Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Inventors and Inventions in Grinnell

Have you ever invented anything? I have not, but, as my colleagues Ann Igoe and Bill Hammen have pointed out to me, Grinnell has been home to a surprisingly large number of inventors. According to the Iowa Inventors Database, 305 separate inventions—about three-fourths of the 460 recorded in Poweshiek County—first saw the light of day here in Grinnell. Many of these inventions are fairly recent. For example, the database credits Claude Ahrens (1912-2000) with 48 patents—mostly for playground equipment—filed between 1955 and 1990.
Undated Advertisement for Randolph Header, manufactured by Craver, Steele & Austin, Grinnell, Iowa
(Image Courtesy of Grinnell Historical Museum)
But long before Claude Ahrens invented the Miracle Whirl Merry-go-round, Grinnellians were imagining new devices to simplify work, improve safety, and make life more enjoyable. In this post we examine three of the earliest Grinnell inventors and their inventions, tracking their impact upon this small town on the prairie.
Grinnell was little more than a spot on an Iowa map when William Beaton (1829-1907) filed his first patents. Born in Canada in 1829, Beaton arrived in Grinnell in 1855, only a week after his June 21 Cleveland, Ohio wedding to Loretta Hubbard. The 1860 census caught him in Grinnell where at age 31 he was working as an "instructor"—presumably in voice, which he taught privately for a time. He and his wife Loretta were named with two children—Caroline (2 yrs) and William (3 months old); ten years later the Beatons, who lost William as an infant, added another child, then only one month old and still unnamed (but later known as Henry). By the time census officials appeared in 1880 Grinnell, Beaton and Loretta were both 50 years old; Caroline was married and gone, while Henry had died before reaching his sixth birthday. Daughter Isabella, however, was 10 years old, and attended local school. An expert pianist and possessor of an admired contralto voice, Isabella went on to a successful career as composer and performer before her 1929 death.
Undated photograph of William Beaton (ca. 1900)
His daughter's musical success was no accident, for, although William Beaton's obituary says nothing about his inventions, it emphasizes the man's musical vocation. Said to have been in possession of a "tenor voice of rare timber and quality," Beaton directed the Grinnell Congregational Church choir, organized and directed the first Grinnell civic orchestra, and was also organizer and member of a vocal quartet. The first principal of Grinnell's public school, he was also a Civil War volunteer in the 4th Iowa Infantry.
Photograph of Beaton Home at 1227 Broad (ca. 1890; razed in 1934)
When first recalled in the 1878 city directory, the Beatons were living at First and Park. But by 1895 the family occupied a spacious Italianate home at 1227 Broad. William lived here into the new century, but by 1905 he and his wife had moved into a much smaller home at 1216 Main, and it was here that William died.  

A man "known for the sterling uprightness and perfect purity of his character," Beaton had also been a cabinet-maker and spent most of his life as a piano tuner. This background helped prepare him to become an inventor. The Iowa Inventors Database credits Beaton with three of the earliest patents registered in Grinnell: a churn (patent no. 44,505; 1864); a device for measuring cloth in the piece or roll (no. 45,131; 1864); and a washing machine (no. 48,894; 1865).

