HAPPY BIRTHDAY, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson!



What the what?!  That’s William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, the guy who invented the Kinetoscope, among other completely awesome stuff!  Today is Billy Boy’s birthday!  Happy Birthday, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson!

Dickson was one of Edison’s “muckers,” the guys who did all of Edison’s work for him.  What a d-bag he was, that Edison!

Check out the Happy Birthday, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson Official Birthday Post!


Happy BELATED Birthday, Frank J. Sprague!

There were a few birthdays over the weekend that I totally missed, and now I feel horrible!  Oh wait, both of these people are dead.



HEY, so HAPPY BELATED BIRTHDAY, Frank J. Sprague!  Check out this proper lookin’ military-turned-mucker dude!

This is Frank J. Sprague and Rear Admiral S. S. Robinson (I told you he was military, he was Navy).  This particular photograph is actually kinda neat, a bunch of folks presented him with a six-volume set of letters and papers on his 75th birthday.  I think back in that time people expressed their pleasure for birthday gifts by taking pictures that look terribly uncomfortable, as you can see here.  Fads change, I suppose, I guess you had to be there.

Thomas Edison and Frank Sprague were friends through a business partner of Edison’s, a guy named EH Johnson.  Edison, in all of his wisdom, actually convinced Sprague to give up his Navy commission and come work in Menlo Park as a technical assistant.  From the Elevator Museum (I’ll explain that later):

Graduating seventh in a class of 36 in 1878, Sprague was assigned to the USS Richmond, flagship of the Asiatic Fleet, where he filled a notebook with detailed drawings and descriptions of devices that evidenced his urge for invention. Among these were a duplex telephone, quadruplex and octoplex telegraph systems, a motor and a means of transmitting pictures by wire. Later, Sprague was ordered to the USS Minnesota. While his ship was in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1881, Sprague invented the inverted type of dynamo. Also in 1881, Spraque transferred to the USS Lancaster, flagship of the European Squadron, on which he installed the first crude electrical call-bell system in the Navy.

Sprague took leave to attend the Paris Electrical Exhibition and the Crystal Palace Exhibition in Sydenham, England, where he served as the only American member and as secretary of the jury of awards for gas engines, dynamos and lamps.

Meanwhile, Sprague’s ideas about motors and lamps had so impressed E.H. Johnson, a business associate of Thomas A. Edison, that he convinced Sprague to resign from the Navy in 1883 to become a technical assistant to Edison. While on Edison’s staff, Sprague assisted in the installation and operation of Edison’s pioneer three-wire electric light systems. Sprague also revised and corrected the Edison system of mains and feeders for central station distribution and developed a formula for determining the ratio of wire size to current amperage.

Now, the weird thing about celebrating Frank J. Sprague is not necessarily due to his contributions to the electric light bulb or electric light in general; Sprague’s contributions were to the electrical systems and main busses in Edison’s laboratory, as well as some of the three-wire lighting systems.  Sprague did a lot of correcting of Edison’s power distribution mains and feeders, and he also did a lot of mathematical “updating” to Edison’s methods.  Sprague knew that if he could do some math beforehand, Edison’s Muckers would have to do a lot less “noodling” and “fooling around” in the lab which would save time.  Seems like pretty good sense, right?

Frank Sprague didn’t last very long at Edison Power and Light – about a year and change.  Edison’s main interest was in light and lighting, but Sprague was more of a motor guy.  So, in a move that I would have loved to see firsthand as it happened (as I have to believe there were some wonderful words exchanged), Sprague left Edison’s employ and went off to start the Sprague Electric Railway and Motor Company.  Suck on THAT, Edison.  What’s funny is that Edison actually DID suck on that, and he spoke very highly about Sprague’s electric motor to the world, and Sprague did pretty well.  From the NNDB archives:

After several years of theoretical work and experiments, it took Sprague and his men only about 90 days to plan the route, lay a dozen miles (19 km) of track, construct the 375 horsepower steam and electric plant, and motorize 40 formerly horse-drawn cars. The first test runs were made in November 1887, and regular service began on 2 February 1888. The first runs were not without difficulties, including frequent mechanical and electrical problems, the indignity of a horse reigned to the trolleys for the additional pulling power needed to climb the tracks’ steepest incline, and the further embarrassment of seeing broken-down trolleys towed away by mule. With some tinkering, though, the system was soon made reliable, and came to be seen as far superior to horse or horse-drawn transport.

