An ode to Granite State tinkerers, innovators and visionaries.
Levi Hutchins had a problem.
The 26-year-old Concord clockmaker wanted to begin his workday at 4 a.m., well before dawn broke, when even an insomniac rooster wasn’t quite ready to crow.
So Hutchins did what any self-respecting New Hampshire Yankee would do when faced with an obstacle. He invented his way around it.
His handiwork, which has the distinction of being America’s first mechanical alarm clock, was housed in a 29″ x 14″ wooden cabinet with mirrored doors. The cabinet contained one of his brass clocks, which had an extra gear inserted in it that tripped an attached bell to ring at 4 a.m.
Although he was a clockmaker by trade, Hutchins didn’t patent his invention or try to mass produce it. But that’s probably just as well, since the mechanism couldn’t be set to ring at any other time. And even in 1787, 4 a.m. was pretty gosh-darn early for most folks to want to wake up. Despite his efforts, it would be another 60 years before French inventor Antoine Redier became the first to patent an adjustable mechanical alarm clock.
But patent or not, Levi Hutchins has a prominent place in a long line of Granite State tinkerers, innovators and visionaries who made – or, in many cases, missed – their mark in the heyday of the Industrial Revolution.
These inventors thought up everything from airships and apple-parers to steam-powered motorcycles and elevating refrigerators. The rub was – especially with the major inventions – they typically weren’t the only ones dreaming these things up or bringing them to popular attention, so their contributions have often been overlooked, relegated to the shelves of local historical societies or obscure professional organizations.
No more. Consider this article a first, small step toward a greater appreciation of the golden age of invention in New Hampshire.
While New Hampshire may be home to one of the 21st century’s best-known inventors – hint: his initials are “D.K.” and his most famous creation has increased our ability to mock mall cops exponentially – until Dean Kamen came to town, the state could never point to its own version of Thomas Edison. This is too bad because the “Wizard of Wilton” or “the Wizard of Center Sandwich” each have a sweet ring. (Of course, Edison did entrust what may have been his most complex creation to New Hampshire: Thomas Edison Jr., St. Paul’s School, class of 1895.)
Samuel MoreyThe closest thing to a New Hampshire Edison was Samuel Morey, who couldda-wouldda-shouldda been a major figure in the history of invention.
Morey, who grew up in Orford, was the first New Hampshire resident to earn a U.S. Patent – for a steam-powered fireplace spit. But that 1793 patent – which was signed by President George Washington and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson – was nothing compared to a pair of other inventions that Morey can arguably be credited with: the paddlewheel steamboat and the internal combustion engine.
This is where the “couldda-wouldda-shouldda” comes in.
Around the same time he was perfecting his spit, he was also working on something more ambitious – a steamboat. He successfully ran a small prototype; some accounts refer to it as a log dugout with a paddle wheel attached at the bow – in the Connecticut River. According to local lore, he made his initial test on a Sunday morning in hopes that everyone would be in church and no one would be watching from shore if his experiment failed.
Buoyed by his success – he was able to navigate upstream at 5 mph – he headed to New York in an effort to improve his invention and get the financial backing to commercialize it. In the spring of 1797 he took Robert Livingston and other New York bigwigs on a successful steamboat ride to Greenwich, Conn.
For whatever reason, Livingston chose not to finance Morey’s efforts. Instead, he funded Robert Fulton, who arguably knew of Morey’s work. With the launch of the Clermont a decade later, Fulton went down in the history books as the father of the steamboat.
To be fair, Morey never patented his most important innovation, two side-mounted paddle wheels, and he was far from the only tinkerer working to perfect a steamboat during this time. Still, the lack of commercial recognition stuck in his craw. “Blast his belly! He stole my patent!” Morey told friends.
More than a century later, Morey’s supporters continued to wage the battle, with one of his patrons publishing a pamphlet in 1915 with the take-no-prisoners title “Capt. Samuel Morey Who Invented the Steamboat Fourteen Years Before Fulton.”
The lack of recognition, however, didn’t deter Morey – by then back in Orford – from continuing to invent. He received patents for several new and improved steam engines, but by the 1820s much of his attention turned toward other forms of combustion.
