David Wilkinson was a genius when it came to machines, but something of a flake when it came to business.
He let patents expire and inventions rot. He built machinery and invented machine tools that propelled the American textile industry, but his own business failed. In his later years he went broke and had to work construction on bridges and canals.
David Wilkinson was born on Jan. 5, 1771 in Smithfield, R.I., the son of Oziel Wilkinson, a blacksmith. Oziel was already an industrial pioneer when David was six; he was then making the first hand-cut nails in America. In 1784, Oziel set up shop on the Blackstone River in Pawtucket, the most important industrial village in America from 1780 to 1820. Oziel and his sons forged anchors for the Providence and Pawtucket shipbuilders and cannons for the military in their water-powered shop, located at what is now the Slater Mill Historic Site.
In 1790, Samuel Slater came to Providence to set up a textile mill. He hired David to build the iron forgings and castings for his carding and spinning machines. The machinery was put to use in an old clothier’s shop, and Slater capitalized on that success. He built the first water-powered textile mill in America. Slater later married David’s sister Hannah and entered into business partnerships with other members of the Wilkinson family.
The Wilkinsons would continue to supply the cotton mills with equipment they machined, cast and forged. They also made screws and nails. David invented a screw-cutting machine and patented it on Dec. 14, 1798. Ten years later he adapted the design for a general-use industrial lathe. But he didn’t patent it, and he let the patent lapse for his screw-cutting machine. Machinists recognized the lathe’s potential and copied it in factories, machine shops and arsenals.
It wasn’t the first time David Wilkinson failed to protect an invention or to recognize its commercial possibilities. In 1792, he invented a steam engine for a 12-ton vessel built by Elijah Ormsbee called The Experiment. It steamed all the way from Providence to Pawtucket on goose-foot paddles. Onlookers watched it from the bridge over the Seekonk River. Unfortunately, the wind blew the boat onto mud flats and they left it there to rot.
That was 14 years before Robert Fulton showed off his Clermont. Wilkinson said he ‘never thought Fulton an inventor, but simply a busy collector of other people’s inventions.’ Robert Fulton may well have gotten his idea for the steam engine from a man named Daniel French, who came to Pawtucket to pump David Wilkinson for everything he could about his invention.
David Wilkinson may have found nail-making so profitable he didn’t think he needed to bother with patents. Between 1816 and 1829, he and his brother Daniel owned a mill that produced about 4,000 pounds of nails a day.
In 1810, Oziel and his sons built a stone cotton mill with a large machine shop on the Blackstone River. It was partially powered by a steam engine built by David. There, David Wilkinson built the first successful power loom in America. There, the Wilkinsons built innovative textile machinery, sending it to mills as far away as Georgia and Pittsburgh. The Wilkinson Mill was described by Gary Kulik and Patrick Malone as ‘one of the most important landmarks in the history of American mechanical engineering.’
In 1829, a severe depression hit Rhode Island’s textile industry. David Wilkinson lost his business and moved to Cohoes, N.Y., where he set up another business that failed. From 1836, he traveled around doing construction on bridges and canals in New Jersey, Ohio and Canada.
Finally, David Wilkinson received his due.
It had become clear that his unpatented industrial lathe had revolutionized the machine tool industry. It was called ‘the most effective tool placed within the control of mankind for shaping refractory metals.’ Fortunately for David Wilkinson, it was useful for making guns.
Wilkinson asked Congress to reimburse him for his invention. In 1846, Congress voted to commend him for inventing the sliding lathe. Two years later, Congress again acknowledged him as the inventor of the lathe, ‘now in use in the workshops of the government at the different national arsenals and armories.’ Lawmakers voted to reward him with $10,000.
He is today recognized by the American Society of Mechanical Engineering, which designated the Wilkinson Mill a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark. A plaque at the mill calls David Wilkinson the “father of the American machine tool industry.”
David Wilkinson died in Ontario on Feb. 3, 1852, at the age of 81.
This story has been updated since January 2014.