The Culture of Invention in Boston

Kenneth R. Manning


Crosby & Gould thumbnailSince colonial times, New England has been held in high international regard for its industry, technology, and spirit of inventiveness. Historically, the Boston area is among the most innovative locales in the region. "Yankee ingenuity," a term that strongly evokes the New England character, reflects traditions of invention and craftsmanship that emerged in and around Boston over a period of more than three centuries.

Along with New York, Philadelphia, and other urban centers, Boston provided a nurturing environment for the inventive imagination. In 1659, Joseph Jencks, a Boston metalworker (formerly from Hammersmith, England), developed an early version of the fire truck, which he called "an Ingine to carry water in case of fire." In about 1721, local minister Cotton Mather—perhaps best known for his role in the witchcraft trials—was among the first in America to experiment with variolous inoculation for smallpox. (His efforts were based on a method learned from his African slave Onesimus.) During and after the American Revolution, a number of Boston area engineers and entrepreneurs sprang from the ranks of colonial metalworkers, carpenters, shipbuilders, and other tradesmen. Among them was Paul Revere, who established a powder mill south of Boston.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, new and emerging technologies led to the rise of large-scale industrial enterprises such as mills, textile plants, and manufacturing companies producing a wide range of commodities from improved metal wire to musical instruments. Prominent figures included Amos Whittemore, inventor of cotton and wool carding; Elias Howe, responsible for industrial-scale sewing machines; Lyman R. Blake and Gordon McKay, who produced leather-stitching machines; Ichabod Washburn, a wire manufacturer; and Jonas Chickering, who mass produced pianos. The inventive impulse often ran in families. Two of Howe's uncles were inventors—one developed the spring bed, another the truss-type bridge. In addition, African Americans contributed to this culture of New England ingenuity and inventiveness. For example, Lewis Temple, a New Bedford blacksmith, revolutionized the whaling industry with his introduction of the "toggle harpoon" in 1848.

Boston's reputation as a center of commercial activity and technical innovation was firmly established by the time of the Civil War. While the competition was fierce, it was a place where young, intelligent, energetic men returning from armed conflict might find opportunities for professional advancement in commerce, engineering, and industry. Such was the case with Lewis Latimer. During his career in Boston, which lasted a little more than a decade, Latimer climbed the ranks of the corporate hierarchy—from office boy to chief patent draftsman.

Latimer's contemporaries in the Boston area included Alexander Graham Bell, the legendary telephone inventor, and Elihu Thomson, who developed electric welding, arc lighting, electric street railways, and stereoscopic x-rays. Latimer helped draft some of Bell's patent specifications. Bell thumbnailAlthough he never worked directly with Thomson, his subsequent work on carbon filaments for light bulbs brought him into contact with a group of electricity pioneers who included not only Thomson but Thomas Alva Edison as well. Early in his career, Edison himself had worked for a brief period in Boston (beginning around 1868 when Latimer was still an office boy), and it was there that he produced his first patentable invention, a voting machine. While in Boston, Edison also worked on improving stock ticker and duplex-telegraph devices. It is unlikely that Latimer's and Edison's paths crossed in Boston, but in 1884, when Latimer was hired onto the staff of the Edison Electric Light Company in New York City, a close professional relationship ensued.

Drafting tools thumbnailBoston in the 1860s and 1870s was a city where a number of firms concerned with patenting and invention sprang up, carried on business, and, in some instances, thrived. The Boston Directory for 1870 and 1880 lists over 40 firms and individuals conducting such business. This proliferation of the "inventing business" was a reflection, in some measure, of a national emphasis placed on technical innovation and individual rights from the time President George Washington signed the nation's first Patent Act on April 10, 1790. Yet even in the U.S. Constitution, the intrinsic prerogative of an inventor to profit from his inventions had been recognized in Article I, Section 8, which empowered Congress "to promote the progress of science ... by securing to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries." The original Patent Act went through several revisions and amendments, including major amendments in 1793 and 1836, which ultimately established and modified a central registry system under the U.S. Patent Office and developed guidelines for claims and challenges. The system created such a complex legal scenario that by the middle of the nineteenth century, lawyers had developed practices and clienteles dealing primarily, sometimes even exclusively, with patent issues.

