William J. Young (1800–1870) was raised in Philadelphia and, at age 13,
apprenticed to Thomas Whitney to learn "The Trade or Mystery of a
Mathematical Instrument Maker." Seven years later, having earned his
freedom and with $30 in his pocket, Young went into business on his own. Within
a few years, his was the leading mathematical instrument shop in the United
States. Here he introduced improved forms of the railroad compass, the solar
compass, and the surveyor’s transit. And here he trained younger men to carry
on the tradition.
Young was the first American to own a dividing engine—a device for
mechanically dividing circles into degrees and minutes. He would not have needed
such a complex and costly device just to make compasses, but he would need it to
graduate the circles of more precise instruments. Not having the money to
purchase a dividing engine from England, Young built his own. He had never seen
a dividing engine, but worked from a printed description of an English engine.
He would later modify this original engine, and build two others.
Young signed his earliest instruments "W. J. Young Maker Philadelphia
[or Philada]." He changed his signature to "Wm. Y. Young
Maker Philadelphia [or Philada]" around 1840, and began marking
serial numbers on his instruments around 1853. These numbers began around 3000,
and probably indicate the number of Young instruments to date. Analysis of these
serial numbers shows that Young produced some 65 instruments per year in the
1850s, with annual production rising to 120 in the early 1900s.
While 18th-century American instrument makers tended to work alone, or with
an apprentice or two, Young usually had ten or so men in his shop, some
apprentices and some journeymen. These men were all highly skilled and commanded
relatively high wages. The instruments they produced were substantially more
costly than those produced in factories, such as that of W. & L. E. Gurley.
William J. Young joined with Charles S. Heller and Thomas N. Watson in 1866,
and began trading as William J. Young & Co. The partnership disbanded in
1870, Alfred Young operated the firm as Wm. J. Young & Sons, and Heller went
on to form Heller & Brightly. The firm began signing their instruments Young
& Sons in 1875, and began using this name in advertisements around 1882.
Young & Sons was incorporated in 1917. Keuffel & Esser obtained control
of the firm in 1918, made it the Y&S department of K&E, and moved the
operations to the K&E factory in Hoboken, New Jersey.
Deborah Jean Warner, "William J. Young. From Craft to Industry in a
Skilled Trade," Pennsylvania History 52 (1985): 53–68.
Robert C. Miller, "Dating Young Instruments," Rittenhouse 5