Henry M. Leland

Inducted: 2017
Born: 1843
Died: 1932

Henry Leland approached his boss at Brown & Sharpe with a preposterous proposal: He planned to quit his job and move west to begin a business, and he wanted to take one of his best co-workers with him. To start his new business he would need to borrow $2,000, the current equivalent of $50,000; he wondered: Would the boss front him the cash?

His boss, Lucian Sharpe, the eponymous co-founder of Brown & Sharpe, was a famously frugal Yankee. Approaching his 60th birthday in early 1890, Sharpe mulled over Leland’s proposal. Surprisingly, he said yes. Leland and his co-worker, Charles Norton, took the $2,000, packed up their tools, and headed west to Detroit, where they opened as Leland, Faulconer, and Norton. Within a dozen years that company, minus Norton, morphed into the Cadillac Automobile Company. That highly successful luxury car maker became a division of General Motors in 1915. After a dispute with GM founder William Durant, Leland and his son Willard departed to found the Lincoln Motor Company in 1920, but start-up costs led to its acquisition by Henry Ford in 1923.

Before leaving for Detroit, Leland spent parts of 18 years at Brown & Sharpe, a place that profoundly influenced his life. A native of Danville, Vermont, Leland arrived in Providence shortly after suffering what his grand-daughter described as a “nervous breakdown” while working as a machinist for a Worcester rifle company. When he recuperated from that ordeal, he briefly worked as a police officer while studying law by night, but he realized that he had no interest in either enforcing or practicing law, so he wrote to Brown & Sharpe about becoming a machinist there.

He arrived on July 1, 1872, wearing his policeman’s uniform ” the only suit he owned. Sharpe put him to work installing the shafts that would connect Brown & Sharpe’s many machines to the Corliss steam engine being installed in the new factory that the firm was building in Providence along Promenade Street. Within six years he worked his way up from toolmaker to superintendent of the sewing machine department, then the company’s largest division. Here he introduced ways of making parts in batches and organizing them for later retrieval, reducing machine set up time.

Leland was a publicly pious man who liked to lead Brown & Sharpe’s lunchtime prayer, a practice he kept at his own shop. His biographer wrote that he “strove to inculcate into his co-workers his standards of precise and planned production, in the process of which he spoke often of Brown & Sharpe. So often, in fact, that wags about the place insisted that the boss often inadvertently ended the blessing and other prayers with ‘Brown & Sharpe’ instead of ‘Amen.’ ”

Henry Leland’s greatest legacy was the creation of the Cadillac and Lincoln Motor Car Companies, whose automobiles reflected the precision manufacturing and rigorous engineering standards that he brought to the nascent American automobile industry as a result of his training at Brown & Sharpe.

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