Vermont inventors

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(Host) As we continue our occasional VPR series, Great Thoughts of Vermont, commentator Rebecca Coffey reflects on some of Vermont’s inventors.

(Coffey) We’ve long been told by the United States Patent Office that the first patent was issued to a Vermonter – Samuel Hopkins of Pittsford – for a method of harvesting potash. Enlightened by recent research from a Philadelphia historian, however, the patent office is now changing its public information and proclaiming Samuel Hopkins a Philadelphian. Alas, this legendary Vermont inventor was apparently not a Vermonter at all.

Legend also has it that Vermonter Samual Morey beat Robert Fulton to the punch and invented the steamboat – which, legend also says, he later sank in disgust at the bottom of what is now Lake Morey. Oddly, it turns out that Mr. Morey was not – strictly speaking – a Vermont inventor either. He didn’t move to Vermont until after his inventing days were over. It also turns out that he neglected to patent his steamboat, which may be why he got disgusted and sank it.

But Vermont can claim quite a few other inventors, and some have done very well. In 1831, Thaddeus Fairbanks of St. Johnsbury patented a platform scale. Today Fairbanks Scales weigh a million million pounds of commercial product every week.

Another Vermont inventor didn’t achieve success during his own lifetime but his efforts do enrich our lives today. In 1833, having heard about a magnet that could separate iron from ore, Thomas Davenort of Brandon read everything about electromagnetism and learned that 80 years before, Benjamin Franklin had flown a kite and discovered static electricity. In 1800 Alessandro Volta had created the first battery. In 1820 Hans Oersted had shown that electricity causes magnetism – and in 1831, Michael Faraday had demonstrated that magnetism causes electricity.

Davenport also read that a Joseph Henry had just wrapped a mile of insulated wire around an iron core and created a magnet that could lift 2,000 pounds. He traveled to see the magnet – and bought it. He dissected it while his wife, Emily, took notes. But Davenport wanted to build magnets that could do more than lift.

He had no insulated wire so Emily tore her wedding dress into strips for insulation. Davenport mounted one magnet on a wheel and another on a frame and found that, with power from a battery, he could turn the wheel a half-rotation. Reversing the wires to one magnet turned the wheel the rest of the way. The direct current electric motor was born.

In 1835 he patented his motor and a model for an electric railroad. Then he moved to New York and set up a workshop right on Wall Street. He attracted investors, but then steam engines grabbed the headlines and the money fell through.

Twenty years after his death, Davenport’s motor took on new life as an electric generator. His invention powered the nation. You might even say his brilliance continues to illuminate the world today.

This is Rebecca Coffey in Putney.

This commentary has been revised since its initial broadcast.

Rebecca Coffey is a free lance writer of fiction and non-fiction, with a special focus on mental health issues.

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