In 1826 he received a patent for the first internal combustion engine and hit the road for New York and Philadelphia to promote his invention. In Philadelphia, he used the engine to power a boat and a wagon. (In the process he also caused the first car accident when he fell off the wagon after starting the engine and the vehicle promptly ended up in a ditch.)
Despite proving his success, Morey couldn’t find a buyer for the invention. The age of the internal combustion engine remained on hold for several more decades.
In addition to Morey’s ground-breaking efforts, other inventors with New Hampshire ties played an often-colorful role in the history of transportation.
Rufus PorterRufus Porter, an itinerant artist and inventor who spent several years in New Hampshire, saw the possibilities of air transportation during his travels up and down the East Coast. In the early 1850s he began selling stock to raise money to build a steam-powered airship designed to travel from New York to California, which was in the throes of the Gold Rush and in dire need of miners. Although he developed models and built an “Aeroport,” his dream never got off the ground.
George LongLong, who hailed from just across New Hampshire’s southern border in Northfield, Mass., developed a steam-propelled four-wheel automobile with a fifth wheel for steering at his shop in nearby Hinsdale in 1875. Long’s vehicle, which was fired by hardwood charcoal, could maintain 30 miles per hour on a good road.
Sylvester MarshLike Morey, Porter, Roper and Long were slightly ahead of their time.
A more successful transportation innovation – albeit one with a far more limited use – remains a New Hampshire institution to this day. The cog railway was invented in the middle of the 19th century by Sylvester Marsh – or was it?
The Campton-born Marsh, who went west to make his fortune as a founder of the Chicago meat-packing industry, is credited with inventing the cog rail mechanism and special brakes that allowed a locomotive to scale steep inclines. His brainchild, the Mount Washington Cog Railway, was completed in 1869.
However, there’s a competing claim that the idea for the railway came from Franklin’s Herrick Aiken, the patriarch of a well-known family of 18th-century inventors.
Either way, it’s a win-win for New Hampshire since the state can claim this innovation regardless of which man gets the credit.
J.M. BlaisdellOne domestic invention that didn’t take off was J.M. Blaisdell’s Elevating Refrigerator, produced in Sanbornton in the 1870s. No, it wasn’t a hovercraft; it was essentially a dumbwaiter with a built-in refrigerator that was kept cool by blocks of ice. (If you’re having a hard time picturing it, a model of Blaisdell’s über-fridge is on display at the Museum of N.H. History in Concord along with some other quirky Granite State inventions.)
Advertising copy for the Elevating Refrigerator touted it as “The Housewife’s Favorite” and included an illustration of a family at the dinner table with the caption “… Mrs. A. discovers that an important article is missing. Turning in her chair, she touches a spring and the refrigerator appears …”
How this eighth wonder of the world didn’t catch on is beyond us.
Sylvester Roper, a Francestown native, is credited with building the world’s first steam-powered motorcycle in 1869 while living in Massachusetts. (It’s unclear how long someone could ride this machine before the charcoal-fired boiler between their legs became too uncomfortable.) Roper continued developing vehicles throughout his life and died in 1896 at the age of 73 while testing a new motorcycle along the Charles River in Cambridge, Mass. True to his New Hampshire roots, he was not wearing a helmet.
It was later thought that Roper had a heart attack and that was the cause of his death, not the injuries he received in the accident.
Roper was racing his steam bike, a Columbia bicycle fitted with a steam engine, at the Velodrome in Cambridge to see if it would be accepted as a pace vehicle for bike races. He had passed all the regular bikers and had decided to make one more loop when the incident occurred.
He also pioneered the twist grip throttle, a form of which is used today. He also invented a steam-powered car in which he reportedly rode home from the Civil War.
His steam bikes are on display at the Smithsonian Institute and the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum in Reynoldsburg , Ohio. A replica of his 1869 Velocipede is in the Stanley Steamer Museum in Kingsfield, Maine.
David Roper, a famous motorcyclist of current times, is said to be a distant relative of Sylvester. David is the only American to win the Manx GP at the Isle of Man TT Races.
Of course, not everyone in the Granite State was hard at work developing modes of transportation. In fact, most New Hampshire inventors stuck to pretty prosaic stuff.