Boston's financial and legal district was dotted with legal practices of this type in and around Washington Street, Liberty Square, State Street, School Street, Tremont Street, Devonshire Street, and Pemberton Square. The advertisements for these practices are telling. Some firms took pains to divulge personal and other ties to the U.S. Patent Office:

American and Foreign Patents. Carroll D. Wright, Counsellor-at-Law, Solicitor, and Advocate in Patent Causes, No. 12 School Street, Boston, (Office of Joseph H. Adams.) Mr. Adams, at present connected with the Patent Office, Washington, recommends Mr. Wright to his old clients; and to all desiring the services of a prompt and faithful Patent Lawyer, one entirely familiar with all duties pertaining to Patents. Mr. Adams's Patent Business will be conducted by Mr. Wright.1

Other firms combined engineering, surveying, and legal services under one umbrella. "All matters relating to patents, and at very reasonable charges," reads the 1870 advertisement of Alban Andren, Solicitor of Patents, and Constructing Engineer, 4 Liberty Square, Boston. Some firms identified experience in publishing and scientific study:

E L. Woodward & Co., Inventors' and Manufacturers' Agents, Also, Publishers of the INVENTORS' AND MANUFACTURERS' GAZETTE, a Practical, Scientific and Business Journal, devoted to Industrial Progress, Science, Art, Mechanics, Manufactures, Agriculture, Domestic Improvements, and the Introduction and Sale of PATENT RIGHTS. Established 1866. 3 Doane St. (cor. Kilby), Boston. Patents Bought and Sold on Commission.2

Others relied on simple unsupported assertion: "Our facilities are such for negotiating the sale of valuable Patents," said Thompson & Abbott, "that Inventors will do well to intrust their business to us." A. H. Spencer, patent solicitor, tried a homey aphorism, coupled with the promise of individualized treatment: "Whatever is Worth Doing is Worth Doing Well. . . . All Branches of Patent Business attended to. I give my personal attention to each case."

Another important element in the culture of invention was the machine shop, which specialized in helping inventors develop ideas into useful products. The machine-shop tradition grew out of the large number of mathematical, optical, clock, and electrical instrument makers in Boston before the Civil War. Telegraph inventor Samuel Morse had entrusted the manufacture of some of his first instruments to a Bostonian, Daniel Davis, in 1844. Boston subsequently became a major center for telegraph production. Daniel Davis's shop was later run by Thomas Hall, who was an important manufacturer in Boston during the early 1870s. Furthermore, the concept of the machine shop expanded to encompass development of prototypes for inventions of all kinds. In 1870, N. C. Lombard, with offices at 40 State Street, promised clients:

Drawings and Designs for all kinds of Machinery executed with neatness and despatch."* Particular attention given to perfecting new Inventions in Machinery. Specifications and drawings prepared.3

Like the multipurpose firms that offered engineering, surveying, and legal services, machine shops frequently helped inventors access professional assistance with patents.

Legal firms and machine shops operated side by side with commercial ventures interested in the purchase, marketing, and distribution of patents and patented goods. Some such ventures were respectable, with staff that understood and carried through the difficult, often intricate work of bringing an invention to fruition. Others were prone to making exaggerated claims:

Inventors! Patentees! FG Novelty. We make a SPECIALTY of manufacturing Knick-Knacks, Small Articles, Preferably of Metal. Inventors, and Patentees will find it to their advantage to send samples of their inventions to, or call on, the Novelty Manufacturing Company, 50 Sudbury Street . . . Boston.4

This firm was later "enjoined for infringement of patents & obliged to wind up." In 1880, one company specializing in patents relating to paper, books, and writing implements apparently tried to capitalize on the growing reputation of Melvil Dewey, whose famous library classification scheme had been published just four years earlier:

Melvil Dui, President, Readers & Writers Economy Company, Main Offices and Machine Shop, over 28 to 34 Hawley St., Factory, 615 to 623 Albany, and 52 to 58 Sharon Streets, Boston. . . . Patentees' Agents for A. T. Cross Stylografic Pen, Russell's Common Sense Binder, C. H. Denison's Economy Index, Banner's Revolving Book Cases [etc]. . . .5

