Henry Pitkin

Craig Johnson – Henry Pitkin (1811 – 1846)



Soon after his arrival in the Hartford Settlement from Berkhamsted, England in the later 1630s, the first William Pitkin was designated a Proprietor.  As such, he was allowed to acquire large grants of land, which were mostly on the east side of the Great River, hereby firmly grounding himself and succeeding generations as landowning gentlemen, farmers, and merchants.

Farming was always there but never more than one of the varying endeavors of this ever expanding clan.  The Pitkins were involved in all matters and at all levels in activities fostering the expansion, wealth, and influence of both Colony and family.

In the realm of politics and elective office, they were the most powerful family in 18th century Connecticut. They were active in the practice of law, in the affairs of the Congregational Church, as officers in their local militias, and always on the lookout for new sources of income, usually successfully.

Along the Hockanum River along its mouth at the Connecticut River to well into Manchester, than known as the Orford Parrish, Pitkins had at various times grist, saw, and gunpowder mills.  William the 2nd owned a fulling mill used for a step in wool making involving the cleansing of all impurities from the newly spun cloth. This was in connection to the large clothier enterprise run by his sons, Joseph and William the 3rd who was later was an elected Colony Governor.

Permitted by special legislation for a specified number of years family members were granted monopolies in the production of snuff and glass.

Continuing with clan interests in entrepreneurial pursuits Henry Pitkin, along with brothers John, James, and Walter had been apprenticed as silversmiths and watch repair leading later to their own successful jewelry manufacturing business, which closed in the depression that followed The Panic of 1837.

Having reputations for outstanding mechanical abilities, brothers Henry and James conceived the idea for manufacturing pocket watches by machine with interchangeable parts for mass production.

With Henry as the inventor of America’s first lever watch movement, and with equipment they designed and built, the first mass production of pocket watches began in 1836.  They also made their own cases of gold or silver.

The Henry Pitkin Watch and the later H & J. F. Pitkin Watch had an excellent reputation for accuracy and durability.

However, having a tough time competing with cheaper imported watches they hoped, unsuccessfully, to improve their marketing by moving the company in 1841 to Fulton Street in New York City.  Sadly, in dire financial straights, Henry committed suicide in 1846 at the age of only 35, and James died a few years later. Regardless, the company continued on until 1852.

If their company had endured and thrived, the Pitkin brothers, being among the early innovators of mass production, would have had a significant place in the history of American manufacturing and industry. While they led the way in the making of watches by machine, any fame for their potentially revolutionary innovations fallen to the wayside and remains mostly unrecognized today.

Nonetheless, Pitkin watches are quite rare and much sought after by collectors.