David GoodellAnother prominent inventor of kitchen gadgets and other tools was David Goodell. The Antrim resident invented and manufactured the “White Mountain” apple-parer in 1832 and followed that up with the Ron Popeil-sounding “Lightning” apple-parer in 1864. These parers were among the flagship items of the Goodell Company, which produced cutlery, seed-sowers and fruit and vegetable parers for decades.
Benjamin PalmerThe first patent for an artificial leg belonged to Benjamin Palmer of Meredith, who patented the Palmer Leg in 1846.
The leg had a pliable joint that worked noiselessly and preserved its contour in all positions.
William Rockwell CloughManchester native William Rockwell Clough, who patented 25 varieties of corkscrews, was by the turn of the 20th century selling millions of them worldwide.
Samuel AbbotWilton’s Samuel Abbot, who developed a machine to extract potato flour and built a starch factory in his hometown. The starch was used as sizing for cotton fabrics produced in the South. He died in a fire and explosion in his factory.
The Politics of InventionSince New Hampshire is better known for politics than for inventions, it’s no surprise that Granite State inventors have occasionally appeared on the political stage.
Antrim inventor and businessman David Goodell was politically active in the 1800s, capping his long involvement in the Republican Party with a term as governor from 1889-91.
Neil Tillotson is another well-known name in New Hampshire political lore, although he’s known more elsewhere as an inventor.
Tillotson’s first big invention – the latex balloon – was developed when he worked in Massachusetts in the 1930s. Later by working with a hand-cut cardboard form he molded a cat-eared balloon which, for balloon enthusiasts, was the transformative moment in toy balloon evolution.
This innovation eventually led to his development of the soft, pliable, one-size-fits-all latex glove that revolutionized the medical field and reinvigorated his Tillotson Rubber Company business.
In 1954 Tillotson bought The Balsams Grand Resort Hotel in Dixville Notch and moved to town.
So what’s his political connection? As moderator of Dixville Notch, Tillotson cast the first vote in every New Hampshire presidential primary from 1964 to 2000 and the first vote in every presidential election from 1960 to 2000. He died in 2002 at the age of 102.
And the politics-invention connection isn’t just something from the days of yore. Dan Itse, a current state representative from Fremont, holds several patents, including a low-emissions burner for coal-fired power plants and a process for disposing of heavy metals.
Easy question: How do you write an article that has anything to do with New Hampshire inventors and not mention Dean Kamen?Easy answer: You can’t. Just like you can’t write about Granite State documentarians and not mention Ken Burns, or write about quirky old New Hampshire guys with quirky old New Hampshire voices and not mention Fritz Wetherbee.
Here’s a tougher one: How can you tell anyone anything they don’t already know about Kamen, founder of the FIRST robotics program, inventor of the Segway (and many other less-goofy, more life-changing devices) and, most recently, host of “The Dean of Invention,” a TV show on Planet Green that premiered in October.
Answer: You probably can’t, so do the next best thing – quiz your readers on their knowledge of New Hampshire’s most famous inventor.
Hop on your Segway, because here we go:
Section 1 – Fill in the blank
1. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for this invention: ______________.
2. He once said, “I ________ every aspect of school.”
3. FIRST stands for “For Inspiration and __________ of Science and Technology.”
Section 2 – True or False
4. When he visited England several years ago, he brought home two London taxicabs as souvenirs.
5. He graduated from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1975.
6. He owns one of only two working models of Samuel Morey’s internal combustion engine in existence.
Section 3 – Short-answer questions
7. During the development of the Segway, what was its code name?
8. North Dumpling, his private island off the coast of Connecticut, has its own currency. Whose likeness is on the bills?
9. What seminal 1950s publication was his father, Jack Kamen, involved with?
1. Ambulatory Infusion Pump
4. True 5. False (he attended WPI, but did not graduate)
8. Dean Kamen
9.He was an illustrator for Mad magazine.
0-2 – So, how long has it been since you crawled out from under that rock?
3-5 – You probably never heard of Adam Sandler, either.
6-8 – You knew more than you thought, didn’t you?
9 – Say hello to Dean for us the next time you’re on North Dumpling.
Even a legend can’t win ’em all.