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Winter Bash at the Sharpe Building

Saturday, 02/10/2007

The Providence Preservation Society (PPS) hosted its fourth Winter Bash at the historic Sharpe Building at the Foundry Complex on Saturday, February 10th. In the early stages of renovation, the mill space offered party goers a unique venue with stunning open space, towering ceilings and exposed brick walls. Highlighting preservation and rehabilitation of the city’s historic resources, the Sharpe Building was an ideal backdrop for this event. “PPS’s Winter Bash was an exciting evening of industrial-strength fun, and showcased the potential of underutilized properties for adaptive reuse,” explained PPS Executive Director Jack Gold. The 2007 Bash brought together over 1,000 people statewide to celebrate citywide restoration efforts. Featuring live music, creative hors d’oeuvres, and full bar, attire ranged from jeans to ball gowns. In addition to the full bar, The 2007 Bash featured the Rhode Island Roll-out of Perfect Vodka courtesy of McLaughlin & Moran, with a martini luge.

The Sharpe Building, celebrating an ongoing restoration, boasted the world’s largest tool factory at the turn of the 20th century. Part of a large mill complex on Promenade Street built for the Brown & Sharpe Manufacturing Company and now known as the Promenade at the Foundry, it is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Recognized for its contributions to downtown Providence’s Renaissance, the Promenade at the Foundry is one of several ongoing projects contributing to Providence’s delightful cityscape.

PPS gratefully acknowledges the support of the following 2007 Winter Bash sponsors and in-kind donors: Gold Sponsors Bank of America, Foundry Associates, Nortek; Silver Sponsors H. Carr and Sons Moses, Afonso & Jackvony Ltd, New England Construction, Pilgrim Title Insurance, Sovereign Bank ; Bronze Sponsors Alpha Omega Construction, Batchelor, Frechette, McCrory, Michael & Co., Business Development Co of RI, Delta Mechanical Contractors, LLC, DiSanto, Priest and Co., Duffy Sweeney and Scott, Ltd., Fuss & O'Neill, Hinckley, Allen & Snyder LLP, Joe Casali Engineering, Inc, Narragansett Imaging, Odeh Engineering, Pare Corporation, RDW Group Inc., Rhode Island Hospital, Slades Ferry Bank, The Robinson Green Beretta Corp, Vicki Veh, Washington Trust Company; Additional Contributors Smith and St. John, Sullivan and Company, ColdMasters Temperature Control, Inc. Sponsor of: Big Nazo and Unkle Thirsty; and In-Kind Donors Boston Light Source, Camille’s Restaurant, Cutler and Company, High Output, Frank Mullin Photography, Hogan & Macaulay Architecture & Light, IO Labs, McLaughlin and Moran, Pinelli Marra, Rhode Island Modeling Agency, Jessica Ricci, Roger Williams University, Tangopix, TEN31 Productions

Remarks by Henry D. Sharpe, Jr.

PPS Winter Bash at the Sharpe Building of the historic Brown and Sharpe Manufacturing Company

“Here we are again, within mere feet of where stood the tool benches of dear old Harry Kelso’s Milling Machine Assembly Department. It was right here where people, (some of whom even you may still remember and see now and again, friends like Billy Viall, Duncan Doolittle, Bill Sheffield [to name but a few], and I myself), used to sit together munching sandwiches during the noon hour break while we worked here as Brown & Sharpe Apprentices, back in 1947. How astonished we would have been to even imagine how much the world has changed since those happy days.

But even then, we were beginning to learn. Though we hadn’t heard words like Globalization and Global Warming, we were already learning some of life’s essentials. Only one flight above us, in the Drill Department, was where we first came to realize at least one of life’s very important lessons: there is a difference between drilling and boring. So today, as I recite to you today a few words to describe the glorious drill of Brown & Sharpe’s past, I hope you will not view it as boring.

It is a very special honor for us, as members of the Sharpe family, to be here with you today, particularly as guests of the Providence Preservation Society as it seeks to remind us all once again of how important buildings like these, which happen to be so close to our family heart, still are to mold and establish the character of our entire community. A word of appreciation is due, too, to Tony Guerra, whose patience and imagination made tonight possible.

