A rich, informative exhibit telling the story of an extraordinary 20th century Waltham company and family

On June 2, 2016 the Trustees of the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation presented the Third Annual Spirit of Innovation Award to the W.H. Nichols Family, a storied clan descended from legendary engineer/machinist W.H. Nichols. He established his eponymous company in Waltham in 1904. Nicknamed “Accurate Nichols” for his exacting standards, W.H.’s lifelong motto was “Anything Almost Right is Wrong.”

Later known as W.H. Nichols and Sons, the company built its well-earned reputation for precision manufacturing by successfully developing production capabilities for IBM, DuPont, and other companies and inventors whose products were theretofore believed to require machining tolerances too exact to be mass produced.  Their manufacturing excellence earned W.H. Nichols & Sons a remarkable five “E Awards” (no company ever earned more than six) for particularly outstanding wartime production excellence helping to defeat the World War II Axis Powers.

W.H. Nichols and his family were also known for their love of recreation. Outdoor enthusiasts with a tennis court and swimming pool, they were especially fond of boating, with a boathouse on the Charles River. In the 1930s the family launched their new boat, the White Swan, in the Charles, a nod to a paddlewheel steamer of the same name that used to carry passengers from the Moody Street Bridge to Auburndale in the 1870s.

The White Swan and a rowing shell at the Company dock on the Charles River

The White Swan and a rowing shell at the Company dock on the Charles River

During World War II the family opened their boathouse to Nichols Company employees and formed baseball and softball teams to provide an outlet for shop workers during a very pressured time. Rowing was a major pastime; there was even an 8-person shell on loan from Wellesley College for the women workers.

The Nichols were also known for their fair and equal treatment of their employees, supporting churches and temples alike. They also made great civic contributions to the community including funding a new wing at Waltham Hospital. Years later, around the time the company was sold to Parker Hannifin Corporation, they seeded the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation’s collection with many exceptional artifacts, among them the beloved “Engine 1,” Waltham’s first fire engine, which W.H. had purchased from the City and restored as a centerpiece of the company’s own Museum.

Two of the most spectacular artifacts on display in this exhibit are "The Bug" and "Ella Cinders." The Bug is an automobile hand-built in 1925 by W.H.'s son Arthur Nichols—pictured above with this remarkable project—barely a mile from our museum at the family home on Woerd Avenue. It features a front-wheel drive system developed by Arthur that became the subject of his MIT thesis.

Ella Cinders is W.H.'s legendary model live steam locomotive that was beloved by generations of Waltham kids who, as the vintage film clip below shows, were able to ride the train on a track that circumnavigated the W.H Nichols company and family properties. 

As W.H. Nichols & Sons thrived as a company across generations of family leadership, so, too, did the Nichols family grow and thrive. Their rich and varied lives have woven a tapestry of extraordinary and delightful stories worth sharing, including their inspiring and lasting contributions to industry and community. 

The W.H. Nichols Family & Company Exhibit will be on display at the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation through the winter of 2016-2017.