Step aside Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. A Brandon, VT, blacksmith pioneered the use of electricity during the 1830s, four decades before legendary inventors Edison and Tesla began experimenting with electricity for commercial and home applications.
Vermont-native inventor Thomas Davenport was born in 1802. He operated a blacksmith shop in the Forestdale section of Brandon, near the intersection of Routes 73 and 53. There he invented the first DC (direct current) electrical motor, in 1834. A year later he built a scale-model of a futuristic electrical railway. It was the first electric train built on any scale.
The Brandon blacksmith had learned about the use of an electromagnet, built by Joseph Henry and operated by Allen Penfield, owner the Crown Point Ironworks, in nearby Ironville, NY. Penfields underground and open pit mines and mill facilities were located up the hill from Crown Point, NY, along Putnam Creek, at the edge of Penfield Pond near the west shore of Lake Champlain.
Penfield was the first to employ an electromagnet to charge the iron quills in his iron-ore separating machine, said Joan Hundson, president of the Penfield Museum Board of Directors in Crown Point. The magnet made it possible to separate some of the nonmagnetic minerals from the ore before the ore was placed in the forge. Thats why Ironville is considered the birthplace of the Age of Electricity.
Davenport had visited Penfields 19th century iron operation on horseback on several occasions. (Iron for the Brooklyn Bridge and Civil War ironclads, including the U.S.S. Monitor, was later mined and milled there.) The Vermonter was fascinated by Penfields expanding operation as well as by the motive power of magnets. In 1833 Davenport purchased Penfields big magnet when it was replaced by a new device.
Carrying the magnet via horse-drawn wagon to the Crown Point docks on Lake Champlain, Davenport then ferried the device to Bridport, in Vermont. From there the wagon delivered the electromagnet overland to Davenports Forestdale workshop.
According to one account of Davenports life, He unwound and dismantled the [Joseph Henry] magnet as his wife, Emily, took notes on its method of construction. He then started his own experiments and built two more magnets of his own design. Insulated wire was required, but only bare wire was available. Emily cut up her wedding dress into strips of silk to provide the
necessary insulation that allowed for the maximum number of windings.
A friend and neighbor, Orange Smalley, also took part in early experiments that led to the running of the first electric motor during the summer of 1834.
Davenport also patented a device for "improvements in propelling machinery by magnetism and electromagnetism" in 1837this patent described the first electric railway based on the model train constructed in Brandon. Davenports model train ran on a circular track 4 feet in diameter; its power was supplied by a stationary battery.
During the early 1840s, Davenport opened a workshop in New York City. He also published the worlds first technical journal devoted to all things electromagnetic. Davenport travelled between New York and Vermont until his death. He died in Salisbury, VT, on July 6, 1851.
Despite being revered as a technological genius by the fraternity of mechanical engineers, Davenport has gone largely unnoticed in histories about pioneering American inventors.
More about Thomas Davenport:
You can view a replica of the electromagnet used by Thomas Davenport at the Penfield Museum and homestead in Crown Point (the original is preserved in the Smithsonian Institution). The museums annual Apple Folkfest will be held this Sunday, Oct. 7, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Museum admission is free all day.
To get to the Penfield Museum, cross the Champlain Bridge and take Route 9N south to Crown Point; follow road signs in downtown Crown Point or you can call the museum at 518-597-3804 for specific directions.
The original two-story Davenport-Smalley workshop and an historical monument can be seen in Brandon/Forestdale, VT, about 800 feet south of the intersection of Routes 73 and 53.
Inventiveness ran in Davenports family. A 21st century descendant, Earl Davenport, invented the over-unity magnetic motor, generator, and at the age of 12, an advanced alternator.