H. Ward Leonard: The Man Behind It All

H. Ward Leonard (1861-1915) was an American inventor, electrical engineer, and founder of the Ward Leonard Electric Company. A visionary of his time, he believed that the rapid growth of the world depended on the advancements made in the distribution, efficient control, and the use of electrical power. Mr. Leonard’s numerous contributions, including more than 100 patents credited to him in the electrical and other fields, played an important part in the world’s commercial progress and the second industrial revolution.

Harry Ward Leonard was born on February 8, 1861, in Cincinnati, Ohio and was the fourth child to Ezra George Leonard and Henrietta Dana Ward.

Mr. Leonard attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and was a founder of The Tech, the student newspaper, and served as the president of its board of directors.

After his graduation from M.I.T. in 1883, Mr. Leonard worked as an engineer for Thomas Edison, along with Nicola Tesla, during one of the most exciting and progressive times in electrical innovation.



Following a successful tenure with Thomas Edison, Mr. Leonard launched Leonard and Izard, a firm that set up electric railways and generating stations. In 1889, Edison acquired Mr. Leonard’s company, and Edison put Mr. Leonard in charge of operations in the US and Canada, from which he resigned in 1891 to form his own electrical contracting firm.

In 1891, Mr. Leonard patented his best-known invention, the Ward Leonard System of Motor Control. This was an entirely new use of electrical energy, and the system has had a profound effect on all industries using electrical energy. The Ward Leonard System made it possible to obtain smooth speed control. This important advancement transformed modern electrical distribution. The Ward Leonard System allowed the motor to reverse almost instantaneously, permitted the motor speed go from maximum in one direction to full speed in the opposite direction, and made possible the ability for the motor to reduce the lowest practical limit the amount of energy when starting, reversing, and stopping. It is estimated that 15% of the cost of rolling steel was saved by replacing steam engines with electric motors equipped with this system. Ward Leonard’s System of Control represents one of the outstanding achievements of the 19th century.

In 1892, Ward Leonard began manufacturing heating devices, rheostats, and motor controllers in Bridgeport, CT. In 1894 the firm moved to Hoboken, NJ, however a fire destroyed the property in 1897. The company then moved to Bronxville, NY where it stayed until moving to Thomaston, CT in 1999, where the headquarters remains today.

Mr. Leonard was active in the American Institute of Electrical Engineers serving as manager (1890-1893) and vice president (1893-1895). He was also a prolific contributor of technical papers and delivered numerous addresses to scientific bodies. For his work in electrical research, the Franklin Institute, in 1903, awarded Mr. Leonard the John Scott Medal. A year later, Mr. Leonard was awarded a Gold Medal at the St. Louis World’s Fair for his System of Control. In 1911 he became a member of “The Inventors Guild,” becoming president of the Guild in 1913.

Mr. Leonard passed away suddenly on February 18, 1915 while attending the annual dinner of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers at the Hotel Astor in New York City.

Among Ward Leonard’s numerous other inventions and technological advances…

  • Electric-train lighting system
  • Electric-elevator control system (utilized at the Paris World’s Fair in 1889)
  • Multiple voltage motor control
  • Motor starting and reversing rheostat
  • Electrical resistors
  • Double-arm circuit breaker
  • Resistance element for soldering irons, flat irons, and cooking utensils
  • First gasoline-electric powered automobile
  • Automobile generator system

Today, every person who comes to work at Ward Leonard follows in his footsteps, seeking to develop innovative solutions that enable our customers to improve their performance and overall efficiencies.


Ward Leonard’s commitment to serving the U.S. Military
dates back more than 120 years.

In 1891, Ward Leonard invented the Ward Leonard System of Motor Control, which was a D.C. motor speed control system and one of the greatest inventions of the time.
Its use propelled Ward Leonard’s service and dedication to the U.S. military.

  • 1896 – 1898

    1896 – 1898

    The Ward Leonard System was installed experimentally on the USS Brooklyn in 1896; however, a controversy arose between the line and staff officers as to whether or not it was suitable to use electricity in gun turrets.

    To settle the dispute, and in front of Assistant Secretary of War, Theodore Roosevelt, the USS Brooklyn conducted a test, with one gun turret operated by the old method and another by the Ward Leonard System. The test demonstrated the superiority of the Ward Leonard System and resulted in its adoption by the U.S. Navy.

    The use of the Ward Leonard System in gun turrets was an important advancement for the military, as it allowed them to be more accurately controlled.

    During the Spanish American War in 1898, the USS Brooklyn demonstrated the first successful use of electricity in warfare as motive power for gun turrets, ammunition hoists, and auxiliaries. The Ward Leonard System on the USS Brooklyn contributed to the destruction of Cervero’s fleet at the battle of Santiago during the Spanish American War.

  • 1897

    USS Holland 1900 - national archives

    The Ward Leonard System was outfitted on the U.S. Navy’s first submarine, the USS Holland (SS-1).

  • 1900


    Ward Leonard rheostats were used on the HMS Holland 1 on the speed regulator, which was the first submarine commissioned by the Royal Navy and based on an American design.

  • 1911

    The Ward Leonard system was applied to Trans-Atlantic warships, which allowed the large ships to be accurately maneuvered by the commanding officer. A turbine was used to generate electricity which allowed a system of electric propulsion to be installed. The captain in the conning tower could then quickly move the ship without having to transmit orders – an important advancement; especially during wartime.

  • World War I

    During the First World War, the Company’s entire facilities were turned over to the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army Signal Corps for the production of special resistors, charging panels, and controls.

