Biographical / Historical
William Mason was born in 1808 in Mystic, Connecticut. His father was a blacksmith. As a boy, Mason spent time in his father's shops. He left home at the age of twelve and worked as an operator in the spinning room of a small cotton factory. He was a born mechanical genius and could repair the most complicated machine in the mill. At the age of fifteen he tent to East Haddam, where a mill for the manufacture of thread was being established, to start the machines. At seventeen he worked at the machine shop connected with the mill, where he stayed for three years. It was here he set up the first power loom in the country for the manufacture of diaper linen. He also constructed an ingenious loom for the weaving of damask table cloths.
In 1833, Mason joined Asell Lamphaer at Killingly, Connecticut to make the ring frame for spinning. He remodeled and perfected the "ring" which had been a failure, overcame the prejudice attached to it because of its failure, and caused the device to acquire the reputation it still retains today.
In 1835, Mason moved to Taunton, Massachusetts to join Crocker and Richmond, manufacturers of cotton machinery. He worked almost entirely on ring frames. The firm failed in 1837 during the financial crisis. The business was taken over by Messrs Leach and Keith. Mason was employed as foreman. On October 8, 1840 his greatest invention, the "self acting mule" was patented. Competition required improvements and on October 3, 1846 he received a patent for "Mason's Self acting Mule."
Leach and Keith suffered a failure in the winter of 1842 owing Mason a large amount of money. James K. Mills & Co. of Boston, a leading commission firm, came to his rescue and helped him to buy out the former partners. In 1845, new buildings were erected and the plant became the largest one devoted to the manufacture of machinery in the country. It made cotton machinery, woolen machinery, machinists' tools, blowers, cupola furnaces, gearing, shafting, car wheels made with spokes, and after 1852, locomotives.
Mason wanted to improve the symmetry of the American locomotive. A first engine was turned out in 1853. In 1857 his firm failed but he managed to reopen the plant soon afterwards. The textile business recovered rapidly but the locomotive business was less prosperous. By 1860, he had produced a total of only 100 engines. The figure was doubled by 1865 due to the wartime demand and the pace continued for the next several years. Also during the Civil Was, 600 Springfield rifles were turned out weekly.
Mason's locomotives were genuinely handsome without ornaments. His influence was exerted over all locomotive builders at the time and later. In 1856 he built two locomotives for the Cairo and Alexandria R.R. (Egypt) in which a commentator said that the engines' excellence was due to the accuracy of execution attained by an admirable set of tools and a skillful set of workmen. Opinion by Master Mechanics was that they were the easist engines to keep in repair. The business was organized as the Mason Machine Works in 1873 with a capital of $800,000.
Mason died in 1883 of pneumonia. The 700th engine was being completed. Only 54 more engines were completed by 1889 and delivered in 1890. The company continued to build cotton machinery.
William Mason was a painter and a good violinist. He established a bank in Taunton for his employees and made gifts to charity. He is remembered as a pioneer in the building of locomotives which ranked foremost in the country.