Mechanical Engineering
Manufacturing Engineering

The History of Washburn Shops

"I propose to you a scheme. There shall be a machine shop with at least twenty apprentices, a suitable number of teachers and workmen, and all the necessary equipment to carry on as a practical working establishment." – Ichabod Washburn, a major founder of WPI, March 1867.

Apprentice class of the Worcester Technical Institute, 1875, and their products

Made in the Washburn Shops

If you made something in the Washburn Shops, have something that was Made in the Washburn Shops, or want to see some things that have been made in the Washburn Shops please visit the site:

Establishing Washburn Shops

In March of 1867, Ichabod Washburn, founder of Washburn Shops, made a proposal to the Technical Institute's trustees to establish what he called a "Department of Practical Mechanism". Ichabod Washburn hoped to raise the class of mechanics and improve their knowledge and independence. To help establish the department he proposed, Washburn generously gifted the trustees with a new building (Washburn Shops), equipment for it, and an endowment. The department was meant to balance education in the school with practical, hands-on education in the Shops. It worried Ichabod Washburn that time in one area would infringe on time in the other area as he considered the balance of time in each area essential to teaching and raising the class of mechanics. In addition to providing practical experience and education, Washburn believed the Shops should help provide income for the school, by selling products manufactured by students and workmen, with students working without pay, compensation coming in terms of experience, instruction, and knowledge. The trustees had worries over part of the proposal, that the Shops should produce an income, since no institution in the country had then yet earned a profit by running a manufacturing shop. But they moved forward, and the Shops began selling lathes, drawing stands, twist drill grinders, drawing models, machine tools, and even piano-lamps, produced by the blacksmith shop that had existed in the Shops. It met with a mediocre success.

"We expect to send out boys who will not be ashamed to go back to the shop to work." – George F. Hoar, 1869

16-Inch Lathe, with Hardened Steel Bearings

Blacksmithing at the Shops

In the 1890's, Blacksmithing, that most ancient and honorable manufacturing vocation, was still being taught at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Twenty to one hundred hours of practice time a year were devoted to learning the craft of blacksmithing at WPI. The art of hammering, bending, making bent rings, S hooks, making of chain links, and drawing a round piece of iron into a hexagonal, pyramid, octagonal, or a conical point, and other techniques were demonstrated. The course in blacksmithing involved subjects from elementary hammering to making practical tools.

The Hydraulic Elevator at WPI

As of 1882, the fears of the trustees disappeared when M.P. Higgins, a faculty member at WPI, developed the hydraulic elevator from concepts behind the hydraulic crane. A hollow steel plunger dropped from the elevator to a cylinder which ran into the ground. Water, forced into the cylinder under pressure, raised the car, which fell by gravity once the water was released. The hydraulic elevator was faster and less expensive than the steam elevator and the sale of the hydraulic elevators helped to bolster the Shop's income.

"The shop [Washburn Shops] is a business establishment and not a school. The school is only incidental." – Stephen Salisbury II, 1869.

Controversy over the Shop's Business

Since the Shops were established, the Shops had grossed close to one million dollars over 27 years. But the commercial success generated some controversy with local manufacturers. The local manufacturers resented a tax-free institution profiting from its manufacture of goods competing with the local manufacturers. The controversy grew, eventually engulfing the community, until finally in January of 1896, the trustees decided to tone down the commercial business of the Shop. As a result, the Shop's elevator business was sold to Otis Co. in 1896. In order to continue the business side of the Shops, the Shops had to manufacture products that would not be in competition with the local market. So the Shops started manufacturing sensitive drills, clutches, drafting tables, cut-off couplings, and while still producing some of the older products such as the drawing models, drawing stands, and drill grinders.

The Addition of the Foundry

Although the commercial side of the Shops was decreased, the manufacturing of new materials was not. In the summer of 1897 the Foundry was added to the Shops practice facilities. The Foundry had room for four floor and twelve bench workers, and three crucible furnaces for brass casting, as well as a core oven (six feet square and high), were installed. This equipment was installed in preparation for the Shops move to make lighter castings in a superior quality then before seen on the market.

The First Truck in Worcester

As the automobile was beginning to gain popularity with the public, between the 1900 and 1910, it is said that the first truck in Worcester came from the Shops. Mostly used for transporting supplies from the hydraulic laboratory in Holden to WPI, the truck gained a cross on its dashboard every time a trip ended without a mishap. But the dashboard never became crowded; not just the roads were known as untrustworthy.

14-Inch Washburn Sensitive Drill

The Refurbished Shops

By the 1930s, the Shops had replaced the old forge shop with a modern welding shop and a move had been made to refurbish the Shops with modern machinery. Another attempt was made when the old Rawson coupling was adapted to army helicopters in 1952. The Shops were finally refurbished when the Materials Engineering Laboratories moved into Washburn.

Information for this site, which is available in pamphlet form was taken from four sources:

  1. Tymeson, Mildred. Two Towers. copyright WPI, 1965.
  2. "Blacksmithing at the Shop." The WPI Journal. Article 10/10/148, 1894.
  3. "The Journal." v.1, p76-79, 1897-98.
  4. Prunier, Patricia. "Tech's Old Elevator Has Colorful History" The Evening Gazette, Worcester, Nov. 5, 1968.

For more information about Ichabod Washburn and the Washburn Shops, visit the following pages:

The content for this page was created by the Manufacturing Engineering Program staff and Janet Hanlan. To inquire about paper copies, please e-mail

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Last modified: June 23, 2012 21:50:23