    During the war, an urgent demand for resistors exceedingly light in weight fostered the development of Ward Leonard Ribohm® resistors. Made of metal ribbon, channeled, and bent into a “V” shape, these ribbon resistors were first applied on portable battery charging panels designed for the U.S. Army Signal Corps to charge radio batteries used along advanced lines of communications.

    The Ward Leonard System was applied to railway locomotive engines during the war.

  • 1920

    Ribohm® construction was applied on the Navy standard rheostats for controlling searchlight high intensity arcs.

  • 1933


    Ward Leonard began to build electronic generator regulators for the U.S. Navy.

  • World War II

    World War II

    At the outbreak of the Second World War, Ward Leonard production facilities were rapidly converted to manufacture only control equipment and components for the war effort. Motor controls and electronic regulating equipment for Navy and maritime vessels were turned out in vast numbers.

    Ward Leonard was the leading manufacturer of resistor units in the country at the time. The resistors were units which were placed on radio equipment for communications and also were assembled in conjunction with relays installed in the delicate mechanism in submarines and in turret manipulation equipment on battleships, tanks, and firearms. Ward Leonard resistors were also used in walkie talkies, enemy detection devices, and helped to provide the dim glow over the navigator or bombardiers map.

    Additionally, Ward Leonard was a pioneer in the rheostat field. During the war, their rheostats were used on control guns on battleships, performed a multitude of tasks on all combat vessels, and even controlled the heat of the aviator’s suits.

    The MIT Radiation Laboratory in 1942 used the Ward Leonard System on the newly developed SCR-584 anti-aircraft radar, which was considered the most advanced ground-based radar of its time and was also one of the first weapon systems developed by the U.S. during the war. The SCR-584 was an effective radar system, helping the allies win the war.

    In 1942, Ward Leonard was one of the first Westchester, NY firms to win the Army-Navy “E” Award for its excellent record of production during WWII. According to the Naval History and Heritage Command, only 5% of U.S. war production facilities (4,283 facilities) met the stringent requirements to earn the Award. Those requirements included: “excellence in quality and quantity of production; overcoming production obstacles; low rate of absenteeism; avoidance of work stoppages; maintenance of fair labor standards; training of additional labor forces; effective management; record on accidents, health, and plant protection; utilization of subcontracting facilities; cooperation between management and labor as it affected production; and conservation of critical materials.” If a facility continued their record of outstanding performance for six months after the receipt of the “E” Award, they could go on to earn a Star Award, with additional Stars awarded every six months thereafter if the outstanding production continued. Ward Leonard would go on to earn 5 stars for their excellence in wartime production, one of only 206 companies to achieve such distinction.

    In July of 1943, Ward Leonard was honored by the Navy in being the first company to receive an outstanding service tribute with the sponsorship of PT Squadron 24.

    In November 1943, the Ward Leonard Guard Force won the highest honors, with an award presented to the Auxiliary Military Police Force stationed at the company. The award was based on meritory efficiency, routine procedure, maintenance and adequacy of records, and, in general, the investigation and control of those persons having frequent access to the plant.

    In 1943, the Navy Department Bureau of Ships called upon the Ward Leonard Regulator Division to supply Speed and Voltage Regulators to an entire new fleet of submarines under construction. The Speed Regulators incorporated many features of a previous design, while the Voltage Regulators required and entirely new design by Ward Leonard.  These new regulators lead to the development of the Regulator School with the Navy. From January 1944 to October 1945, the Ward Leonard Regulator Division conducted a special training course for Navy personnel. This secret initiative was a school of instruction for Navy personnel in the maintenance, operation, and adjustment of the speed and voltage regulators, covering every minute detail. By July 1945, more than 200 diplomas had been awarded to the sailors who participated in the Regulator School.

    In 1945, Ward Leonard was awarded both the Guard Championship and the National Security Award, the only company in the country to win both prestigious awards.

  • 1959

    Due to changes in military specifications involving vibration and extreme tilt requirements, Ward Leonard developed a new line of solenoid contactors and starters for the Navy.

  • 1962


    Ward Leonard built a propulsion control panel for the USS Hunley, a submarine tender designed for support operations of Polaris ballistic missile submarines. The vessel’s propulsion system was the second and largest diesel electric A.C. marine installation ever made in the USA. The panel controlled six diesel A.C. generators supplying power to a single 15,000 HP, 3,300 volt, 3 phase A.C. main propulsion motor.

  • 1963

    Ward Leonard obtained a controlling interest in Regulators, Inc., which specialized in custom design and manufacture of static controls and power equipment. Military program participation by Regulators, Inc. included equipment for Project Mercury, Telstar, Titan, and the Minuteman.

Expansion Through Acquisitions

Over the years, we have made a series of strategic acquisitions to broaden our military capabilities
and expand into markets where our products and engineering expertise can be best utilized.

  • 1994

    GE DoD controls product line: Enhanced Ward Leonard’s already strong position in the U.S. Navy shipboard controls market.

  • 1997

    JH Smith Lighting Corp.: Acquisition that grew Ward Leonard’s vertical integration of control systems, which streamlined lead times and enhanced cost control for defense.

  • 2000

    Tech Systems: Delivers strong motor and genset capabilities to create packaged solutions beyond component sales in the defense industry.

  • 2001

    Electrodynamics (EDY) division of Electric Boat: Purchased their deep product offerings, including low-noise motors for submarines.

  • 2005

    Mawdsley’s: Acquired their powerful naval motors — up to 1,500HP, shock- and vibration-tested, and 30-year life at continuous duty.