By Bob (Monty) Doherty
Bikes and bike paths, love them or loathe them, they are here to stay. As far as Somerville is concerned, the first owner of a two-wheeled velocipede (or bicycle) was Willie Nickerson in the 1880s.
William E. Nickerson was one of the first chemical engineering graduates of MIT and married the daughter of a Winter Hill developer, Horace Partridge. Willie’s father-in-law built them a small house, laboratory, and shop on Partridge Avenue near Vernon Street where his research began.
He loved to work with different metals, cutting, shaping, and forming while using his tools and furnace. William’s fertile mind led to many experiments and patents on things such as elevator safety equipment, automatic weighing machines, and lighting devices. None of these ideas led to financial success.
This all changed, however, when he met a man named King C. Gillette. Nickerson had gold in his hands as far as machine language is concerned but lacked business experience. Gillette had gold in his hands as far as business and sales language goes but had no mechanical experience. A bond was formed between the two, one which would result in the creation of what would become one of the world’s largest international businesses, the Gillette Safety Razor Company.
King Gillette, providing the imagination, became President and Somerville’s William Nickerson, providing the tangible product, became the first and most important employee and Vice President. The two men agreed that Gillette was a better title than “Nick”erson for a safety razor.
It didn’t come easy for them. Gillette had to beat the bushes to sell stock while Nickerson’s genius had to invent and reinvent machinery to keep up with the buyers’ demand for the new concept of disposable blades. The practice of time-consuming and dangerous shaving was a thing of the past. The 20th century brought new shaving habits and, with it, the era of long beards and sideburns faded.
In the years ahead, Nickerson’s and Gillette’s efforts were well rewarded. Nickerson was a trustee of Boston University and generous benefactor. The memory of the two men lives on in two very large tributes. One is Nickerson Field and various athletic buildings at Boston University. The other is Gillette Stadium, the home of the New England Patriots.