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David Wilkinson

Birthdate: (81)
Death: February 3, 1852 (81)
Immediate Family:

Son of Oziel Wilkinson and Lydia Wilkinson
Brother of Daniel WILKINSON; Lucy Lydia WILKINSON; Abraham WILKINSON; Isaac Wilkinson; Marcy WILKINSON and 4 others

Managed by: Private User
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About David Wilkinson

David Wilkinson (1771-1852) a Pawtucket, Rhode Island native, was a successful Industrial Revolution-era inventor and mill owner. When an historical movement is particularly successful, it is logical that there would be many claims of authorship. This is certainly true of the Industrial Revolution and the beginnings of the American factory system. At the center of the Industrial Revolution's story is, of course, Samuel Slater; but it does not detract from Slater's reputation to add more personalities to the story. Of all the possible additions, none is more appropriate and worthy of inclusion than David Wilkinson (1771-1852).

To describe Wilkinson's contributions we need only to resort to the sketch furnished by one of Rhode Island's foremost nineteenth century historians, Wilkins Updike: “David Wilkinson, fourth child of Oziel,was born in Smithfield, January 5, 1771, and died February 3, 1852, at Caledonia Springs, Canada West. He was known throughout the world as a mechanical genius. Besides helping Samuel Slater, his brother-in-law, most substantially in starting his cotton machinery, he was the inventor of the sliding lathe, and planned and built, in cooperation with Elijah Ormsbee, the first boat propelled by steam which ever floated on Narragansett Bay, sixteen years before Robert Fulton's successful experiment on the Hudson River. In 1848, Congress presented a gratuity of $10,000.00 to Mr. Wilkinson, in recognition of his services to the public in inventing (without procuring a patent) the gauge and sliding lathe then in use in all the workshops of the government and in hundreds of private establishments. David Wilkinson [a devout Episcopalian] was instrumental in establishing St. Paul's Church in Pawtucket, St. John's Church in Wilkinsonville, Massachusetts (a village named for him), St. John's Church in Cohoes, New York, and a chapel at Caledonia Springs, Canada West, his last place of residence.”

Wilkins Updike could have added that Wilkinson assisted Daniel Anthony in the construction of the first machines ordered by Moses Brown, later revised by Slater; that he built machines for textile mills from Massachusetts to Georgia and Louisiana; that he worked with Gilmour in the manufacture of power looms (first introduced in the North Providence mill village of Lymansville); and that he designed canals and bridges after he moved from New England to the West. He was a paramount example of Yankee ingenuity.

David Wilkinson (January 5, 1771 – February 3, 1852) was a U.S. mechanical engineer who invented a lathe for cutting screw threads, which was extremely important in the development of the machine tool industry in the early 19th century.

Early life

David Wilkinson was born at Smithfield, Rhode Island in 1771, the son of Oziel Wilkinson, a skilled blacksmith who moved his family to Pawtucket in the 1780s.

About 1784, his father, Oziel began making anchors in Pawtucket for the emerging shipbuilding industry. The shop was powered by water from the Blackstone River, and was located on the grounds of the present-day Slater Mill Historic Site.

Industrial career

In 1790, Samuel Slater and his partners were interested in building a textile spinning mill in Pawtucket he sought the assistance of David Wilkinson and his father Oziel to produce the machinery for his new mill. They produced iron forgings and castings for Slater's carding and spinning machines.

“all the turning of the iron for the cotton machinery built by Mr. Slater was done with hand chisels or tools in lathes turned by cranks with hand power”. David Wilkinson

In 1793 Slater's operations were moved from a clothier's shop near the Pawtucket Falls to a new mill, which today is part of the Slater Mill Historic Site.

In 1795 Oziel Wilkinson built a rolling and slitting mill just south of Slater's cotton mill. Both mills were powered with water from the same trench.

Wilkinson lathe

Textile machinery manufacturer and scientific writer Zachariah Allen had the following to say about Wilkinson's lathe in 1861:

“It has to this day proved the most effective tool placed within the control of mankind for shaping refractory metals and for accomplishing the triumph of mind over matter. The slide engine is employed in the great machine shops of America and Europe.”

Ross Tompson (2009) on the importance of Wilkinson's lathe:

'In his "Reminiscences", Wilkinson claimed his lathe was:

"worth all the other tools in use, in any workshop in the world, for finishing [machining] brass and iron" On the versatility of his lathe Wilkinson said:

"The weighted side, the joint made by gravity, applies to planing, turning, and boring of metals of every kind, and in every way." An 1848 report from the Committee on Military Affairs to the U.S. Senate highlighted the importance of Wilkinson's invention, for which the patent had expired in 1812:

"Being left open to general use, an invention so vastly important in its character could not fail to be sought after, not only in the public at large, but also by agents of the government engaged in the fabrication of arms of various descriptions; and hence we find the gauge and sliding lathe was early introduced and made use of by all the arsenals and armories of the United States."

The report went on to say 'Wilkinson was the "true and undisputed author" of the lathe, and that it was "indispensable" for making firearms, and that public armories used 200 lathes based on the invention.[4] The report recommended a $10,000 reward, which he was given.

Wilkinson failed to generate much income from his lathe. Records exist for the sale of one lathe and a few parts. David Wilkinson's lathe is often compared to Henry Maudslay's which is believed to have been invented a few years before Wilkinson's. Maudslay's lathe used change gears which allowed it to cut threads of various pitches, without which Wilkinson's could only cut a fixed pitch. Wilkinson's lathe could handle heavier work.

Wilkinson Mill

In 1810, the present-day Wilkinson Mill was built near their existing rolling and slitting mill and Slater's cotton mill. Three and one-half stories tall and constructed from field stones, it contained a machine shop on the first floor and cotton spinning mill on the upper floors.

In 1829, during a depression in the textile industry, David Wilkinson was forced to sell his mills. He left Rhode Island settling initially in Cohoes, New York. In 1831 the mill was sold to William Field and Thomas LeFavour. The mill would later be used to produce woolen and knitted textiles. Between 1873 and 1887 Lorenzo P. Bosworth operated a machine shop in the mill. He produced machinery and tools for the leather and jewelry industries. A braiding company would occupy the second and third floors between 1884 and 1901.

The Wilkinson Mill was later sold to the Pawtucket Electric Lighting Company. It was also used as a furniture warehouse during the 20th century.


The Wilkinson Mill was restored in the early 1970s as part of the Slater Mill Historic Site in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. The watermill site currently features a working 16,000-pound breastshot water wheel that powers, via gear systems and leather pulleys, various drive shafts to operate machinery.

In 1977, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) designated the Wilkinson Mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark.

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David Wilkinson's Timeline

January 5, 1771
February 3, 1852
Age 81