A life as an astonishing journey dedicated to invention.
As a child, little did Stephen Wilcox (1830 – 1893) know that he and his good friend, George Babcock, would be linked inextricably forever. The two met when Babcock's family moved to Wilcox's home town of Westerly, Rhode Island. The fast friends went separate ways as they entered adulthood, but later reunited in Providence as business collaborators. Wilcox's work with a water-tube boiler and subsequent improvements with his friend paved the way for power plants for electricity production.
The men behind the Babcock & Wilcox names were George Herman Babcock and Stephen Wilcox. Born in Rhode Island in 1830, Wilcox was two years older than Babcock. Early on, Stephen Wilcox showed his talent as an inventor who, after a common school education and an apprenticeship, began studying machines to see if he could improve them as well as thinking about new ways to build others.
He received the first of 47 patents at the age of 23 when he created a hot-air engine that he tried to sell to the United States Lighthouse Board as a way to produce fog signals.
Wilcox soon turned his attention to a field that had far greater commercial potential: steam boilers. In 1856 he and partner O.M. Stillman, a Babcock relative, received a patent on an improved water tube boiler, one that applied water circulation theory to produce a safe boiler, not prone to explosion like earlier versions. The device was not without flaws, however, and 11 years later Wilcox teamed up with Babcock to perfect the water tube boiler.
Babcock was the son of a successful inventor, and his mother's family also boasted a large contingent of mechanics. Born in New York State, he moved to Rhode Island when he was 12 and became friends with Wilcox. At the age of 19 he launched his own newspaper and printing company and, working with his father, invented a pioneering Polychromatic printing press.
Babcock then turned his attention to engineering and during the Civil War worked as the chief draftsman of the Hope Iron Works in Providence, Rhode Island. It was in Providence that he was reunited with Wilcox. The two men worked together to improve Wilcox's water tube boiler, which they knew would find a receptive market because of the post-war demand for steam-powered locomotives and engines for manufacturing. In 1867 they received patents for the "Babcock & Wilcox Non-Explosive Boiler" and the "Babcock & Wilcox Stationary Steam Engine." In that same year they formed Babcock, Wilcox and Company, along with Joseph P. Manton, the founder of Hope Iron Works, to manufacture the new boiler.
The boiler was well received and found a new major source of customers in the 1880s with the growth of the industry that arose to generate electricity. In 1878 famed inventor Thomas Edison bought a B&W boiler for his work on electricity and a year later made a successful public demonstration of incandescent lighting, ushering in a new era of electric power. In 1881 four B&W boilers were installed in the first central electrical station in the United States, which was owned by the Brush Electric Light Company of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. That same year, the B&W partnership was incorporated as The Babcock & Wilcox Company, funded by $225,000 and headed by Babcock as president. It was not long before the company opened its first international office, located in Glasgow, Scotland. A future B&W president, Nathaniel W. Pratt, headed the operation and began selling boilers to process industries throughout Europe. A year later, in 1882, Edison brought electric street lighting to New York City, powered by four B&W boilers in the Pearl Street Central Station in lower Manhattan.
B&W also developed other new markets for its boilers, in particular marine power. In 1889 Babcock fitted his yacht with a specially design boiler that became an immediate sensation. Five years later the company created a Marine department and soon a number of U.S. and British naval vessels would be equipped with B&W marine boilers. In fact, until the advent of the nuclear age, virtually all U.S. Navy ships and a large portion of America's merchant fleet were powered by B&W boilers. Even with the introduction of reactor power, Navy ships continued to rely on B&W pressurizers and heat exchangers. Moreover, B&W designed and built the power plant for the United States' first nuclear-powered merchant ship, commissioned in 1959.
In November 1893 Wilcox died. Just 19 days later Babcock passed away as well, and Pratt took over, beginning a period of turnover in the top ranks of B&W management. Pratt died in 1896 and was replaced by Edwin H. Bennett, who died two years later. His replacement, Edward H. Wells, would have a long tenure, however, and would lead B&W well into the 20th century.
The early years of the new century brought a number of developments. In January 1901, B&W opened its first manufacturing plant, located in Bayonne, New Jersey. A year later, the area's first subway system opened in nearby New York City, powered by B&W boilers. Then, in 1903, Chicago's Fisk Street Station power generation plant installed 24 B&W boilers to become the first utility to rely solely on steam turbines to produce electricity.
To meet the demand for its products in the power generating, marine, and industrial markets, B&W expanded its operations through acquisitions. In 1904 it bought the Pittsburgh Seamless Tube Company operation in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, and two years after that B&W acquired the Stirling Consolidated Boiler Company plant in Barberton, Ohio. Not only did this latter deal expand its line of marine and stationary boilers, it provided B&W with its future corporate home.