Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, edited by James
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SAWYER, Sylvanus, inventor, born in Templeton, Worcester County, Massachusetts, 15 April, 1822. His father was a farmer, mill-owner, and lumberman, and from childhood the son showd great mechanical ingenuity. While he was a lad he invented a reed-organ that embodied many of the features of those that are now in use. From about his twelfth till his twenty-first year feeble health unfitted him for farm lal)(')r, and he occupied himself largely with carpenter's and smith's tools. In 1839 he went to Augusta, Maine, with a view of working with his brother-in-law, a gunsmith, and, though his health soon forced him to return, he gained knowledge that enabled him to repair tire-arms and do much similar work, in which he engaged till his majority. During this time he also made several inventions, including a steam-engine, a screw-propeller, and a car to be operated by foot-power. He went to Boston about 1843, and, while working in a ma-chine-shop there, invented a machine for preparing chair-cane from rattan. Thousands of dollars had been spent in vain attempts to construct such a machine, but Mr. Sawyer's was successful, and after it was patented, in June, 1851, he and his brother Joseph established a shop at East Temple-ton, where they manufactured chair-cane by its means. In the following December the American rattan company was formed to use their machine, and erected a large shop in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. Mr. Sawyer devised several auxiliary machines, and, besides serving as director, was manager of the company's shop. His inventions have entirely revolutionized the chair-cane business, transferring it from southern India, China, and Holland to this country. In the summer of 1853 he invented improvements in rifled cannon projectiles, which were patented in 1855. These embrace the placing of a coating of lead or other soft metal on the rear and sides of the shell, which is expanded laterally by the discharge and prevents the " windage" or passage of gas by the projectile, also filling the grooves of the rifling and obviating the use of helical projections; and the arrangement of a percussion-cap so as to insure the explosion of the shell on impact. In 1857-'8, with his brother Addison, Mr. Sawyer conducted experiments on his invention, at his own expense, for the benefit of the United States ordnance bureau, and after thorough tests it was approved, and the secretary of war announced that the practicability of rifled cannon and projectiles had at last been demonstrated. It was recommended that four field-guns be issued for practice, but before the order was carried into effect the civil war had begun. The 42-pounders (rifle) columbiads were mounted at Newport News and upon the Rip Raps (Fort Wool), the latter being the only guns there that could reach Sewell's Point, battery, a distance of three and one-half miles, which they did with great accuracy, and made fearful havoc with the railroad-iron-clad batteries. An 18-pounder Sawyer rifle also did great execution on board the steamer " Fancy." Mr. Sawyer claims that he was treated unjustly by the ordnance officers during the civil war. Notwithstanding the report in his favor, his guns were not extensively adopted, but his improvements were incorporated in others that, he says, were infringements on his patents. He was advised by government officials to wait till the war had ended and then prosecute the chiefs of ordnance of the army and navy; but they both died shortly after its close, and nothing has been done in the matter. But he received several orders for guns directly from department commanders, to whom he furnished the first batteries of cast-steel rifled guns made in this country. He made other improvements in projectiles in 1861-'2, and in 1864-'5 built a shop for the manufacture of ordnance ; but the close of the wars in this country and South America caused it to be turned to other uses. He took out patents on dividers and calipers in 1867, a steam-generator in 1868, a sole sewing-ma-chine in 1876, and a centring watchmaker's lathe in 1882. He has recently engaged in the manufacture of watchmakers' tools, but has now retired from business, and takes much interest in agriculture. He has served as an alderman in Fitchburg.
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