It might have been difficult in such a hectic, confusing environment to separate wheat from chaff, opportunity from dead end—yet Latimer somehow managed to establish a reputable niche for himself. Despite Boston's reputation as the city of William Lloyd Garrison, exemplar of a liberal antislavery tradition, racial and other social factors made it difficult for African Americans to find and retain jobs there. Latimer searched hard—and without success— before finally landing a job as office boy at three dollars per week in the firm of Crosby, Halsted & Gould (later, Crosby & Gould; still later, Crosby & Gregory). This firm was a respected legal establishment that saw expansion of its influence and interests during the 1870s. The modest byline of 1870

Crosby, Halsted, & Gould, Solicitors of American and Foreign Patents, J. B. Crosby. Francis Gould. 34 School Street, Boston. John J. Halsted, (Counsellor-at-Law, and late Principal Examiner in the U.S. Patent Office), 515 Seventh Street, Washington, D.C.6
had broadened by 1880 to
Crosby & Gregory, No. 34 School Street, Boston. Patents Procured in the United States, and in all other Patent-Granting Countries. Caveats Filed; Re-Issues and Extensions Obtained; Interferences Prosecuted; Specifications and Drawings Prepared; Assignments Drawn and Recorded; Reconsiderations Procured of Applications Improperly Rejected, or Properly Rejected on Imperfectly Prepared Papers; And in general all Business pertaining to patents and Inventions attended to. J. B. Crosby. G. W. Gregory, late Principal Examiner U.S. Patent Office, Washington, D.C.7

At Crosby & Gould, Latimer wasted no time in expressing a desire to move out of menial labor into drafting work. In his 1911 logbook, written at times in the third person, Latimer later recounted how this ambition was accomplished:

He believed then that whatever a man knew he had put in a book, so when he saw the [draughts]man making drawings he watched to find out what tools he used, then he went to a second hand book store and got a book on drawing and soon had a set of drawing instruments. He then looked over the draughtsman's shoulder to see how he used his instruments, and practiced with them at home until he felt thoroughly master of them, then one day he asked the draughtsman to let him do some drawing for him, the man laughed at him but finally consented to look at what he could do on another piece of paper and to his surprise found that Lewis was a real draughtsman, so he let him do some of his work from time to time and one day the boss saw him at work and was so pleased that he let him work everyday and gradually raised his wages so that from three dollars when he went to work he rose in eleven years to twenty dollars a week.8

US Pat. 174,465  thumbnailLatimer eventually achieved the rank of chief draftsman with Crosby & Gould. He also worked, possibly in a free-lance capacity, with Alexander Graham Bell on patent specifications for the telephone. "I was obliged to stay at the office until after nine P.M.," he wrote in his 1911 logbook, "when he [Bell] was free ... to get my instructions from him, as to how I was to make the drwings for the application for a patent upon the telephone."9 U.S. Patent 174,465 on the telephone was granted to Bell on March 3, 1876.

Although Latimer and many other inventors at the time received no formal education in science and engineering, they benefited from proximity to Boston's premier educational institutions. Invention may have been primarily a business venture, a matter of entrepreneurship and technical skill, but it was also influenced by scientific and technological traditions developed by the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard University and by The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), then located in the heart of Boston's Back Bay. MIT had been founded in 1861 in part to improve on the work of the Lawrence Scientific School, which had been in operation since 1847 with an emphasis on engineering, industry, and shipping. William Barton Rogers, MIT's founder, chose Boston as the site for his school partly because of the city's longstanding traditions of invention and innovation. He sought to provide a sound academic basis for technological work. This confluence was well exemplified by Alexander Graham Bell—both an inventor and former teacher at Boston University—whom Rogers invited to demonstrate his telephone apparatus at MIT.

Arc lamp thumbnailLatimer left Crosby & Gould in 1879, following a turnover in the partnership. One of the partners had retired (Crosby), another had died (Gould), and Latimer did not get along with the incoming partner (Gregory). Latimer moved first to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he joined the staff of Hiram Maxim's firm, United States Electric Lighting Company; then to New York, where he took a job with the Edison Electric Light Company.

