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  • Courtesy Nashua Historical Society

    A man and a boy trim a horse's hair using electric clippers newly invented by Nashua's former American Shearer Company. The demonstration, photographed around the turn of the 20th century, probably took place in the company's shop on Main Street near Salmon Brook.
  • Courtesy Nashua Historical Society

    The Flather Hand Lathe, later developed into an engine-powered version, is among many enduring tools, machinery and household goods invented in Nashua
  • Courtesy Nashua Historical Society

    The Flather engine lathe, an improvement over the Nashua company's hand lathe invented in the 1800's, is depicted in this sketch. The hand and engine lathes are among many enduring tools, machinery and household goods invented in Nashua
  • Courtesy Nashua Historical Society

    Flather & Co. machinists work in the Nashua shop in the late 1800's. Flather is credited with manufacturing dozens of quality tools and for inventing the hand lathe and its successor, the engine lathe.

  • File photo

    A copy of an old photograph shows Nashua's Vale Mills, which was on the banks of Salmon Brook on the west side of Main Street where Rotary Common is today. It was in a building on the campus that inventor Elias Howe perfected his electric sewing machine - with the help of his wife.
  • Staff photo by Dean Shalhoup

    A small set of hand-operated clippers, or shears, bears the name J. K. Priest, the man who owned Nashua's former American Shearer Co. when the tool was invented there in the mid-1800's.
  • File photo by Dean Shalhoup

    This set of hand-operated clippers is an example of those invented by Nashua firm J.K. Priest's American Shearer Co., known as the "clipper shop," in the 1800s. It is one of many Nashua inventions spotlighted in the Nashua 50 series.
  • Staff photo by Dean Shalhoup

    Perhaps the most whimsical of all inventions credited to Nashua and its residents is Colburn's Russian Mayonnaise, which grocer and caterer James E. Colburn created in the early 1900s. It was soon called Russian salad dressing, which is still popular today
Sunday, July 22, 2012

City gave roots to numerous famous inventions

Back in March, as he led more than 100 history-thirsty Nashuans back and forth, up and down, and eventually inside the old Nashua Corp. complex on Franklin Street, Alan S. Manoian’s latest Downtown Historic Walking Tour took a characteristic detour.

“Who knows who Henri Sevigne was?” Manoian hollered to the group as it followed him to the front of St. Stanislaus Church. A scattering of hands went up. Rather than calling for an answer, Manoian began talking about bread, and told the story of the unfortunate Nashua woman who, arms full of groceries, dropped her loaf of bread into a mud puddle.

“Young Henri Sevigne, he came here from Canada,” Manoian began, feigning a French accent for effect. “Henri was there; he saw what happened and how upset the woman was. It gave him an idea.”

To say the ambitious Sevigne ran with his idea would be the understatement of the century – the 20th century, that is, which was just a decade or so old when Sevigne began sketching out plans for an invention that revolutionized Americans’ food-storage options and inked his name in the annals of local history.

From the first engine lathe, “magical” clippers that could shear a horse or sheep in two minutes and an adjustable “invalid” bed fancied by an ailing President Garfield to Russian salad dressing and the ’70s tech sensation “Simon,” more universally appreciated inventions than one might guess have come out of Nashua since it spun off of host Dunstable in the 1830s.

There’s quite a range, from verifiable “definites” such as Sevigne’s wrapping machine, Flather and Co.’s engine lathe, the Rollins Steam Engine and Elias Howe’s electric sewing machine to the whimsical “well, maybes” that describes the local legend that a caterer invented Russian salad dressing the day people started asking what he called his new culinary concoction. In between are a host of “most likelies” and “probables,” and there may be even more we’ve never heard or read about if whatever the invention was tailed off into oblivion long ago.

Local historian and researcher Scott McPhie has all but confirmed that modern-day Russian salad dressing was first introduced by Nashua caterer and grocer James E. Colburn, likely sometime in the 1910s. Also an elected city official and father of World War II-era state Sen. J. Wesley Colburn, James Colburn first named his snazzy experiment Russian mayonnaise, labels for which are today in the possession of local collectors.

No Russian dressing here

Decades after the Colburns began widely marketing their product, Russian salad dressing became the topic of a rather amusing anecdote, tied to one of 20th-century Nashua’s most famous restaurants. In February 1962, fueled by a dose of anti-Russia sentiments common in Cold War-era America, Green Ridge Turkey Farm owner Vic Charpentier decided to take the “Russian” out of his salad dressing.

Charpentier “has had enough of the Russians,” a Nashua Telegraph article stated. “So much so, that he refuses to serve … Russian salad dressing at his restaurant.”

Noting also that “a lot of folks refuse to order Russian dressing for their salads,” Charpentier renamed it “Victor dressing,” according to the story. Whether he named it after himself or because “victor” is close to “victory” and sounds patriotic is anyone’s guess.

As late as the 1940s, the dressing was still called Colburn’s Mayonnaise in Telegraph ads for Colburn’s Food Shop, which in the ’30s and early ’40s was at 7 Temple St. “Order now for New Year’s,” an earlier, December 1936 ad read. A year later, it was part of a pre-Christmas sale, along with Colburn’s tartar sauce, pies (40 cents each), country sausage, eclairs and such.