Within two years, Sprague had contracts to construct 113 street rail systems, and the within a decade horse-drawn streetcars had virtually disappeared from America’s cities, replaced by an estimated 13,000 miles of urban streetcar tracks. He designed a multi-unit train control system in Chicago, where he built the first of the city’s elevated “L” electric railways. He engineered the electrification of New York’s Grand Central Station, and with William Wilgus he co-invented the “third rail” system of powering electric trains for the New York Central Railroad. Sprague Electric Railway and Motor Company was eventually merged into Edison General Electric, which subsequently became General Electric.

Sprague’s talent lied in railways and motors, both electric, as well as a good bunch of other inventions.  One of my favorites is the elevator – yep, good ol’ Frank J. Sprague here invented the elevator.  I have to believe that he was sitting at a bar one day and realized that if he turned a train on its end and made it run vertically, BOOMelevator.  Done.

Bring me another ale, Bitterman.

Happy Birthday, Frank J. Sprague!  (Frank’s actual birthday is July 25.  Sorry, Frank!)

Thanks Wikipedia, The Elevator Museum, NNDB, the Edison Tech Center, and the Chapin Library!

Happy Birthday, Francis Robbins Upton!

Whoa!  It’s time for Mr. Culture‘s birthday – and here he comes, Mr. Culture himself, Francis Robbins Upton!  HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DUDE!

(We’re all sorry you’re dead man, we’ll have a drink in your honor.  Sorry you didn’t make it to 2011.  I bet you’d be flipping your lid.)

The title of “Culture,” as he was called by the rest of his colleagues was kind of an awesome nickname given to him because of his wealth of knowledge.  Francis Upton here was one of Thomas Edison’s Muckers – the guys who did all of the work for which Edison grabbed the credit.  Upton was the most educated of all of his Muckers, and at one point he was made President of the Muckers!  What a weird title.  From the Smithsonian:

Upton was the best educated of Edison’s Menlo Park assistants, having graduated from Bowdoin College and taken graduate work at Princeton and in Germany. He was recruited by investors who felt it couldn’t hurt to supplement Edison’s wizardry with some advanced scientific training. They were right, and Upton’s understanding of mathematics and physics was of critical assistance in the development of the light bulb, the dynamo, and other elements of Edison’s system. Nicknamed “Culture” by his colleagues, he was placed in charge of the Edison Lamp Works in 1881. In 1918, Upton became the first president of the Edison Pioneers.

A bit more about Francis from About Inventors:

Francis R. Upton was born in Peabody, Massachusetts on July 26, 1852. He studied mathematics at Bowdoin College, Princeton University, and the University of Berlin (under Hermann von Helmholtz) before joining Edison at Menlo Park in December 1878. At Menlo Park he worked as Edison’s chief scientific assistant, preparing blueprints, performing calculations, and solving mathematical problems associated with Edison’s incandescent electric lighting system. He also helped design incandescent lamps, dynamos, and the electric railway.

Following the perfection of the incandescent lamp and Edison’s consequent expansion into lamp manufacture, Upton became general manager of the Edison Lamp Co. in Menlo Park and later in Harrison, New Jersey. There he combined his managerial duties with experimental work on lamp improvements.

