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A History of the Wade Tool Company and the 8A Lathe


    The Wade Tool Company, like many other American companies that produced high-precision machine tools, had it’s roots in the thriving watch, clock and instrument making industry that was centered around Waltham, Massachusetts during the 19th and early 20th century.  On the north shore of the Charles River and ten miles west of Boston, Waltham was one of the earliest hubs of precision engineering, tool making, and machine manufacture; well-known names such as W. H. Nichols, B.C. Ames, American Watch Tool Company, Waltham Machine Works, Hopkins Watch Tool Company and Stark (credited with being first to produce the precision bench lathe), were all located within a few miles of each other.  This proximity, fostering not only a sharing of ideas that advanced the industry but a sense of competition as well, undoubtedly was a key factor in Waltham’s early and swift rise to industrial prosperity.   

    The American Watch Tool Company, based in Waltham, was a partnership of Ambrose Webster and John Whitcomb.  Whitcomb had been a principal partner in Ballou, Whitcomb & Co., a precision machine and tool making company formed in 1872, and Webster held the position of Works Manager at the American Watch Company of Waltham.  After George Ballou sold out to Whitcomb in 1874 and subsequent reorganization, Whitcomb and Webster joined forces and the American Watch Tool Company was formed.  The company supplied machinery for the clock and watch making industry around Waltham, manufacturing products under their own name as well as various trade-names, including Webster-Whitcomb, Whitcomb, Magnus, and Elect.  Over time, their line would come to include precision bench lathes as well as watchmaker’s machines, and their products were and continue to be extremely well-respected; their Webster-Whitcomb (WW) watch lathe is generally acknowledged to be the definitive watch lathe design, and Thomas Edison’s laboratory in Fort Meyers, Florida (now on display in the Henry Ford Museum) included an American Watch Tool bench lathe. 

    In 1874, the months-old company employed a 15-year-old apprentice named Frederick William Derbyshire.  Derbyshire rose through the ranks of the company during his 37 years there, becoming assistant superintendent in 1896 and superintendent in 1901.  His tenure with the company lasted until 1911, when he left to form his own watch lathe company in the old Comet bicycle factory on High Street in Waltham.  Today Derbyshire is still in business, manufacturing manual precision instrument lathes as well as CNC lathes.

    American Watch Tool (at that time owned by the Metz Company, another Waltham firm that produced bicycles and early automobiles) was put into voluntary liquidation in 1917.  The holdings of the company were sold at auction in January of 1918.  Fred Derbyshire purchased the 8 mm and 10 mm watch-lathe drawings, tools, jigs, fixtures, finished lathes, trade marks, and trade names, as well as the necessary patents and copyrights necessary to continue their manufacture (much of which he had had a hand in developing during his time with the company). 

    At the same auction, Walter H. Wade purchased the larger precision bench lathe line.  He represented a Boston company known as The Wade Machine Company of Boston.  At the time of purchase, Wade was already producing a precision bench lathe, the No. 8; but with the acquisition of the Watch Tool line the No. 8 was dropped and it’s place taken by the Watch Tool Numbers 3, 5, and 7.  It appears that by the time of the purchase Wade probably had started producing the Model 8A Toolmakers lathe as well, though it may have been only in it’s development stages. 

    After the purchase of the American Watch Tool holdings the Wade Machine Company moved to a larger facility at 53 River Street in Waltham.  Lathes were manufactured under the name Wade-American until the early 1920’s, when the “American” was dropped from the name and the firm became The Wade Tool Company.  During the 1920’s and 1930’s the product line was improved and developed, particularly the Model 8A Toolmaker’s lathe.  The 8A headstock, originally having the plain steel “watchmaker” bearings of the bench lathe line, was upgraded in the 1930’s to a ball/roller bearing headstock, contained in a much heavier casting.  The gear train reversing lever, which originally pointed forward, was moved 90 degrees to point to the left of the operator.  Subtle evolutionary changes were made to the quick change gear box and apron gearing, and an electric motor underdrive cabinet stand made of Oak became available (earlier machines were driven from an overhead line shaft).  The underdrive unit included an enclosed flat belt shifting mechanism, eliminating the need to stop the motor to change speeds, and a clutch to stop the spindle; most (if not all) machines were supplied with a two-speed motor, which with back gears gave a total of 12 speed options.  A hardened bed option became available, in which case the bed was ground flat; an unhardened, hand scraped and frosted bed was also listed.

    With the advent of World War Two, Wade was pressed into service supplying machines to the armed forces.  The American government, particularly the US Navy, purchased a large number of 8A lathes, both for domestic use and to ship to England as part of the lend-lease program.  One story tells of Wade finishing and shipping off an order of lathes for the English government, only to receive a telegram several weeks later explaining that the ship that was carrying the lathes had been sunk due to enemy action, and that the machinery would need to be re-supplied.

