Why Some Succeed While Others Fail: Henry Disston

In Tewksbury, England, May 24th, 1819, was born a little boy who was destined to become one of the leading manufacturers of the nineteenth century. At fourteen he came to America with his father, who died three days after their arrival here. A poor, homeless orphan, in a strange land—ah! it takes courage to rise from such a beginning. There is little ‘luck’ in the life of such boys who become wealthy. The poet says:

“The fading flowers of pleasures
Spring spontaneous from the soil,
But the real harvest’s treasure
Yields alone to patient toil.”

Whether these lines ever caught the eye of Henry Disston or no, we are not able to say; certain it is, however, that he concurred in that belief, for so hard did he work, and so closely did he study the business, that he was made foreman when he was but eighteen.

When his seven long years of apprenticeship was up he arranged with his employer to take his wages in tools. With scarcely any money, he wheeled a barrow load of coal to his cellar where he began to make saws. Saws of American manufacture, were at that time held in poor esteem, and he had a great public prejudice to overcome. But Henry Disston determined to show people that he could compete with foreign goods, and to do this he sometimes sold goods at an advance of only one per cent. He moved to a small room twenty feet square, at the corner of Front and Laurel streets; this was in 1846. In 1849 he was burned out, and before he rebuilt he obtained control of additional land adjoining that which he had occupied, and here built a new factory. Now he began to reap the reward of his early toil and study. He was enterprising, like all successful men, and his inventive genius soon enabled him to get up new designs for teeth to do different kinds of work. He never allowed a poor tool, or an imperfect one, to be shipped from his factory. Consequently a market once gained was easily kept. His enterprise induced him to add a file works to his already large business; in fact, the Keystone Saw Works made a splendid exhibit at the Centennial, showing all kinds of tools made from steel. His works cover hundreds of acres of land, and employ over fifteen hundred hands, while the business extends all over the world.

In March, 1878, this great manufacturer died in Philadelphia. He was a very common man—great wealth did not spoil him, and he could perform with his own hands any part of the work in his immense establishment. This ability to work thorough mastery of the business, which had taken years of patient thought to develop, brought about his splendid success.