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Keystone Saw Works - H. Disston & Sons, Inc. - Phila., PA

  Henry Disston - Biographical Sketch by Jacob S. Disston, Jr.
An address presented at a Newcomen Society dinner, Jan. 17, 1950.

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Henry Disston
May 24,1819 - March 16,1878

My fellow members of Newcomen:

On this occasion, the 244th Anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Franklin, I regard it as peculiarly fitting to be called upon to address you on the life of my Grandfather, Henry Disston, and upon the indisputable influence that he exerted upon American Industry, not only in his own time but in this day and age, as well.

Although born more than a century apart, there are many parallels to be found in the lives of Benjamin Franklin and Henry Disston, both of whom lived according to the best traditions of this venerable Society.

Franklin and my Grandfather both came from good English stock.  Both had Philadelphia as the arena of their greatest endeavors, Franklin by his own choice, Henry Disston by the hand of fate.  They both started from scratch to make their fortunes and find their places in society.  And both had won wide recognition and respect while still in their twenties.

In character, too, they had much in common.  Neither would admit defeat in the face of a measure of adversity that would have crushed men of lesser mettle.  Both possessed those qualities of kindness, generosity, and justice that won and held the genuine affection of their associates.  Both commanded respect by their abilities.  Their probing minds sought always to improve what they had, and to better the lot of their fellows, particularly those dependent upon them for the means of earning a livelihood.

Henry Disston did not set out to build an industry or to create a dynasty.  He had inherited a remarkable genius for mechanics and he had served an exacting apprenticeship in his trade, an apprenticeship which combined with his heritage to make him a perfectionist in everything he attempted.  In his veins ran the same rich blood that gave courage to the hearts of his Norman ancestors who followed William the Conqueror to England and who later made worthy places for themselves in business, industry, agriculture, and the Church.

From his grandfather, William Disston, a mill owner and operator near Tewkesbury, England, Henry inherited his native business ability.  From his father, Thomas Disston, a skilled Mechanical Engineer, Henry inherited his natural ability with tools and inherited that rare quality we recognize today as honesty of workmanship which is ingrained in the character of the perfectionist.  Without the courage of his forbears, whose motto, Et Decus Pretium Recti, means Both the Glory and Reward of Integrity, Henry Disston probably would have disappeared into obscurity before he was out of his teens, because almost from the day he landed in America, as a boy of 14, he was beset by misfortune and tragedy. 

Three days after arriving in Philadelphia he and his 16-year-old sister, Marianna, were orphaned by the sudden death of their father, Thomas Disston, who had brought them there.  The firm to which Henry apprenticed himself and with which he remained during seven years was unable to pay him his wages when he left them at the age of 21, and he was forced to accept sawmaking tools and raw material in lieu of cash.

His early business career was complicated, too, by a series of disasters which he refused to take lying down, overcoming his ill fortune by sheer determination and resourcefulness, to become in later years an outstanding industrialist and humanitarian.

Henry Disston, Mr. Chairman, was born in Tewkesbury, England, on May 23, 1819, the third child of Thomas and Ann Harrod Disston.  When Henry was about four years old Thomas moved his family to Derby, in Nottinghamshire, where he engaged in the manufacture of lace machines.  There, Thomas invented a machine for making a certain fine, rare, and beautiful lace, and as Henry grew up he instructed the boy in his business and in the general principles of mechanics. 

Since no lace of the kind produced by Thomas Disston's machine was then manufactured in the United States of America, a group of business men made him a tempting offer to bring his machine to this Country and set it up in a mill at Albany, New York.  Thomas accepted the offer and, taking with him his machine, his son, Henry, and his daughter, Marianna, he sailed for America. 

After a tedious 60 day voyage they landed at Philadelphia, early in 1833, where as stated, Thomas died of apoplexy, three days later.  The fate of Thomas' lace machine is not known, beyond the fact that it was taken from the ship and sold, the money being sent to his widow in England.

Marianna found refuge in the home of friends, and in due time was happily married.  Henry, remembering his father's advice that a skilled tool maker always could earn a good living, apprenticed himself to Lindley, Johnson & Whitcraft, a firm of sawmakers in Philadelphia, where he learned to make saws and the tools required in their manufacture.  When he left the firm, in 1840, his accumulated savings and the tools and raw material he had accepted for wages due him, amounted to about $350.

With that as his total capital, Henry Disston rented a tiny basement at 21 Bread Street, not far from Second and Arch (then known as Mulberry) Streets, and built his furnace with his own hands.  Unable to afford a ton of coal, he borrowed a wheelbarrow and hauled the coal he needed from Delaware River docks a mile away.

At the outset of his business career, Henry Disston had a serious obstacle to surmount.  English saw manufacturers held a virtual monopoly in the American market, in which there existed a strong prejudice against tools made in this Country.  He knew then that he had to make better saws than any made up to that time.  He also knew that he would have to break down that prejudice. 

That he succeeded is evidenced by the fact that the firm he established is the only American manufacturer of saws in existence at that time which has survived to this day.  Henry Disston not only built his own furnace, but also fired it himself and tempered his own saws, smithed, ground, set, and filed them.  Later, he trained others to make saws to his standards.

To meet the competition, he put into his saws every measure of quality within his skill and within knowledge of the art of sawmaking, and proved to the merchants their superiority over other saws.  An interesting anecdote describing his early sales technique is treasured in the Disston archives:

"A plainly dressed young man entered a hardware house.  He called for the proprietor and asked to see a carpenter's saw.  The saw was brought, and the stranger, examining it carefully, remarked that it was good for nothing.  Then, the story goes; he suddenly broke the saw with a smart blow on the counter.  "Who are you, Sir?" said the proprietor in some consternation.  "I am called Henry Disston," was the answer, "and here is a saw that I defy you or any other man to break with similar treatment."  He laid down one of his own saws.  The dealer, who later headed one of the city's largest hardware establishments, said, after mentioning the incident, that the trade was forced to buy the saws of the young manufacturer because of their obvious superiority."

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