    Many surviving Wade 8As that have been examined bear a tag or stamp indicating that they were government property; the Battleship Massachusetts carries an 8A lathe in it’s machine shop, and there is a Wade Model 10B lathe on the Atomic Cruiser Long Beach.  It is probable that most of the Model 8As produced after 1935 were sold to the government, although several were also purchased by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for their machine shops.

    The 8A continued to be developed during the war years and the postwar era; the oak underdrive cabinet was eventually replaced with a steel unit, though for a time the oak was still available as an option.  A micrometer carriage stop (riding on a third shaft mounted below the feeding drive shaft) became available as an optional accessory.  Around this time some 8As were sold under the "DoAll" brand, with a large DoAll nameplate fastened to the headstock belt guard.  Wade stopped casting their logo directly into the change gear box, probably in preparation for this sort of re-branding;  if the machine was sold by Wade, a brass Wade name plate would be attached in the location formerly occupied by the cast-in logo.

    By 1955, 8As could be optionally fitted with a ¼ horsepower electric motor mounted near the tailstock end of the bed, in a special casting.  The motor drove the carriage feeding shaft, giving the carriage and cross feed infinitely variable speed that could be adjusted while the cut was being taken.  Other attachments became available as well, including an adjustable boring bar holder and a well engineered radius turning attachment that mounted to the carriage in place of the cross slide.

    At some point in the 1950’s, the flat-belt drive system was discontinued and a new cabinet with a variable-speed drive was introduced.  These models are easily recognized by a new design of headstock belt housing that incorporated a large mechanical tachometer.  The newly-designed variable speed drive unit was based around a variable pitch double-sheave pulley, controlled by a crank wheel on the front of the cabinet and driving a double vee-belt countershaft which transferred power to the headstock.  A multi-disc clutch/brake unit was incorporated into the design, and the back gears were now engaged by a small lever on the front of the headstock (the earlier model having the more traditional bull-gear pin).

    Other design changes accompanied the move to variable speed drive, most of them seemingly an attempt to make the 8A more versatile and better equipped for production work.  The cross slide was reworked, with a longer housing that incorporated two tee slots (for "rear mounted" tooling) and integrated the taper attachment link bar.  The change required redesigning of the follow rest and threading stop.  The gear train reversing lever was moved back to it's original forward-facing position.  Lever action collet closers and tailstocks became available, and a large hand wheel was added to the rear of the spindle, presumably for easier hand turning.  Wade also began offering their own "Thread-Lock Spindle Nose" design (an A-2 cam lock taper with a quick-release clamping ring) in place of the older 2" plain threaded spindle.  

    The Model 8A was discontinued in 1959; in 1961, the lathe business and Wade trademark were sold to the Covel Manufacturing Company of Benton Harbor, Michigan.  Already manufacturing grinding machines as well as other precision tools, Covel introduced a new second operation/turret lathe under the Wade name- the Model 94, along with it’s larger-capacity brother the Model 98.  These lathes, equal in quality and versatility to the similar Hardinge DV-59, were marketed towards high-precision second operation, production, or hand screw machine applications.  They were built around a variable speed unit, driving from an electronically controlled planetary gear transmission that allowed the operator to shift instantaneously between high, low, reverse, neutral, and brake positions without stopping the spindle.

    In 1970, Covel Manufacturing was bought by the Atlas-Clausing Corporation.  Atlas-Clausing had no need for another lathe line, already having a wide range of lathes in production, and offered the Wade lathe portion of Covel’s holdings for sale.  Later in 1970 the Wade lathe line was purchased and moved back to Waltham, Massachusetts, where production was restarted in 1971.  During the 1970’s Wade supplied the Model 94 and 98 lathes to South Bend, who converted the machines to automatic control and sold them under the name “Prompt Turn Automatic Lathe”.

    The Wade Tool Company was purchased again in 1985, and was renamed Wade Machine Tool Manufacturing.  The company relocated to a larger facility on 120 Eastern Avenue in Chelsea, Massachusetts, where they are still in business.  The Model 98 lathe is still produced, as well as a slant-bed CNC lathe and a hand-knurling tool.  They also provide machining services, with surface grinding capacity of 60” and CNC machining capacity of 40” X 20”.  They no longer provide parts support for the Model 8A, but can provide owners manuals as well as working drawings of any part of the machine.  They also have a stock of new and used 8WN collets. 


This article is a work in progress.  Further research is planned, which should correct many dates and provide a better picture of Wade's history.  If readers notice any errors or have information to contribute, please email the author.




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