Beaton's idea of a churn was one of 42 for which patents were sought in 1864, but this device, once imagined, did not exhaust the man's ingenuity. That same year he filed a patent which had less immediate competition—a device to measure cloth, an invention that he intended for the country's dry goods stores.
Report of the Commissioner of Patents for the Year 1864, Volume 2 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1866), pp. 919-20.
His third invention—a washing machine—might be thought to have had more impact. When all clothes-washing required lots of muscle and benefitted from little mechanical help, any improvement on the basic wash tub attracted attention. Beaton's description of his invention (regrettably not accompanied by a drawing) makes it difficult to see exactly how the machine might have worked. Apparently the spring was intended to assist in a process that remained fundamentally manual, which may explain why no great rush to manufacture such a machine presented itself.
Report of the Commissioner of Patents for the Year 1865, Volume 1 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1867), p. 552.
So far as I know, none of these patents found a willing manufacturer, and Beaton seems not to have attempted any more patents in his later years. Perhaps his private life, which was riddled with family deaths, sucked away the inventiveness that had driven his earlier inventions. In addition to the deaths of two young children (mentioned above), Beaton also had to endure the deaths of two wives—first wife, Loretta, in 1887 and second wife, Maggie Tichnor, in 1893. His third wife, the former Margaretta Ella Asay, survived Beaton, who died January 16, 1907, taking his place in Hazelwood beside his deceased wives and children. His inventions, too, withered, unattended.
Another inventor lived alongside William Beaton in nineteenth-century Grinnell: Charles Francis Craver (1842-1925). Unlike the piano-tuner, however, Craver met with great success with his inventions, at least for a time.
Charles Francis Craver (1842-1925) as Young Man
Craver was born in Franklinville, New Jersey in 1842, but by 1860 was living with his farmer father in Sugar Creek Township. In 1861 he volunteered for the 4th Iowa Volunteer Cavalry. Promoted several times during the war, he was one of a small group of soldiers who surrounded Jefferson Davis and his cabinet in Atlanta in 1865. The following year Beaton married Angeline (sometimes Angelena) Hambleton, and the couple settled in Grinnell where they welcomed two sons—Arthur (b. 1870) and Frank (b. 1878). Cravers were living in a house at the southeast corner of Seventh and Broad when the 1882 Cyclone blew away their home. Mrs. Craver and the children were out of town, and therefore escaped harm; Charles and the housekeeper took shelter in the basement and survived without injury. The house, however, was a complete loss.
House of Mr. & Mrs. Charles Craver after the 1882 Cyclone
Although Craver served one term in the Iowa State House of Representatives, he is best remembered for his part in the firm known as Craver, Steele and Austin. Founded in 1871, the new company produced farm implements, including various rakes, the Steele Mower, and the Clement windmill. But the center of their success was an early horse-driven harvester known as the Randolph Header.
Undated photograph of Walter F. Randolph (1833-1903)
The original patent belonged to Walter F. Randolph (1833-1903), who in 1874 filed patent number 155, 256 for an "Improvement in Harvesters." Renewed in 1880, Randolph's patent aimed to raise seed heads before cutting and then deliver the grain onto a series of endless "aprons," moving the grain along and up.
Exactly how or when Craver adapted this scheme is not clear, but we know from his follow-up patent that he managed to build Randolph's plan onto a wheeled, horse-driven apparatus that became the Randolph Header. US Patent number 347,692 (filed November 10, 1885) described a "Harvesting-Machine" that would make history.
Drawing for Harvesting Machine (Official Gazette of United States Patent Office, v. 36[1886]:799)
The cutting surface could be adjusted so that it cut just below the seed head, leaving stalks behind. The grain then fell onto a belt with small paddles that ferried the seed heads along, depositing them within an elevator box from which another belt lifted the grain up toward an adjacent wagon. The Header, in tandem with a rolling wagon alongside, could harvest 40 acres a day using just three men—one operating the Header, one driving the wagon, and one spreading the grain as it accumulated in the wagon. Small farms could not easily benefit from the Header, but large farms in the Midwest and abroad could, and business quickly expanded.
Perhaps the only extant Randolph Header in the world, now owned by Grinnell Historical Museum (2017 photo)
Although initially Craver manufactured the Headers as a sideline, they soon became the center of business. With markets in Canada, Russia, Argentina and Australia, business flourished in the 1880s. At the firm's peak in 1888 some 230 employees were at work in the company's factory on 4th Avenue. Workers loaded five or six railroad cars every day; altogether some 10,000 Randolph Headers were manufactured before business collapsed.