Upton traveled to Europe in 1886 to inspect Edison’s financially-troubled electric lighting companies. While there, he examined a transformer used in alternating current electrical delivery systems and advised Edison to purchase the American rights. Edison did so, but later allowed his option to lapse, preferring the direct current delivery system. During the 1880s Upton also served on the board of the Edison General Electric Co.

He left the Edison Lamp Works in 1894 but returned to Edison’s employ in 1898 as an efficiency engineer at the New Jersey & Pennsylvania Concentrating Works. Upton’s talent for selling sand (a by-product of ore-milling) to cement manufacturers helped persuade Edison to enter the cement business himself. Following the collapse of the ore-milling venture, Upton joined the Edison Portland Cement Co., eventually serving as company representative for northern New Jersey. He left that position in 1911, continuing to sell brick and crushed sand independently.

Upton married twice and had three children by each wife. He served as first president of the Edison Pioneers (1918). He later retired to California, but died in Orange, New Jersey, March 10, 1921.

Something that is not well publicized for some reason was Upton’s writing for journals like Scientific American and Scribner’s Monthly.  Upton wrote about Edison’s invention of electric light, and apparently he really impressed Edison, because Edison wrote a note to Scribner’s Monthly saying that Upton was the authority on the subject:

Ah, good times.  Happy Birthday, Francis Robbins Upton!

Thanks Rutgers, EJCov, and the University of St. Andrews Math and Stats!


Happy Birthday, Dr. Miller Reese Hutchison!

Who’s that dude with Tommy Edison there?  Wait, is that Dr. Miller Reese Hutchison?  Hey, HAPPY BIRTHDAY, Dr. Miller Reese Hutchison!

Miller Hutchison (born late August 6, 1876, died February 16, 1944) was an inventor for Edison at the Menlo Park lab, one of dozens of people that Edison called his “muckers.”  What a crappy name for associates, right?  So, as you would think from the name, the “muckers” were the people that cleaned the horse stalls, toilets, and other things that have to do with muck, right?

No. Edison’s muckers were the geniuses he hired to realize his ideas.  He paid them next to nothing, and took all the credit for their work.  We’re talking about people like William Kennedy Dickson, Francis Robbins Upton, Arthur E. Kennelly, and Nikola Tesla – real major players, kings of science and industrial processes.  Edison treated these people like Wal-Mart workers, but they were the ones who made our technology what it evolved into today.  But Edison played on the desire of these genius inventors to get them to work so cheap – they could invent in the Menlo Park lab, with nearly any supply imaginable and next to no limitations.  They made pitiful wages for their work, but they loved their jobs.  Kinda like us lighting folk!

Dr. Miller Reese Hutchison was quite the inventor and “mucker,” and quite the Edison company man, too.  Hutchison was responsible for several aspects of Edison’s business, including marketing Edison batteries to the Secretary of the Navy at that time.  In essence, were it not for Dr. Hutchison’s advertising prowess, submarine development might not be where it is today!  The story of Hutchison’s pre-Edison days is also kind of awesome:  Miller Hutchison was a member of the United States Light House Brigade (which is totally new to me but WHAT A COOL NAME), and helped lay submarine cables in the Gulf of Mexico during the Spanish-American War.

Regardless of where I put the rest of Miller Reese Hutchison’s accomplishments and inventions, one of the cooler ones (and not light-related) is the Klaxon horn – you know, the aaWOOOOOga sound, often found on ships and submarines, and typically in movies when the poo is about to intersect with the fan?  Yeah, Hutchison invented that.  Also, maybe in a tinge of irony, Hutchison also invented the hearing aid (which he called the Acousticon).  The St. Louis Dispatch published a memorial article many years after his death that semi-accused him of creating the Klaxon horn to increase the number of candidates that would need his hearing aid.

Cool.  Happy Birthday, Dr. Miller Reese Hutchison!  If you weren’t dead, I’d totally buy you a Shiner Bock and ask you about batteries.

Thanks Wikipedia, About (twice!), Wapedia, FloraBerlin, and BPI!