William Cyrus Briggs, inventor, was born on December 20, 1861, in Turner, Maine, the son of Cyrus and Lydia Briggs. As a young man he moved to Brooklyn, New York, where he found employment as an engineer and machinist. He afterwards moved to Fayetteville, where he constructed one of the first successful automatic cigarette-making machines. In 1892, Briggs moved to Winston, becoming an inventor for the J. A. Vance Machine Shops. He received financial support from Dr. W. T. Brown, William F. and Henry Shoffner, and Frank Fries, owner of Fries Manufacturing and Power Company.
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In 1898, he perfected his machine, which produced 300,000 cigarettes a day. Briggs formed the Briggs-Shoffner plant on Brookstone Avenue in Winston. His machines allowed the R. J. Reynolds Company to compete with James Buchanan Duke’s American Tobacco Company. Briggs’s machines and patents were sold to the Murai Brothers of Kyoto, Japan, after Briggs visited there in 1898.
Soon thereafter, the United Cigarette Machine Company (Bonsack) of Lynchburg, Virginia sued Briggs for patent infringement. Clement Manly successfully defended Briggs in court in Asheville. Afterwards, James W. Gerow, president of United Cigarette, offered Briggs a position with the company. Briggs accepted, leaving Winston-Salem in 1913, the year Winston and Salem consolidated. At United Cigarette, Briggs invented a new machine that produced 400,000 cigarettes a day.
Briggs died in 1918, survived by a wife, two daughters and a son. He was initially interred in a vault in Lynchburg, however his remains were removed to a family grave in Turner, Maine later that year. In addition to his cigarette machines, Briggs also invented the first return carriage for a typewriter and a stamp vending machine.
Charlotte Observer, October 10, 1918
Winston-Salem Twin City Sentinel, August 28, 1936; April 14, 1947; May 13, 1947; June 1954
Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel, June 11, 1950
William S. Powell, Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, I, 225—sketch by William S. Powell
Nannie May Tilley, The Bright-Tobacco Industry (1948)