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Archives:The Inventions of Thomas Davenport

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Originally published in Transactions of the AIEE, volume VIII, 1891, by Franklin L. Pope

The year 1837 marked a very important era in the history of the industrial development of electricity. During that year, two of the most extraordinary inventions of the present century made their advent in this city-the electric telegraph of Prof. Samuel F. B. Morse, and the electric motor of Thomas Davenport. The motor came first. Davenport, a self-taught Vermont blacksmith, who had invented and constructed his machine in a remote country village in a crude form as early as 1834, came to New York in February, 1837, bringing with him some of the machinery which had been made for the purpose of exhibition, by himself and Ransom Cook, with a view to enlisting capital to build a large motor. During the season of 1837 he occupied rooms in the city where he exhibited models of his motor and various other electrical inventions. Articles were published in the newspapers of the day, and his exhibitions were attended by a great number of people. In letters written about that time, Davenport mentioned that one of the most frequent visitors was Professor Morse.

With the history of Professor Morse and his inventions of the telegraph the world is quite familiar. With the history of Davenport and of the invention of his electric motor-as I soon discovered in endeavoring to obtain information about it myself-scarcely anything was known. This difficulty ultimately led me to interest myself in trying to find out more about the matter. In this undertaking I was fortunately very much more successful than one can reasonably expect to be, in attempting to resuscitate the history of an invention which has lain unknown for the best half of a century.

The first newspaper notice of the electric telegraph which appeared in America was in the New York Observer in the summer of 1837. I will read you an extract from it:

"A gentleman of our acquaintance several years since suggested that any intelligence might be communicated almost instantaneously hundreds, if not thousands of miles, by means of very fine wires, properly coated to protect them from moisture and extendmg between places thus widely separated. It is well known that the electric fluid occupies no perceptible time in passing many miles on a wire, and, if it is possible by connecting one end of the wire with an electrical or galvanic battery to produce any sensible effect whatever at the other it is obvious that if there are twenty-four wires, each representing a letter of the alphabet, they may be connected with the battery successively in any order, and if so connected in the order of the letters of any word or sentence, that word or sentence conld be read or written by a person standing at the other end of the wires. All the paragraphs of a newspaper could thus be touched by a man in Philadelphia, and the contents, verbatim et literatum conveyed to New York as fast as a compositor could set up the type!"

It has always been a mystery to me what invention was referred to in that article. The New York Observer was edited at that time by a brother of Professor Morse. The "gentleman of our acquaintance" referred to, was no doubt Professor Morse, but what was meant by the telegraph of twenty-four wires I could never make out, because we all know that Morse never entertained any idea other than of a single-circuit telegraph at any time from the beginning of his experiments in 1835, or earlier. But I received a few days since a letter from a gentleman who had read some articles recently published by me in reference to Davenport's work, in which he stated that he visited Davenport's exhibition in the summer of 1837, here in the city of New York, and that he himself saw in that exhibition a model of a telegraph of twenty-four wires invented by Davenport, and that model must undoubtedly be the telegraph referred to in the extract I have just read.

In pursuing my investigations into the history of Davenport's work, I was fortunate enough to find that several of his original models were still in existence. One of these models, a circular railway two feet and a half in diameter with a locomotive travelling on it, similar to the one which we have here tonight but very much more finely finished, I was able to satisfy myself by contemporaneous evidence was built in 1837. The one which is before you was found in the cabinet of the Female Seminary in Troy, formerly Miss Willard's. The records of the institution show that it was purchased in 1840, but it evidently must have heen built by Davenport himself prior to the more finely finished model of which I have just spoken, which was constructed in 1836-7 with the assistance of Mr. Ransom Cook of Saratoga, a very ingenious person and a finished mechanic.

Davenport's Electric Railway Model
Davenport's Electric Railway Model

I think there is no doubt that the model before us was built in the early part of 1837 and possibly as early as 1836. Fortunately it is, as you see, in a very good state of preservation. I have had it mounted tonight with the same battery that was found with it - a three-cell Grove battery of pint cups, and I think we shall find that it is in tolerably fair running order. [The model was set in motion.] It does not go quite a hundred and twenty miles an hour, bur, it goes. This locomotive, you will observe, has a fixed field magnet below, and a revolving armature above, which is reversed twice in every revolution. So far as I am able to discover, that is a combination found in every practical motor today, which Davenport was the first to make known and to use in 1834. The motor is connected to the driving axle by bevel-gear. The field and armature in the model before you are connected in series In the other model of 1837 of which I spoke, they are connected in shunt. Among other models of Davenport was one having a horse-shoe field and a four-pole armature with curved pole-pieces, which is really quite an advanced type of motor. That also was built in 1837. Altogether, Davenport, between 1834 and 1840, built over 100 motors of differnt patterns and of varying sizes, scarcely any two of them alike. I discovered also, quite to my surprise that he was undoubtedly the first to make use of the solenoid with a movable core as a means of moving machinery of any kind. He built in 1839 quite a large motor operating upon that principle, which from the best description I have been able to find of it, must have approached one horse power. He set that up at 42 Stanton St., in New York; attached a printing press to it, and started to publish the pioneer electrical journal of America - a small weekly paper called "The Electro-Magnet and Mechanics' Intelligencer," printed by electrical power. Through the kindness of Mr. Davenport's son, Rev. Willard G. Davenport, I have the pleasure, on his behalf, of presenting to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers two copies of that paper. [Applause.] These, so far as is known, are the only editions ever published; they are number one and number two. This was in 1840. I have received within a day or two an interesting letter from Mr. H. S. Davenport, a nephew of Thomas Davenport, still living in Vermont, at an advanced age, who, as a boy, was with him a great deal and in that way became quite familiar with his work. I will take the liberty of reading extracts which give some idea of the manner of man Mr. Davenport was. He says:

"Many of his models never left his shop and were but little known even at the time of their construction. They were only made to show to how many uses the power could be applied, and also to work from on a larger scale, if he could get pecuniary aid to do so. The different models which interested me most at the several times I was in his shop, were a trip-hammer, a turning lathe and a machine for doubling, twisting and reeling cotton or silk, all at the same time. A circular frame fitted with two intersecting tracks, on which four miniature cork images glided around, he called his "puppet-show." He was naturally of a retiring disposition, but when waked up was very strong in argument. His two favorite subjects were nature and electro-magnetism. He considered magnetism the most important element in the creation of the universe and thought it would be, in its destmction. Magnetism kept the heavenly bodies in their places, and if that failed everything would be turned to chaos. He could see in every rock of the earth the battery of which it was composed. So also in the animal kingdom, the bones; muscles, and blood constituted a complete battery, which exercise a repulsive or attractive force with respect to another organism of the same kind. He was a great lover of fun and exceedingly fond of a joke. On one occasion he received an order from a party in Chicago for half-a-dozen bottles of electricity. He said he knew by the tenor of the letter that it was intended as a joke, and he accordingly replied that he bottled up his wrath for such would-be ignoramuses as he was, but had no electricity for him."

I might go on and relate many other facts of interest which I have learned about Mr. Davenport and his inventions, but the hour-is already late, and I will forbear. But I may remark in conclusion, that I find him to have been one or the most interesting characters with whom I have ever become acquainted, and I cannot but feel highly gratified that my attention chanced to be directed to the subject, in season to rescue at least some of the more important of bis work from impending oblivion. In two or three years more it would have been too late. There are people now living, although at an advanced age, who knew him and remember him perfectly, but in a year or two more perchance they will be gone.