Simon Wardwell, 1849-1921, was a 19th-century visionary industrialist, patenting numerous machines for improving the manufacture of textiles and clothing items.
The manufacture of textile machines in the Blackstone Valley was a crowded field, not for the faint of heart; it was like making cars in Detroit or steel in Pittsburgh. However, for Simon Willard Wardwell, it was a place not only to build products for other producers but also a place to build a reputation.
During a lifetime of bright ideas Wardwell amassed one-hundred-and-seventy patents. His work touched other manufacturers with giant reputations such as Leesona and Taft-Peirce, and his company has been almost the last one standing in a field that has now moved overseas. Wardwell made specialty tools such as sewing machines for the shoe leather industry, a universal winder that could attach thread to any size spool, and braiding machines for shoelaces and other clothing applications. Wardwell’s firm took home a Centennial Medal of Award at the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876 for his two-spool sewing machine. Two years later this invention won a similar medal at the Paris World’s Fair.
Born in Grantsville, Maryland in 1849, Simon Wardwell first came to Rhode Island in 1880, helping to perfect the Hautin leather machine for the Hautin Sewing Machine Company of Woonsocket. It was during this period that Simon Wardwell invented the Universal Winding Machine. This device simply and perfectly loaded the thread on any of the hundreds of bobbin sizes used in assembly-line sewing. In 1886, with this breakthrough in design, the Hautin Sewing Machine Company was reorganized and incorporated in New York as the Wardwell Sewing Machine Company. The universal winder continued to be manufactured in Woonsocket until 1890 when Wardwell teamed up with Robert Leeson of Cranston to form the Universal Winding Machine Company, later known as Leesona.
Over the course of his inventing career, Simon Wardwell also produced new ideas for textile looms, stamped wrenches, rotary shuttles, a method of waxing thread for high-speed sewing, a collapsible canoe, and a toy whistle. Among his most well-known accomplishments was the Wardwell high-speed braider, a machine that increased the production rate of braiding textiles and wire filaments.
Simon Wardwell’s work as an inventor of national note was recognized by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington which displayed the Wardwell high-speed braider from 1923 to the mid 1940s. A similar braider has been on display at Pawtucket’s Old Slater Mill.
Since 1902, Wardwell Braiding Machine Company has operated in Central Falls, Rhode Island, where today it is the leading braiding machine producer for the aero-space industry and has made initiatives into the field of robotics.
Although, as we know from the example of Thomas A. Edison that the inventor’s life can often be solitary, Wardwell’s gratitude to those who worked with him in perfecting and producing high quality, precision machines was apparent in the directions to his executor that upon his death, his assets were to be used in part to “take care of loyal and true employees.”