Simon Willard Wardwell Jr.
(b. September 3, 1849 - d. February 19, 1921)
Rhode Island inventor and entrepreneur Simon Willard Wardwell Jr. had a fascinating heritage. The first notable Wardwell, Samuel, was hanged during the Salem witchcraft craze in 1692. The first Simon Wardwell served in Rhode Island general James Mitchell Varnum's regiment of Continental infantry and then as a guard for George Washington's headquaters. Simon, the inventor, was born on September 3, 1849, in Grantswell, a bookbinder and Matilda Ann Ackland. When he was ten years old, his mother died, no doubt somewhat debilitated having given birth to thirteen children. Details of Simon's youth and education are lacking, although the variety of his interests suggest some formal education. Sometime between the end of the Civil War and the early 1870s, he moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where he established his first Wardwell Manufacturing Company. It specialized in sewing machine technology.
By 1871, Simon W. Wardwell had been granted his first patent (US 121.828 dated December 12, 1871) for an improvement in table and treadle for sewing machines (assignor of one-half his right to George W. Shaw).
Until 1876, Simon worked on various devices to improve sewing machines. The effectiveness of his inventions was demonstrated by their reception at the United States Centennial Exposition of Philadelphia in 1876, where he won a centennial medal and his work was commended for simplicity and ingenuity and evincing progress in lock stitch machines.
In 1878, he won another medal at the Paris International Exposition. These honors came to the attention of the Hautin Sewing Machine Company of Woonsocket and following his Paris triumph, he was hired as its plant superintendent. He launched his productive Rhode Island industrial career by perfecting Hautin's leather machine. Shortly thereafter, in 1886, this constantly experimenting genius made a major invention: the Universal Winding Machine. This device simply and perfectly loaded thread on any kind of the many bobbin sizes used in assembly line sewing. With this breakthrough in design, the Hautin Sewing Machine Company was reorganized and incorporated in New York in 1886 as the Wardwell Sewing Machine Company. The universal winder continued to be manufactured in Woonsocket until 1890, when Wardwell teamed up with Robert Leeson of Cranston to form the Universal Machine Company, which later became known as Leesona. Over the course of an inventing career that included 170 patents, Simon produced new ideas for textile looms, stamped wrenches, rotary shuttles, a method of waxing thread for high-speed sewing, a collapsible canoe and a toy whistle. Among his well-known accomplishments is the Wardell high-speed braider, which increased the production rate of braiding textiles and wire filaments. Among the better-known products made by Wardwell braiders are thread, shoelaces, candle wicks, surgical sutures, catheters, rope, tire cord, shielded and coaxial cable, telephone cables, elevators control cables, wiring harnesses and high-pressure hose. Simon Wardwell's work as an inventor of national note was recognized by the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, which displayed the Wardwell high-speed braider from 1923 to the mid-1940s. A similar braider has been on display at Pawtucket's Old Slater Mill.
Since 1902, Wardwell Braiding Company has operated in Central Falls, where today it is the leading braiding machine producer for the aerospace industry, with initiatives into the field of robotics as well. One notable, but little-known, aspect of Wardwell's career is his literary creativity, as most of his writings were produced under various pseudonyms such as "Durst". He owned and operated a small firm he named the Woonsocket Publishing Company. It generated his poetry, the theme of which was the antipathy of industry and art. In a study of his mechanical and literary works, Michael Carlebach stated that they are evidence of Wardewell's "intellect", of the wide range of his interests and of the depth of his feelings.
Shortly after his death on February 19, 1921, his widow, the former Mary Ellen Shea, donated copies of these literary works to Brown University's John Hay Library. Simon was interred at Providence's North Burying Ground. He and Mary had no children. Wardwell's gratitude to those who worked with him in perfecting and producing high-quality and precision machines was apparent in the directions he gave to his estate: upon his death, his assets were to be used, in part, to "take care of loyal and true employees".
The Leaders of Rhode Island's Golden Age
by Dr. Patrick T. Conley
with Contributions by the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame