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Brandon, Vermont – The Birthplace of Electric Power

Electric motor, 1837, patent model by Thomas Davenport. Exhibit in National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C. (Wikimedia/Daderot)

Kevin Thornton

In February 1837, Thomas Davenport of Brandon, Vermont was awarded the world’s first patent for an electric motor. The time has come for us to celebrate his achievement as a landmark in technological history, because it was. The Town of Brandon and the Brandon Museum are working in concert to make that celebration happen.

An electric motor is any device that uses electric power to create mechanical motion. The electric motor is one of the most important inventions of all time, ranking with the internal combustion engine and the transistor as devices that improve all of our lives, every day. We rarely think about electric motors, because they are so common and so reliable that we take them for granted.

In your kitchen your refrigerator uses an electric motor. So does your dishwasher. So does your microwave. Have a coffee grinder, food processor or mixer? They use electric motors. Have a heat pump, air conditioner or a few fans in the house? They use electric motors, too. Your hair dryer uses an electric motor. Perhaps your toothbrush does as well. Every electric tool in your basement or shop is powered by an electric motor. Your washing machine and clothes dryers run on electric motors. Your car has as many as forty electric motors in it, in the windows, door locks, climate control system, windshield wipers, and seats. Every computer in your house has one. How about that phone in your pocket? It vibrates because of an electric motor.

Every day of your life you benefit from Davenport’s invention forty or fifty times. (That’s a conservative estimate.) Multiply that by billions of people, and you get a sense of the magnitude of his invention’s impact on the world.

Davenport first got the idea that changed history when he witnessed an electromagnet at work in 1833. Electromagnets themselves were very recent inventions (the first one had been invented in England only in 1821). By 1834, with the help of his wife Emily and her cousin, Orange Smalley of Forestdale, he had successfully built a functioning motor. By the end of 1835, he had demonstrated the invention to a series of the leading men of American science. By 1836, he had perfected a vastly improved motor and become the second person in the world to apply electricity to transportation, building a model railroad that proved electric-powered travel was possible.

In February 1837, he was awarded his U.S. patent. In August 1837, he was awarded a British patent. The British patent is significant because Britain was by far the most industrialized country in the world at the time. Davenport’s patent there is proof of his belief in the industrial potential of the motor.

Davenport demonstrated his motor in New York in 1837. The New York Herald proclaimed his invention The Dawn of a New Civilization” while the New York Evening-Star called it the application of an entire new and immeasurable agent of mechanical power.”

The electric age had begun. Over the next few years, mostly divided between New York and Brandon, Davenport built over 100 motors, continually innovating and improving prior designs. Among them was a motor powered entirely by electromagnets, an innovation which greatly increased the device’s rotational speed and power. In 1840 he built a reciprocating motor that powered the world’s first electric printing press, on which he printed his short-lived journal, The Electro-Magnet and Mechanics Intelligencer.

Given all that, why isn’t Davenport’s name as well-known as Henry Ford’s or Thomas Edison’s? The short answer is through a combination of bad luck and bad timing. Davenport was ahead of his time in more ways than one. 1837, the year he received his patents, also happened to be a year when a terrible economic depression started in America. The modern banking system had yet to be developed. As a result, he found it almost impossible to raise money. During the 1830s, he appears to have mortgaged everything he owned in Brandon. He was not a wealthy man to begin with. Instead of making him rich, his invention wound up impoverishing him.

The other problem was technological. Davenport invented his motor before anyone developed reliable electric power, or the ability to transmit it. His motors ran on expensive, somewhat unstable batteries. It was not until the 1840s that inventors in Britain began to solve the problem of generating power, using dynamos that were essentially Davenport motors in reverse. It would be decades before reliable electric power would become widely available. Unfortunately, by the mid-1840s, Davenport appears to have become bankrupt, exhausted and ill.

But Davenport never stopped believing in an electric future. In his unpublished memoir, he repeatedly makes that clear, arguing that electricity was a safer, quieter and cleaner source of energy than anything that came before. He envisioned a time in which electric power would benefit everyone. He would be thrilled and gratified by the myriad ways in which electric power has improved human existence. He’d be overjoyed to see an electric car.

He foresaw it all, but none of it would happen in his lifetime. In 1848, his father-in-law, a prosperous farmer, gave Davenport’s wife, Emily, land in Salisbury, VT for the consideration of my love and affection and… one dollar.” Tellingly, Thomas’s name does not appear on the deed. Davenport lived his last few years as a Vermont small farmer. He died on July 6, 1851, three days before his forty-ninth birthday. Despite his poverty and his many frustrations, he never gave up. Shortly before his death, he had been working on an electric piano.

(Flickr/jessamyn west)

On July 9 (Davenport’s birthday) the Town of Brandon will be holding the first Davenport Electric Fest, celebrating both the achievements of Davenport and the incredibly promising future of electric vehicles. State Representatives Stephanie Jerome and Butch Shaw are sponsoring a resolution in the Vermont House in honor of the occasion.

In the meanwhile, David Hammond of the University of Vermont physics department, an expert in early scientific equipment, is building a working replica of Davenport’s motor for the Brandon Museum, to be installed as the centerpiece of a forthcoming major exhibit on Davenport. The museum has also begun outreach to the schools. An Otter Valley High School course on The Electric Motor and Its History” is running this semester, and the Neshobe School is also planning to teach this great Brandon story to local kids.

Together the town and museum want to honor Brandon’s great inventor, make his name known as widely as it deserves and claim Brandon’s place as The Birthplace of Electric Power.” In the process we just may position ourselves to have a role to play in the electric future that Davenport so clearly foresaw.

So here we are, 185 years after Thomas Davenports’ first patent, in a world polluted by carbon and heading down the path of an uncertain future. We are finally realizing the value of Thomas Davenport’s invention. Not only did he contribute to mobility, but he contributed towards a sustainable future. Now we live in a time where renewable energy is expanding, and younger generations are demanding we change our actions for a cleaner future, and we must re-ignite the passion that Thomas Davenport had towards electrifying the world.

Join us July 9th from 11-6pm at the Estabrook Park in Brandon VT to honor Thomas Davenport’s contribution to sustainability and to experience the future of what an all-electric world would look and feel like.

Kevin Thornton is Brandon’s historian in residence.

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