Indenture of William J. Young

With this indenture, signed on January 30, 1813, William J. Young (1800-1870) became an apprentice to Thomas Whitney. The indenture details the conditions under which Young would work over the course of the next seven years, as well as Whitney's agreement to teach him "the Trade or Mystery of a Mathematical Instrument Maker." Alfred C. Young donated his great-grandfather's indenture to the Smithsonian in 1981.
In 1820, having earned his freedom and with $30 in his pocket, Young went into business on his own. His was soon 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. J. 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, a son of William, operated the firm as Wm. J. Young & Sons, and Heller went on to form Heller & Brightly. Alfred Young's firm began signing its 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, N. J.
Ref: 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 (1990): 21-24.
Object Name
indenture of William J. Young
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
Measuring & Mapping
Surveying and Geodesy
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Medicine and Science: Physical Sciences
Surveying and Geodesy
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center

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