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New Native Son: Brandon Highlights Electric Motor Inventor Over Slave-Owning Senator

A black and white photo of people standing next to a monument.
courtesy Peter Kennedy
A monument honoring inventor Thomas Davenport was unveiled in 1910 in Forest Dale, an unincorporated village in Brandon.

The town of Brandon is known, among other things, as the birthplace of Stephen Douglas, who famously debated and defeated Abraham Lincoln in a campaign to become an Illinois senator before Lincoln beat him in the 1860 presidential race.

Some people in Brandon now want to call attention to a different historical Brandon resident: The inventor Thomas Davenport, who created the first electric motor.VPR's Mitch Wertlieb spoke to Bill Moore, the economic development officer and recreation director for the town of Brandon, and Kevin Thornton, a historian and Brandon resident, on the push to raise awareness about Davenport.

First of all, what's so bad about Stephen Douglas?

"Douglas was a slaveholder," Thornton said. "He had a plantation in Mississippi that he kept in his wife's name for political reasons. Then he later transferred it to his son's name so he could have a step back from it. He defended slavery, he race-baited. If you read the Lincoln-Douglas debates, it's absolutely clear he's appealing to racist voters in Illinois. So it's incongruous for us to try to celebrate him as a great man."

Thornton said that Davenport, on the other hand, was a humble local blacksmith who created one of the most important inventions of all time.

"He sacrificed everything in his life for this invention ... it's hard for us to imagine how transformative a thing that was." — Brandon historian Kevin Thornton on electric motor inventor Thomas Davenport

"He sacrificed everything in his life for this invention," Thornton said. "He creates the first electric motor, and it’s hard for us to imagine how transformative a thing that was. In this room, there’s probably 20 electric motors in operation. All our phones, the computers, the clocks – electric motors are a world-changing technology."

Unfortunately Davenport, who lived in the early 19th century, was a victim of bad timing, creating his electric motor before there was any reliable way to power it.

"He had a fatal problem, and the problem was current," Thornton said. "He invents the electric motor before a reliable electric current comes along. So he has what most people think are a series of interesting toys: He invents the electric railroad, he invents electric motion, he invents the electric motor for power. He has 100 different variations on this that he comes up with during his life. He begins to print a newspaper using electric power."

But, Thornton added, Davenport couldn’t get a reliable source of power:

"That doesn’t come along until Thomas Edison creates the first power station in New York City, in the 1880s I believe."

Thornton said Davenport died poor in 1851 at the age of 49, without ever achieving success or wealth.

But now, Brandon wants more people to know about him.

"We've got an opportunity to say, 'Hey, this is who we are, this is who Brandon is. We are the birthplace of EVs.'" — Bill Moore, Brandon economic development officer

"We’re really excited about the idea of recrowning our own native son," said Bill Moore. "We’re going to be hosting an electric vehicle festival in July."

The festival is scheduled for July 11 at Otter Valley Union High School. Moore said the celebration is just the first step of the plan to link Brandon with Thomas Davenport and his invention. Electric charging stations are scheduled to beinstalled in the newly upgraded downtown in the spring.

"We’ve got an opportunity to say, 'Hey, this is who we are, this is who Brandon is. We are the birthplace of EVs,'" Moore said. "July 2020 is going to be an opportunity for people to internationally come to Brandon and check out what we’ve built. I’m not going to say Elon Musk is going be there, but an invitation has been sent."

Correction 8:30 a.m. In the interview audio, a guest misstates the birthplace of Thomas Davenport; Davenport was born in Williamstown, Vermont.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
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