade. His guardian opposed the scheme strongly, on the ground that, in all probability, by the time he had learned the trade the country would be so full of factories that there would be no more machinery required.
Thus discouraged, he did the next best thing: he went apprentice to the blacksmith’s trade, near Worcester, where he was destined to spend the rest of his life. He was sixteen years of age when he began this second apprenticeship; but he was still one of the most timid and bashful of lads. In a fragment of autobiography found among his papers after his death he says:–
„I arrived at Worcester about one o’clock, at Syke’s tavern where we were to dine; but the sight of the long table in the dining-room so overpowered my bashful spirit that I left the room and went into the yard without dinner to wait till the stage was ready.”
On reaching his new home, eighty miles from his mother’s house, he was so overcome by homesickness that, the first night, he sobbed himself to sleep. Soon he became interested in his shop and in his work, made rapid progress, and approved himself a skillful hand. Having been brought up to go to church every Sunday, he now hired a seat in the gallery of one of the churches at fifty cents a year, which he earned in over-time by forging pot-hooks. Every cent of his spending money was earned in similar ways. Once he made six toasting-irons, and carried them to Worcester, where he sold them for a dollar and a quarter each, taking a book in part payment. When his sister was married he made her a wedding present of a toasting-iron. Nor was it an easy matter for an apprentice then to do work in over-time, for he was expected to labor in his master’s service from sunrise to sunset in the summer, and from sunrise to nine o’clock in the winter.
On a bright day in August, 1818, his twentieth birthday, he was out of his time, and, according to the custom of the period, he celebrated the joyful event by a game of ball! In a few months, having saved a little money, he went into business as a manufacturer of ploughs, in which he had some little success. But still yearning to know more of machinery he entered upon what we may call his third apprenticeship, in an armory near Worcester, where he soon acquired skill enough to do the finer parts of the work. Then he engaged in the manufacture of lead pipe, in which he attained a moderate success.
At length, in 1831, being then thirty-three years old, he began the business of making wire, in which he continued during the remainder of his active life. The making of wire, especially the finer and better kinds, is a nice operation. Until Ichabod Washburn entered into the business, wire of good quality was not made in the United States; and there was only one house in Great Britain that had the secret of making the steel wire for pianos, and they had had a monopoly of the manufacture for about eighty years.
Wire is made by drawing a rod of soft, hot iron through a hole which is too small for it. If a still smaller sized wire is desired, it is drawn through a smaller hole, and this process is repeated until the required size is attained. Considerable power is needed to draw the wire through, and the hole through which it is drawn is soon worn larger. The first wire machine that Washburn ever saw was arranged with a pair of self-acting pincers which drew a foot of wire and then had to let go and take a fresh hold. By this machine a man could make fifty pounds of coarse wire in a day. He soon improved this machine so that the pincers drew fifteen feet without letting go; and by this improvement alone the product of one man’s labor was increased about eleven times. A good workman could make five or six hundred pounds a day by it. By another improvement which Washburn adopted the product was increased to twenty-five hundred pounds a day.
He was now in his element. He always had a partner to manage the counting-room part of the business, which he disliked.
„I never,” said he, „had taste or inclination for it, always preferring to be among the machinery, doing the work and handling the tools I was used to, though oftentimes at the expense of a smutty face and greasy hands.”
His masterpiece in the way of invention was his machinery for making steel wire for pianos,–a branch of the business which was urged upon him by the late Jonas Chickering, piano manufacturer, of Boston. The most careless glance at the strings of a piano shows us that the wire must be exquisitely tempered and most thoroughly wrought, in order to remain in tune, subjected as they are to a steady pull of many tons. Washburn experimented for years in perfecting his process, and he was never satisfied until he was able to produce a wire which he could honestly claim to be the best in the world. He had amazing success in his business. At one time he was making two hundred and fifty thousand yards of crinoline wire every day. His whole daily product was seven tons of iron wire, and five tons of steel wire.
This excellent man, in the midst of a success which would have dazzled and corrupted some men, retained all the simplicity, the modesty, and the generosity of his character. He felt, as he said, nowhere so much at home as among his own machinery, surrounded by thoughtful mechanics, dressed like them for work, and possibly with a black smudge upon his face. In his person, however, he was scrupulously clean and nice, a hater of tobacco and all other polluting things and lowering influences.
Rev. H. T. Cheever, the editor of his „Memorials,” mentions also that he remained to the end of his life in the warmest sympathy with the natural desires of the workingman. He was a collector of facts concerning the condition of workingmen everywhere, and for many years cherished a project of making his own business a coöperative one.
„He believed,” remarks Mr. Cheever, „that the skilled and faithful manual worker, as well as the employer, was entitled to a participation in the net proceeds of business, over and above his actual wages. He held that in this country the entire people are one great working class, working with brains, or hands, or both, who should therefore act in harmony–the brain-workers and the hand-workers–for the equal rights of all, without distinction of color, condition, or religion. Holding that capital is accumulated labor, and wealth the creation of capital and labor combined, he thought it to be the wise policy of the large capitalists and corporations to help in the process of elevating and advancing labor by a proffered interest.”
These were the opinions of a man who had had long experience in all the grades, from half-frozen apprentice to millionaire manufacturer.
He died in 1868, aged seventy-one years, leaving an immense estate; which, however, chiefly consisted in his wire-manufactory. He had made it a principle not to accumulate money for the sake of money, and he gave away in his lifetime a large portion of his revenue every year. He bequeathed to charitable associations the sum of four hundred and twenty-four thousand dollars, which was distributed among twenty-one objects. His great bequests were to institutions of practical and homely benevolence: to the Home for Aged Women and Widows, one hundred thousand dollars; to found a hospital and free dispensary, the same amount; smaller sums to industrial schools and mission schools.
It was one of his fixed convictions that boys cannot be properly fitted for life without being both taught and required to use their hands, as well as their heads, and it was long his intention to found some kind of industrial college. Finding that something of the kind was already in existence at Worcester, he made a bequest to it of one hundred and ten thousand dollars. The institution is called the Worcester County Free Institute of Industrial Science.