The end began with passage of the Interstate Commerce Act in 1887, after which Craver lost the preferential railroad rates he used to ship machines from Grinnell. In order to minimize the loss, Craver decided to move his entire operation to Harvey, Illinois, leaving Grinnell in 1890. Soon, however, the collapse of harvests in the early 1890s put Craver's business into tight circumstances, with the result that he sold the entire operation in 1895 for his debts.
Notice of sale of Craver & Steele (Iron Age, vol 56[1895]:641)
The 1900 US Census found Craver, 57 years old, living in Harvey, along with his wife, two sons, his mother-in-law, Philena, and sister-in-law, Loretta. Charles identified himself as a manufacturer, but clearly things were not going well. By the time of the next census, Charles and Angeline were living with their son Arthur in his home in St. Joseph, MO. Arthur, married and father of a little girl, served as an officer in a local bank, while father Charles, 67 years old, had found a new vocation, working as foreman in an oil plant. The 1920 US Census found Charles and Angeline in Tulsa, OK, drawn there by Charles's work in oil, the Randolph Header now long forgotten. The end, however, was near. Angeline died in 1922, and Charles Craver died a little more than two years later; he and his wife are buried in Tulsa, the city in which they spent their last years. Grinnell and the Header were mere memories in a life lived hard and fast.
Some twenty-five years after Charles Craver abandoned Grinnell, Edwin R. Talley (1860-1932) arrived in town. Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, Talley married Iowan Harriet La More in 1898, and they became parents to two daughters and two sons. Having previously lived in Algona and Hampton, around 1913 the Talley family reached Grinnell, taking up residence at 733 East Street. Regularly declaring on census forms that he was an optometrist (his Grinnell business address was at 831 1/2 Main Street), Talley seems to have thought of himself primarily as an inventor. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of his inventing success is that Talley could neither read nor write—at least that is what he consistently reported to census officials.
Undated Photograph of Edwin R. Talley (Grinnell Herald, March 23, 1917)
While still living in Algona, Talley had registered three different patents: a beet topper (patent no. 1,124,072); a nut lock (no. 1,159,618); and bifocal lens (no. 1,136,060). This last invention he brought with him to Grinnell where, with the assistance of two Grinnell men, he tried to organize a manufacturing facility for bifocals.
Ottumwa Semi-Weekly Courier, January 12, 1917
For reasons that remain unclear, Grinnell Lens Manufacturing seems to have failed promptly. None of this undermined Talley's busy mind, however. The Iowa Inventors Database reports that Talley filed patents for at least three more inventions during this stay in Grinnell: artificial rubber (no. 1,285,463); a massage apparatus (no. 1,212,845); and a device for purifying water (no. 1,217,365).
Sketch attached to E. R. Talley's Patent for Water-Purifying Device (no. 1,217,365)
Talley's rubber substitute drew attention from the press at least as early as 1913, when the Marshalltown Times-Republican (January 16) reported on it. According to the newspaper, Talley had recently produced sixty pounds of his substitute at the Armour Institute in Chicago. In another demonstration at Iowa State University in Ames, Talley's "rubber" was tested with heat, and began to melt at 530 degrees, whereas rubber itself began to melt at only 270 degrees. Allegedly much cheaper to produce than rubber, Talley's substitute should have attracted commercial interest, but apparently it did not. Six years after the Marshalltown report, Talley's artificial rubber was still commanding nothing more than newspaper praise. But a 1929 article in the Greene Recorder (March 13) announced that Talley had sold his substitute-rubber patent to a group of investors for $25,000, which was no mean sum in 1929.
Scarlet and Black, January 29, 1919
Given the hard water that Grinnell wells produced, Talley's water softener seemed guaranteed to please locals. But the Grinnell Herald observed that interest was likely to reach much further: the invention seems "destined to find a place in almost every home in the entire country, as it not only softens the water, but...eliminates all danger of...typhoid and other virulent forms of disease" (March 23, 1917). The newspaper reported that Grinnell College professors Harry F. Lewis and George O. Oberhelman had tested the device in a college laboratory, and announced that Talley's machine had reduced "hardness" in Grinnell's water by three-quarters. The report included precise counts for calcium and magnesium, in both cases considerably less than in untreated Grinnell water. Another news article explained the machine's operation:
The water is forced under pressure into a large tank in one end of which are two revolving paddles which rotate at a high speed. In the same tank is a large carbon electrode. By the electric current and the violent motion of the water, the water is broken up. It then passes into a large settling tank from which it comes with the solid removed (Quad City Times, March 19, 1917).
Even as he gathered plaudits for his water softener, Talley was at work on an "iceless refrigerator." According to a notice in the Grinnell Register (April 12, 1917), the machine "consists of a fan enclosed in a metal casing and operated from the outside by a motor." Refrigeration was accomplished by means of compressed air; a thermostat inside the refrigerator regulated the motor, either demanding that the fan operate or, when the desired temperature is achieved, shut down.
Grinnell Register, April 12, 1917
Talley's name is also attached to patents for a "life-protecting body-guard" (no. 1,290,799) and a telephone recorder (no. 1,131,439), among other inventions. Like Charles Craver, however, Talley did not live out his days in Grinnell. The Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette of October 1, 1920 reported that among the newcomers to town was Edwin R. Talley, who settled in at 1924 B Avenue. As he had in Grinnell, Talley attracted the attention of the local press. The Cedar Rapids Republican (April 18, 1926) introduced the "versatile" Talley to Cedar Rapids readers, remarking on the man's "fertile brain" and the sixty-seven inventions he now laid claim to. Describing yet another invention, the newspaper reported on "an electric device to prevent the stealing of automobiles." According to the newspaper, "when a bandit steps on the starter, the sound of a siren will ring through the streets for six blocks." If the siren did not dissuade the thief, "a constant chain of electricity will run through his hands as he grasps the steering wheel." In the interview, Talley also enthused about other inventions: an automobile that ran on compressed air; imitation leather; the "Economy steam generator," a railroad signal said to be able to stop any train, coming or going; and "automobile head lights that turn as the car turns, always keeping the light in front of the car."

