William A. Harris

“Since 1870, when the patent on the Corliss engine expired, Mr. Harris has manufactured it, with his own and other patented improvements, under the name ‘Harris-Corliss Engine’.”

From The New England Magazine1 and the History of Providence County2

William A. Harris
William A. Harris

The great ancestor of the subject of this sketch, William Harris, came to America from Bristol, England, in the ship “Lyon”, in company with his brother Thomas and the world-renowned Roger Williams. He was one of the first settlers of Providence in 1636, one of the twelve to whom Williams deeded land in 1638, and one of the 12 original members of the First Baptist church.  Subsequently, he had a long controversy with the founder of the state which was characterized by a good deal of warmth on both sides.

William Andrew Harris was born in Woodstock, Conn. on the 2d day of March, 1835, the family consisting of three sons.  His parents came to Providence while he was a child, and after remaining until 1840 they removed to North Adams, Mass.  At the age of 11 he returned to Providence, where he has since resided.  After having attended the Fountain street grammar school for about three years, the principal being Mr. Albert A. Gamwell, a famous teacher in his day, he entered the high school in 1849, where he remained until the spring of 1851, when he left to attend a boarding school at South Williamstown, Mass. While attending the high school he was one of the carriers of the ‘Providence Journal’, retiring therefrom, as he well remembers, on the anniversary of Washington’s birthday, February 22d, 1851, he playfully remarking to one of his young companions who asked what the cannon-firing was for, that it was because he had got through carrying the ‘Journal’.  And here it may be remarked that to have been a carrier of the ‘Providence Journal’ in its early days is a distinction which gives a justifiable degree of pride to many of the prominent citizens of the ‘City of Roger Williams’.

Young Harris, during the winter of 1851-2, remained at home practicing drawing.  In March of the latter year he entered the Union Bank of Providence as clerk, where he remained three years.  In 1855 he engaged in the employ of the Providence Forge and Nut Company, now known as the Providence Tool Company, as draughtsman.  The following year he accepted a similar position with the Corliss Steam Engine Company.  Here he remained eight and one-half years.  On the 1st of August, 1864, he began building the Corliss engine on his own account, paying the inventor, the late George H. Corliss, a stipulated royalty.  At first he occupied an old building on Eddy street which was used during the ‘Dorr War’ as the headquarters of Thomas Wilson Dorr’s adherents. For four years Mr. Harris carried on business here.  In 1869 he exhibited one of his ‘Corliss Engines’ at the American Institute in New York city.  The ‘New York Tribune’, in describing it, gave it the name of the ‘Harris-Corliss Engine’.  Since 1870, the date when the patent on the Corliss engine expired, Mr. Harris has manufactured it, with his own and other patented improvements, under the name originally given it by the ‘Tribune’.

Mr. Harris started his present extensive works on the corner of Park and Promenade streets, west of the Union railroad station, on the 17th of November, 1868.  The premises occupy nearly 150,000 square feet of valuable land.  The buildings, constructed expressly for the business, consist of a machine shop, blacksmith shop, iron foundry, brass foundry, pattern shop and pattern storehouse, and other structures.  A large force of skilled workmen, varying with the fluctuations of business from 200 to 400, is employed in the establishment, the most amicable relations at all times existing between the employer and the employees, ‘strikes’ being an unheard of thing here.  A large part of the machinery and tools were invented and made especially for these works, the product of which consists of stationary engines varying from 20 horse-power to 2,000.  The establishment, when run on its full extent, is capable of turning out half a million dollars’ worth of merchandise annually, which is shipped to all parts of the United States, and to Cuba, Mexico and Spain.

Fifty years ago a prominent feature of the arts and trades throughout New England was the apprentice system, a thing now almost unknown.  But in Mr. Harris’ establishment this commendable feature is still kept up.  Briefly stated, the system, as devised by him and improved and perfected by the experience of years, makes his works a manual or industrial training school of the best and most practical kind, covering a period of three years, that being the term of apprenticeship.  During this time the learner is thoroughly taught to execute every part of the complex work in the best manner, so that when his apprenticeship is ended he is the master of a good trade, and can, if he chooses, find employment where he learned the business.  A large proportion of the workmen employed by Mr. Harris have thus been instructed under the direct supervision of his superintendent and foremen, thereby securing skilled mechanics and a total exemption from the friction which so often exists between employer and employed.  Every man in the establishment thoroughly understands what is expected of him, and upon compliance therewith merits and receives the approbation of the proprietor.

In the war of the rebellion Mr. Harris entered the service of his country as a member of the 10th Regiment, Rhode Island Volunteers, and after serving the full period of his enlistment he received an honorable discharge.  He is a much esteemed comrade of Prescott Post, No. 1, G. A. R., of Providence; served as an aide-de-camp on the staff of Cammander-in-Chief Rea; was chosen a member of the council of administration of the Department of Rhode Island at the annual encampment in 1890; and at the annual encampment in 1891 was chosen as delegate-at-large to the national encampment to be held in Detroit, Michigan, in August, 1891.

In politics Mr. Harris is a republican.  He has represented his ward in the city council, and for four successive years (1882-6) he was chosen representative to the general assembly.

He married, September 8th, 1859, Eleanor F. Morrill, of New Hampshire.  They have two sons, Frederick W. and William A., Jr.

Mr. Harris is a Unitarian in religious belief, and has for many years been a regular worshiper at the First Congregational church in Providence.  As a citizen he is widely known throughout the state and universally respected by all classes.  By his uprightness of character and other sterling qualities he has won an honorable position in business and social circles  in the city where he has so long resided.


136,597 Improvement in Drip-Collecting Devices, March 11, 1873
149,752 Improvement in Drip-Cups for Valves and Journals, 1874
469,696 Cut-Off for Steam Engines, March 1, 1892


1. The New England Magazine, Volume VI, 1888.
2. History of Providence County, Vol I & II, Ed. by Richard M. Bayles; W.W. Preston & Co., N.Y.  1891, p. 705-707

The New England Wireless and Steam Museum has two operating William A. Harris Steam Engine Co. engines.