Around you today stand far more than mere towering walls of brick, stone and windows, but a monumental piece of Rhode Island history which not only played an enormously important part in the Industrial Revolution of the whole world, but, as a minor by-product, also spawned America’s very first steel-framed factory building, the original “#1 Building” on Promenade Street next door, which still stands after being opened in 1872, 135 years ago now. More important than that to our community, however, is the fact that these buildings, for 90 years, provided long-term, satisfying career opportunities for tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders. At one time, in 1943, during the height of World War II, over 12,000 men and women were actively employed in these walls.

But we should not forget that when Brown & Sharpe moved into #1 Building in 1872, a very important part of Brown & Sharpe’s history had already been written.

David Brown made and sold watches and clocks, starting in Warren, Rhode Island and his son, Joseph, after working with him briefly went on to learn the machinery trade in the shops of Walcott & Harris in Pawtucket. In 1831, he is said to have started a watch & clock enterprise of his own, only to be joined by his father two years later in 1833 to form what is considered the official beginning of Brown & Sharpe, the partnership of D. Brown & Son., at 60 South Main Street in Providence.

The partnership, however, was plagued by some serious problems. In 1837, only four years after beginning, its shop was burned to the ground. But they persisted in temporary quarters until a new facility could be built. Soon thereafter, however, at about the time of the Dorr War in the early 1840’s, D. Brown & Son was dissolved; a discouraged father, David, gave-up, took a government land-grant, and moved west to Illinois, leaving his son in Rhode Island to carry-on alone.

During the 1840’s Mr. Brown became increasingly interested in matters of precision, and eventually developed a machine for graduating, that is, scribing the lines on wooden, ivory and metal rulers. It was called the Automatic Linear Dividing Engine. By the late 1840’s, Mr. Brown had begun to move-on still further and apply what he had learned about making rulers toward devising the Vernier Caliper, a tool with a sliding jaw, which for the first time in history, allowed one to measure accurately to within 1/1000th of an inch (roughly ¼ the diameter of a human hair)!

While these developments were under way, in 1848, Mr. Brown moved his shop to 115 South Main Street and a young man named Lucian Sharpe, my grandfather, joined him as an apprentice boy. Some four years later, near the close of his apprenticeship, Mr. Brown proposed to Lucian their forming a new partnership, to be named J.R. Brown & Sharpe. Lucian’s business and organizational instincts had obviously impressed Mr. Brown, who increasingly wanted to focus full attention on what really held his interest: developing precision machinery and tools, -- not being bothered by the boring details of running a business. A partnership made in Heaven had been born.

With 14 employees now centered at 115 South Main Street, and working in a space said, unbelievably, to have been only 6x30 feet, began a parade of progress that in twenty years, by 1868, had spread its activities into many buildings throughout the city and now became incorporated as the Brown & Sharpe Mfg. Co., now boasting some 200 employees.

Mr. Brown, however, had begun to complain increasingly of how inconvenient it was for him to have to ride about town in a horse and buggy to visit the multiple locations his growing enterprise was now obliged to inhabit, but, in doing so, as a footnote, he was also apparently sensitive to the fact that the horse that pulled his buggy needed to look respectable in its travels. So, typically enough for the inventive Mr. Brown, the result was again another unheard-of innovation, this time on behalf of his horse: a two-handled 18” long pair of hair-clippers. Only some time later were they reduced in size and converted to human use, but, even then, they were not at first appreciated in America, until a successful launch was made, to everyone’s great surprise, in style-conscious France.

But still, even with his better-looking horse, Mr. Brown found riding about town an ever- increasing bother, and finally a move to a unified Promenade Street location, part of the one we celebrate tonight, was deemed the solution, and four years later, in 1872, they moved into the famous #1 Building on Promenade Street. The forward march had begun.

