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The most influential Vermont inventor you've never heard of

 A black and white rendering of Thomas Davenport on the left, and on the right, an image of a mock-up of his motor invention in color.
Dave Hammond and Kevin Thornton
Thomas Davenport was a 34-year-old blacksmith and inventor in Brandon when he won the first U.S. patent for an electric motor in 1837. Historians say Davenport saw electricity's potential decades ahead of his time, but bad luck and poor timing got in the way of financial success.

Brandon is hosting Davenport Electric Fest on Saturday. It's a free afternoon of events that will celebrate the town's ties to the birth of the electric motor.

Wait, you didn’t know about that history?

You're not alone; read on.

While names like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla may come to mind when you think of early pioneers in electricity, Thomas Davenport may be less familiar.

In fact, the 19th-century blacksmith who lived and worked in Brandon and surrounding villages may be the most influential Vermont inventor you’ve never heard of.

“There's a tragic element to it,” says Brandon historian Kevin Thornton. “He died in poverty; he died with a sense of failure. But there’s also a nobility to it because he believed in his vision, and he turned out to be right.”

An older man drives a car past a small red house in the background.
Nina Keck
Vermont Public
Brandon historian Kevin Thornton drives past an old farmhouse in Brandon that he belives belonged to Emily Goss Davenport's parents. He says Emily and Thomas Davenport may have lived there for a time while Thomas worked in a nearby blacksmith shop in Forest Dale.

Sheer tenacity

Thomas Davenport was born in Williamstown, Vermont in 1802. When he was 21, he followed his older brother to Brandon, where he worked as a blacksmith.

Historical accounts say he had about three years of schooling, but he was curious, a voracious reader and fascinated by electricity.

Through sheer tenacity, he patented the first electric motor in the United States in 1837. Its prototype is on display in the Smithsonian.

Davenport went on to invent a model electric train, an electric powered printing press and several other motors. In fact, he imagined a future filled with electric powered machines.

 A motor that connects a central black piece with many branches to wires, fastened on wood.
Dave Hammond
Thomas Davenport designed this machine in 1834. It was an early prototype that he took to Middlebury College to show to Professor Edward Turner. Turner encouraged Davenport to seek a patent. Davenport improved upon this design and won a U.S. patent in 1837. Huntington resident Dave Hammond built the machine in the photo.

“He just didn’t appreciate how long it would take,” says Huntington resident Dave Hammond. Hammond is retired from the physics department at the University of Vermont. He's built working replicas of several of Davenport’s inventions and has done extensive research on the man.

Hammond thinks to truly appreciate Davenport’s work, you need to go back to the 1820s and 30s, when the science of electricity was in its infancy.

“Davenport had an electrostatic generator, a hand crank thing with a cloth rubbing on a piece of glass,” explains Hammond. “And that would generate high static charges. And people were familiar with this due to lightning, and other natural phenomena, you know, you rub the cat at night, and you see sparks, so they knew about it, but it wasn't well-understood.”

A reddish paper with sketches of a round motor.
National Archives
Dave Hammond says the image of the patent model above doesn’t look like the model of the machine now at the Smithsonian. He believes the drawing represents the state of Davenport’s motor when it was first submitted for a patent in 1836. That model burned in a fire. Hammond believes Davenport built a later version of his electric motor as a replacement for the patent office.

Davenport was fascinated by it, says Hammond, and put on demonstrations for local schoolchildren.

Because he was a blacksmith working in the local iron industry, Thornton says it’s likely Davenport heard about a new type of magnet built by Joseph Henry in Albany. The magnet had a powerful force field created with batteries.

“So Henry creates the world's strongest electromagnet in 1831," continues Thornton. "And that magnet was commercialized for the first time at an iron furnace in Crown Point, New York, which is just across the lake from here. So by luck, Davenport, who's extremely interested in this stuff, hears about this fantastic new electromagnetic device, so he travels to see it.”

“And he's just kind of blown away when he sees this thing pick up an anvil,” adds Hammond.

“Yeah, he gets very excited," agrees Thornton. “He says, ‘Aha! This wonderful new scientific power, this mysterious stuff no one understands, can be used to turn a motor and, and this is going to revolutionize the world.’ And he believes that right away.”