Talley's inventive brain reached its end  February 18, 1932 when cardiac failure and pulmonary edema cut short the life of Edwin Talley. He died in University Hospitals, Iowa City, and was later buried in Cedar Rapids. Back in Grinnell, which Talley had left only twelve years earlier, no one seems to have taken notice.
In this post we have barely scratched the surface of Grinnell's inventors and their inventions. We might have examined John Berg who in the 1880s patented a series of fire extinguishers. We might also have looked at George W. Lewis (1861-1951) whose several inventions contributed to the prosperity of Grinnell Washing Machine Company. Clearly there were many more inventions in Grinnell than the few considered here. These three men, however, remind us that, in the first place, invention was present in the earliest days of J. B. Grinnell's town. Men like William Beaton practiced vocations well-known to their fellow townsmen, but in their spare time they tinkered with machines about whose future they dreamt. And if their inventions did not immediately lead to fame or fortune, these inventors continued to practice their professions so that, at death, they could still be remembered, if not for their inventiveness.
Grinnell Washing Machine Factory (ca. 1920) (Digital Grinnell)
By contrast, Charles Craver's part in Grinnell's past is written in bold. With his adoption and adaptation of Randolph's harvesting machine, Craver created a tool which almost immediately attracted a brisk business, not only in the American Midwest but also on distant foreign farms. For a little over a decade Craver could savor his success, nourished by the creativity he brought to solving an important agricultural problem. Grinnell could hardly miss this success when so many locals were at work in Craver's factory. And then even more suddenly than the firm's prosperity had risen, Craver, Austin and Steele abandoned Grinnell, leaving behind the factory buildings into which Spaulding Manufacturing would soon come. Nevertheless, when Craver died in distant Oklahoma in 1925, thirty-five years after he deserted Grinnell, the Grinnell Herald printed a lengthy obituary. Craver's invention had mattered to Grinnell, and therefore he was not forgotten.

Edwin Talley constitutes still a third case, inventions springing from his brain before and after his Grinnell sojourn. Even more than William Beaton, Talley invented a wide array of devices—one to purify water, another to cool foodstuffs, a third to safeguard automobiles, and a fourth to harvest beets. By his own count, Talley created 67 different inventions. Like Beaton, however, Talley was an avocational inventor, practicing optometry during the work day. Also like Beaton was the fact that most of Talley's creations died on the vine, never to generate that flow of cash and economic well-being that Charles Craver enjoyed with the Header. And so, despite the occasional Grinnell newspaper article, Talley left town almost unnoticed, and when he died in 1932, just up the road in Iowa City, no one here thought to report the news of his death to the folk in Grinnell.

1 comment:

  1. This article makes you want to learn more about inventors in Grinnell.