The list of industrial innovations in that march is far too long to describe in great detail, but after the invention of the Vernier Caliper, some of the company’s more famous successes included:

  • Development and introduction of the American Standard Wire Gage,
  • Manufacture of the Willcox & Gibbs sewing machine,
  • The Hand Screw Machine to make precision parts for the sewing machine,
  • The Universal Milling Machine, for twist drills to make Union Army rifles.
  • The Formed Tooth Cutter, to drastically reduce the cost of precision gear making. Now a dull, no-longer accurate gear cutter could be re-sharpened to full precision and not be thrown away at great expense, as had previously been necessary.
  • This led to The Automatic Gear Cutting Machine and the company’s prominent part later-on in supplying gears and gear making equipment to the growing automobile industry, to say nothing of Hydraulic Pumps, which became another major product of Brown & Sharpe.
  • Then came the Micrometer, a French invention, which Mr. Brown first brought to America in 1868, after he and Lucian Sharpe had gone to Paris to show their new Universal Milling Machine at the Machinery Exhibition (held, incidentally, on the Champ de Mars, where now stands the Eiffel Tower). Touring the show, Mr. Brown saw the “Système Palmer Micromètre” for the first time, and instantly realized that it provided a far better solution to a measurement challenge the company had already been seeking to solve, without success, using a “Wire-Guage” that had been earlier designed to serve the Connecticut brass industry.
  • Finally came Joseph Brown’s last success: his Universal Grinding Machine, announced at the never-to-be-forgotten Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876. Its belts were driven, incidentally, by another Rhode Island immortal, the famous Corliss Steam engine, which towered above it just across the aisle.from the Brown & Sharpe booth.

The year 1876 also sadly witnessed Mr. Brown’s death at the age of 66, but he had launched the parade, and, by the turn of the 20th century and for some time thereafter, it continued to march forward to make Brown & Sharpe regarded as the world’s largest machine tool manufacturer, with its headquarters and all of its manufacturing employees focused in but one place, the city of its founding, Providence, Rhode Island, USA.

But the history of Brown & Sharpe bears more than a list of its products. Beyond the names of Mr. Brown & Mr. Sharpe, there are many other names as well, distinguished people like:

  • James E.A. Gibbs, inventor of a revolutionary sewing machine that bears his name, which he first devised in an experimental model made out of wood, but whose eventual product was manufactured by Brown & Sharpe for 99 years;
  • Oscar Beale, designer of measuring machines capable of new, world-respected accuracies as high as 1/10,000th of an inch; and
  • Henry M. Leland, a Brown & Sharpe superintendent who went on to found the Cadillac Motor Car company, and was later hired by Henry Ford to run the Ford Lincoln Division, and
  • Richmond Viall, Works Superintendent of Brown & Sharpe starting in 1878, who not only ably supervised and inspired the Providence works for over 25 very important years, but reformed the company’s Apprenticeship into a carefully structured system later adopted by the United States Department of Labor as the national model for apprenticeship.

I hope you can imagine, and sense with me, the deep sentiments I feel every single time I drive northward on I-95 toward Boston and see again on my left those great top floor corner windows of old # 1 Building that lighted the office where sat my grandfather, Lucian Sharpe, his son, Henry D. Sharpe, Sr., (my father), and after that, even myself, (I am honored to say) for ten or eleven years more. Or even more poignantly, how, until very recently, while traveling southward on the same Interstate, I have looked with pain upon the rotting building in which we sit so enthusiastically tonight, with its crumbling, shattered windows, peeling paint and signs of desertion.

And, to give such thoughts a final, but this time a light touch, I do wince a bit at the words “Foundry” that hang, towering, over the highway, for I realize how much more all these buildings represent than merely the starting operation of its manufacture. Probably, I admit quietly to myself with a chuckle, our celebrated Foundry Superintendent, Roy Sherwin, would have been simply delighted.

Let me close by emphasizing that the names I have recited tonight are but a very few of the many, many others that could most deservingly be added, names both conspicuous and inconspicuous, who helped to build Brown & Sharpe into the institution it became, but every name involved, whether recalled or not, was vital.

The chorus of their voices echoes still in these vast halls, and today, thanks to the Providence Preservation Society, we remember each one of them with deep affection to preserve what they have given to us, and to all of mankind, …for our future inspiration."

- Henry D. Sharpe, Jr.

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