'A wonderful run of bad luck'

Davenport immediately saw the potential for electricity to power all sorts of things and most importantly replace steam engines, which back then killed tens of thousands of people every year in explosions.

But before he could invent a way to harness electrical power, he had to figure out how it worked.

So Davenport sold everything he had on that trip, including his brother’s horse, to buy an electromagnet which he brought home to his wife, Emily.

 A black and white portrait of a woman
Dave Hammond
Brandon historian Kevin Thornton says Emily, Thomas Davenport's wife, helped solve the challenge of how to commutate an early motor. She also cut up her wedding dress and used the silk to insulate copper wiring. Despite her help, her name is not listed alongside her husband's on his 1837 patent.

“And the story is that he and Emily immediately dissect this magnet,” adds Hammond. “She’s taking notes … and that's how he learns to make his first magnet.”

These scenes were dramatized in a 1949 radio play called The Immortal Blacksmith and later in a Desilu television production called The Indomitable Blacksmith that aired in 1953.

“The television version is really well done,” says Thornton. “There are some factual inaccuracies, but they get the love story between Thomas and Emily just right, I think.”

Emily was born in Brandon in 1810, and the pair married in 1827, Thornton says. “He was very, very lucky in his wife. She not only indulged his interest, even though it was financially disastrous, she was incredibly supportive, and indeed, a collaborator with him in his early work.”

He says Emily solved one of the key early engineering hurdles that allowed the motor to rotate for the first time and famously sacrificed silk from her wedding dress to insulate the copper wires.

It took several years and help from several partners before Davenport finally built a motor he was able to patent. And nothing was easy.

Dave Hammond starts a replica of Thomas Davenport's patented motor.

“Davenport, he had a wonderful run of bad luck,” according to Harold Wallace, curator of the electricity collections at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

“Not long after he submitted his patent application, there was a fire at the patent office,” Wallace says, “and his original model went up in smoke.”

Davenport built a replacement and finally got his U.S. patent in 1837. But just a few months later, a financial crash put the country into a deep depression, and it became nearly impossible to find investors.

Still, Davenport didn’t give up. He and Emily moved to New York City, where he published a newspaper about electromagnetism and later a scientific journal. He published them on an electric printing press he invented. But the papers didn’t sell, and the couple eventually moved back to Vermont penniless.

“Basically the big story with Davenport is, you know, why someone who had such a successful idea … Technically, it worked, and it worked well. … Why wasn't he successful?” Wallace wonders.

Being decades ahead of his time was part of it. So was the poor economy. Yet Wallace also thinks Davenport misread the marketplace. He was so focused on replacing steam power, he underestimated how important steam generators would become in the nation’s electric infrastructure, and Wallace thinks that probably cost him investors.

No end to inventing

While Davenport was never able to capitalize on his inventions, they’re still thrilling to see in action.

Dave Hammond starts up a replica he made of Davenport’s first patented motor, which he says has lifted 20 pounds off the floor. A spark flies when he connects the battery and the machine whirs to life.

“You’ll see sparks,” says Hammond, smiling as it quickly gets up to speed.

With its ornately carved legs, it looks more like a piece of furniture than a machine. But the polished wood is a reminder that the concept for the motor came when electricity was in its infancy.

Thornton says Davenport never stopped inventing and was trying to create an electric piano when he died in 1851 at age 49. Emily died in 1862.

Just east of Brandon in Forest Dale, a plaque was put up in 1910 commemorating Davenport’s accomplishments. It’s just off the road near the workshop where he worked on his first motor. Part of that building is still there.

Davenport Electric Fest will be held Saturday, July 8 from noon to 5 p.m. at Otter Valley Union High School. The event is free and will include interactive displays, exhibits, the Desilu film from 1953 and vendors who will showcase advances in electric motor technology.

 An oxidize copper plaque dripping blue afixed to a white marble base sits alongside the road.
Nina Keck
Vermont Public
In 1910, this plaque was put up in Forest Dale, Vermont to honor local blacksmith and inventor Thomas Davenport. Davenport worked with Orange Smalley, a cousin by marriage, in a workshop very near the monument in the early 1830s where he designed the first electric motor to receive a US patent.

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