Elias Howe

“When the modern housewife sits down to her electrical driven sewing machine, she does not realize the man that made it possible was Elias Howe, whose experiments were carried on in Nashua,” states a passage in Hobart Pillsbury’s “New Hampshire: It’s History,” a four-volume set published in 1927.

Howe worked in a machine shop next to the old Vale Mills, a 19th-century complex on the banks of Salmon Brook about where the southern end of the Main Street Marketplace plaza is today. Pillsbury actually credits Howe’s wife with perfecting her husband’s invention: “Howe persisted in having the (needle) eye too far up, and it was at the suggestion of Mrs. Howe that it was placed nearer the point – which solved the problem.”

More local inventors

Pillsbury, who stated in the book that “many of the inventions that have become national assets found their inception in Nashua,” credits Nashuan Roswell T. Smith for inventing the machine that perforated the paper for player-pianos and organs.

The idea of the flexible speedometer cable came out of Nashua as well, invented by an employee of the American Shearer Co. – commonly called the “Clipper Shop” – which Smith and J.K. Priest owned at the time. Speaking of the Clipper Shop, that’s where manual and later, electric, clippers, not unlike today’s professional barber tools, were invented. Intended for use on horses, they were later adapted for humans “and today a beneficiary of the bob,” Pillsbury wrote.

The strap brake, which was later adapted for use in autos, also was invented “in a little machine shop” not far from where Howe worked.

According to library reference standard “Kane’s Famous First Facts,” John H. Gage is another inventor who holds a prominent spot among Nashua’s early innovators. In 1838, Kane’s states, Gage’s Water Street shop became the first in the nation devoted exclusively to the manufacture of machinists’ tools.

Ever hear of a “sad iron?” Very similar to the flatiron, a common 19th century household implement, the sad iron was invented and in 1868 patented by Phineas B. Hood, who had moved from Milford to Nashua. Hood discovered that by sandwiching steatite, or soapstone, between the iron bottom plate and the handle, the iron could retain more heat and, best, deliver it more gradually, evenly and for a longer time. He mined the soapstone from a big quarry in Francestown.

Nashua is also the birthplace of the mortise lock, a device that revolutionized the way people locked doors, windows and cabinets. Convinced there was a better way to lock things than attaching the age-old surface lock to the outside, gifted machinist Samuel Shepard designed a method of placing the lock in a mortise so it could be built into, rather than onto, doors and windows. That was in 1834; just a year later, Shepard sold his interest in the resultant lock company to Leonard Noyes.

Fancy timepieces

While Waltham, Mass., is typically associated with fine watch making, Nashua could just as easily have earned that distinction, according to Pillsbury. In the late 1800s, the pioneering – and famous – Howard Watch Co. left Waltham for Nashua, where it merged with the Nashua Watch Co. But executives’ inability to get certain tax exemptions, Pillsbury states, sent the firm packing back to Waltham.

An apparently prolific Nashua inventor, though scantly mentioned beyond local and state accounts, was Thomas Sands. A city mayor from 1893-94, Sands is credited with a series of inventions, starting with the roller skate, “the first notable product of his brain,” according to a Nashua Telegraph tribute written upon Sands’ April 1900 death.

Not yet 21, Sands was working in Boston when he invented the Sands brick-making machine, the story states. He then apprenticed himself with a reed organ manufacturer, learning quickly and soon, according to the Telegraph, inventing the pipe organ in the shape of a grand piano.

While a firm that he and a partner founded failed, Sands pressed on, so to speak, and soon unveiled a new invention – the card printing press.

Then came his spring needle for hosiery, his last invention before coming to Nashua for good. While he’s not credited with its invention, Sands patented a series of improvements to the hand-cranked ice cream freezer.

Old Telegraph newspapers are filled with ads for Hall’s brand tonics and other miracle cures. At least one of them was invented in the firm’s Main Street shop – Hall’s Hair Renewer, a sort of 19th-century Grecian Formula later complemented by Ring’s Ambrosia, said to be a “cure” for gray hair.

Those in the flooring business owe a tip of the hat to Nashua machinist J. M. Wilson, who is credited with inventing in 1876 a special floor clamp that effectively snugged up strips of oak or other wood planking during the installation process.

Into the 21st century

Perhaps modern-era Nashua’s most recognized inventor is the late Lester Gidge, the founder of Nashua Industrial Machine Corp., whose patents numbered in excess of 50 in the mid-1990s.

At the time, his newest invention was a hand-held scooping device for picking blueberries. Field tests proved its worth: “We picked 7 percent more berries than the best handpickers, and 50 percent more than other machines,” Gidge told Telegraph reporter Frank Byrt in June 1995.

Known for his quick, clever mind and refusal to retire, Gidge was working in a machine shop by age 14. He was a lifelong admirer of inventive greats Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, whose perseverance inspired his own never-give-up philosophy.

“You have to have the confidence that you can succeed, that you can overcome the problems that are inherent in this process,” Gidge told Byrt in 1995. “If you don’t have it, then you’ll quit once you meet with the frustration that comes with the process.”

Dean Shalhoup can be reached at 594-6443 or Also follow Shalhoup on Twitter (@Telegraph_DeanS).