Happy Bod-Day, Ichabod Washburn

Washburn University

TOPEKA – Faculty, staff and students of Washburn University will be wishing Ichabod Washburn a happy Bod-day on Wednesday, Aug. 12.

The University will celebrate Ichabod Washburn’s 211th birthday at 2:11p.m. in the main level lobby at Memorial Union and everyone is invited. Jerry Farley, WU president, will kick-off the birthday party by serving 211 free ice cream sandwiches in honor of the University’s namesake.

On Aug. 11, 1798 in Kingston, Mass. Ichabod Washburn and his twin brother, Charles were born to Sylvia Bradford and Ichabod Washburn, a sea captain. Ichabod Sr. died of yellow fever when the boys were less than a year old, leaving his wife with the twins and an older sister to raise alone.

At age nine, young Ichabod was apprenticed first to a harness maker and later to a blacksmith. In between the apprenticeships, he worked for a year in a cotton mill. While working in the mill, he became interested in machinery and wanted to work in a machine shop, but his guardian discouraged him, saying that the country would soon be so full of factories there would be no more need for machinery to be made. At age 15, he was sent to a blacksmith in Leicaster , Mass. 80 miles from home.

After Washburn’s apprenticeship ended at age 20, he worked at several blacksmith jobs for about a year until he learned of a job in Worcester, Mass., for a smith who could forge machinery. Soon he moved on to another job manufacturing lead pipes and machinery for woolen mills. Washburn soon bought out the boss, the company expanded rapidly and he took a partner, forming the firm of Washburn and Goddard. Washburn began experimenting with making wire. Not much was being manufactured in the United States and the machines were slow and crude. He made improvements and soon invented a new machine, thus becoming the Father of the Wire Industry.

Washburn and Goddard parted amicably and Washburn joined his twin brother Charles in business. Several years later he added his son-in-law, PL Moen.

Washburn and Moen Manufacturing Company supplied piano wire, telegraph wire, telephone wire, suspension cable for bridges and needles for new sewing machines. It was Washburn’s idea to use wire instead of expensive whalebone in hoop skirts during the fad in the 1950s and 1960s. Washburn and Moen also acquired the patent on barbed wire.

The invention of the telegraph promoted a need for galvanized wire, a process that Washburn also perfected. By 1865, Washburn and Moen Manufacturing was the largest wire mill in the world, employing nearly 3,000 men. This company later became part of U.S. Steel Corporation.

In October 1868, Washburn generously gave $25,000 to what was then called Lincoln College in Topeka, Kan. To show gratitude for the generous donation, the Board of Trustees changed the name from Lincoln to Washburn College.

Washburn died Dec. 30, 1868 from complications of a stroke. His widow continued to make smaller donations to Washburn College until her death in 1875.

In 1938, alumnus Bradbury Thompson brought the “heroic” Ichabod figure to life in the graphical symbol of a man with a top hat and coattails carrying a book. In the 1938 Kaw yearbook, Thompson wrote, “It is not intended that only one picture should represent Ichabod, for he adapts himself to any situation . . . but if he is to live, he must keep his essential characteristics of courageous spirit, democratic courtesy, kindness and the studious love of truth.”