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.