After Latimer's departure, Boston remained a place of opportunity and commercial vitality through the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth—interrupted periodically, of course, by regional or national cycles of economic expansion and recession. The so-called "panic" or financial crisis of 1873 appears not to have adversely impacted Latimer's employers. Two credit reports on the firm and its principals (the first undated, but probably done in the mid-1870s; the second dated November 19, 1885) suggest reasonable stability:

Crosby & Francis Gould (Patent Solicitors) 34 School St. ... "C" is not a member of the firm—but the bus is now done by "G" alone who is now in ill health & has been absent several weeks in Florida built a ho. in Arlington wh cost more than he xpected & is said to be wor 25 m [thousand]. We don't learn how much it is encumbered—but his means are sup to be abt all invested here—is a nice st forward Mass & tho bus says several thousand dollars a yr with is personal attention & he would not be likely to make any engts he could not meet if able to attend to bus—but we don't learn that he is improving & may not be able to give so close personal attention to bus for some time—is believed to be wor some p/rty—don't have occasions for cr in his bus—10
Crosby & Gregory, Solicitors of Patents . . . Geo. W. Gregory has been engaged in this bus for some time & is the sole partner doing bus under the above style. Stands well as a man & has a good bus. It is a difficult matter to obtain any reliable estimate of his means but he owns real estate here costing $4617.10 in May last & mtgd for 25% has some personal ppty also, he has the reputation of meeting his bills promptly & regarded as one not likely to contract anything he could not care of safely. He has recently est. a branch at Providence RI under the [styl?] of Gregory & Lange. Jas H. Lange is a partner there but has no interest in the bus at Boston. He is said to be a man of good reputation but not thought here to add anything to the financial strength.11

Others were not so fortunate. In 1877, Carroll D. Wright, "counsellor-at-law, solicitor, and advocate in patent causes," was reported as "[i]n bkruptcy owes abt. 60 m/, 40 m/ has been proved v's him. There is property in wife's name—cr. expect to realize little if anything from him—he receives a gd salary of chief of Bureau of Statistics—but is in no condition to expect or ask any cr."

Trolley thumbnailIn any event, the Boston area's best technical minds continued to generate a tradition of invention that was both rich and varied. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, this tradition evolved into a multilayered blend of individual tinkerers, commercial-industrial complexes, and academic research groups. Jan Matzeliger, another African American, patented in 1883 a "lasting machine" that revolutionized the shoe industry and was subsequently developed by a multimillion dollar conglomerate, the United Shoe Machinery Company. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, Arthur D. Little pioneered contract research and management consulting when, in 1886, he opened a lab specifically intended to bridge the gap between scientific theory and technological practice—a concept that led to great success in the twentieth century, with lucrative patents on artificial silk, nonflammable movie film, salt-water conversion, computerized reservation systems, and other innovations. Across the river, in Boston, a traveling salesman by the name of King Camp Gillette patented in 1895 a razor with a disposable blade and built a factory for mass production. The story goes that, as the son and brother of inventors, Gillette longed to invent something—anything!—and came up with the idea while shaving one morning. A Harvard freshman named Edwin Land left college in the 1920s to work on a process for polarizing glass. He accomplished this goal in 1929 and started what later became the Polaroid Company, which produced glare-free desk lamps, sunglasses, stereoscopic movies, and in 1947 the path-breaking instant camera, which snapped and developed photographs in minutes. In 1928, Vannevar Bush, an MIT professor, created one of the first mechanically operated analog computers. Bush's machine was succeeded by a prototype digital computer, developed at Harvard University in 1944, and then by the "Whirlwind," the first vacuum-tube "real time" computer with operational core memory, at MIT in 1945. The subsequent growth and development of Route 128—a semi-circular highway—established a ten-mile radius around Boston as a nucleus of the computer and electronics industry. In addition, Boston evolved into a center for biotechnology, a discipline that has expanded rapidly in the 1980s and 1990s, promising advances in medicine and other fields.

U.S. Pat. 334,078 thumbnailAn additional random list of twentieth-century innovations linked to the Boston area might also include the work of Harold Edgerton (developer of the stroboscope and high-speed photography), Raymond Kurzweil (whose "smart machines" use principles of artificial intelligence to translate type into audio speech for blind readers), John Hays Hammond, Jr. (inventor of the push-button radio), Percy Spencer (who developed radar detection and microwave technology), and Oliver Chase (creator of the automatic candy making machine). The atmosphere of bustle, excitement, and anticipation—as creative minds search for solutions to problems in cyberspace, genetics, and a host of other disciplines—matches if not supersedes the frenetic activity that Latimer encountered during his decade working as an inventor and patent draftsman in Boston.



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Title Page Acknowledgments Introduction George Latimer Case Culture of Invention Inventing a Better Life Catalog Checklist Latimer's Patents Edison Papers