Elisha Perkins Invented Metallic Tractors – in the 1700s?

Here is the death notice of Dr. Elisha Perkins (1741-1799). It is fairly straightforward.

obituary for Elisha Perkins, Norwich Courier newspaper article 11 September 1799

Norwich Courier (Norwich, Connecticut), 11 September 1799, page 3

The death notice tells us that Perkins died in New York City on Friday morning, 6 September 1799, and that he was the inventor of “metallic tractors.”

Wait – he was the inventor of the metal tractor? In the 1700s?

Didn’t John Deere (1804-1886) or Cyrus McCormick (1809-1884) invent the metal tractor in the 1800s?

What exactly did Elisha Perkins invent?

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Looking for more information in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, I found this article in the Norwich Courier reporting that Perkins’ “metallic tractors” were being used to cure people in Great Britain – including over two hundred people in Durham, England.

article about the Perkinsian Institution founded by Elisha Perkins, Norwich Courier newspaper article 10 July 1805

Norwich Courier (Norwich, Connecticut), 10 July 1805, page 3

So, Perkins’ “metallic tractors” was some sort of medical device.

Dr. Perkins’ son Benjamin Douglas Perkins wrote a booklet in 1798: The Influence of Metallic Tractors on the Human Body, in Removing Various Painful Inflammatory Diseases, Such as Rheumatism, Pleurisy, Some Gouty Affections, &c. &c. Lately Discovered by Dr. Perkins, of North America.

title page of the book written by Benjamin Perkins about the medical device "metallic tractors"

Source: Internet Archive

This booklet has been digitized and is online on the Internet Archive.

(I wrote about the Internet Archive before – see “Top Genealogy Websites, Pt. 2: Google Books & Internet Archive.” This site has digitized and put online millions of early books and manuscripts. It is one of the “Best” websites online.)

Perkins’ metallic tractors were actually just two small metal rods he used to prod and massage areas of inflammation – not the kind of tractors used in farming, as we might initially assume when reading Perkins’ death notice.

According to Wikipedia: “The Connecticut Medical Society condemned the tractors as ‘delusive quackery,’ and expelled Perkins from membership on the grounds that he was ‘a patentee and user of nostrums.’”

Genealogy Tip: Don’t assume anything during your genealogy research. At first glance it appeared that Elisha Perkins had invented an early version of the farming tractor – but by digging deeper we see that his invention was actually a quack medical device.

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The Wizard of Menlo Park, a.k.a. Inventor Thomas Edison

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog post, Mary searches old newspapers to learn more about the amazing life and accomplishments of the great inventor Thomas Edison.

As you observe your family members enjoying conveniences such as talking on cellphones, downloading music, charging batteries and living in a well-lit house, remind them to give thanks to Thomas Edison. These modern devices wouldn’t exist without him.

photo of Thomas Edison with his phonograph (second model), c.1878

Photo: Thomas Edison with his phonograph (second model), c.1878. Credit: Levin C. Handy; Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Edison’s Early Years

Born on 11 February 1847 in Milan, Ohio, Thomas Alva Edison was the youngest of seven children born to Samuel and Nancy (Elliott) Edison. His mother died in 1871 and his father died in 1896 at the age of 91. According to Samuel Edison’s obituary below, the family’s ancestors arrived in North America long before the American Revolution. There’s a good chance many of our readers, including myself through his Beach and Merriman lines, are distant cousins of Thomas Edison. (See famouskin.com and Thomasedison.org.)

obituary for Samuel Edison, New York Tribune newspaper article 27 February 1896

New York Tribune (New York, New York), 27 February 1896, page 7

Home Schooling – and Deafness

Thomas Edison had little formal schooling. After his teachers reported him to be a slow learner, his mother decided that home schooling was a better method to educate her son.

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For someone who made so many inventions involving sound, it is startling to learn that Edison was almost completely deaf. At the age of 12, he either contracted scarlet fever or had an accident which left him severely hearing-impaired. The National Park Service’s Thomas Edison page reports that Edison once wrote: “I have not heard a bird sing since I was twelve years old.” Another story, which Edison himself told, was that he “was picked up by the ears to keep from falling out of a train” and this caused something to pop inside his ears.

The genius behind so many amazing inventions never attended college or technical school. He learned through his mother’s home schooling, his own voracious reading, and constant experimentation. His inventions amazed our ancestors and they continue to impact us today. No wonder he was called the “Wizard of Menlo Park,” the location in New Jersey where he built a laboratory in 1876.

Inventions and Patents

Despite his genius and remarkable inventions, however, most children today are not taught much about Thomas Edison other than a few lines in a history book. Nor can many young people identify his inventions, even though Edison achieved 1,093 or more patents (some report 1,368) in his lifetime.

According to the History Channel’s Thomas Edison page, many of his patents addressed telephony, telecommunications and electricity – so imagine where we’d be without them.

Here are some of his many achievements:

  • 195 patents for telephony, the phonograph, and their improvements, starting in 1876
  • 34 patents for the telephone, beginning in 1878
  • 389 patents for electric light and power, including the first commercially-successful incandescent light bulb in 1879

This is his patent for the telephone of 1883.

drawing of the telephone design patented to Thomas Edison on 27 March 1883

Illustration: telephone design, patented to Thomas Edison on 27 March 1883. Source: Google Patents.

Invention of the Phonograph

In 1877, Edison invented the phonograph – a device to record people’s voices that greatly amazed the public. At that time, people could hardly imagine a machine that can record your voice now, so that your ancestors hundreds of years later can hear what your voice sounded like! It seemed as though Edison was truly a wizard. As this newspaper article reports:

Speech has become, as it were, immortal.

article about Thomas Edison inventing the phonograph, Vermont Phoenix newspaper article 20 November 1877

Vermont Phoenix (Brattleboro, Vermont), 20 November 1877, page 2

For his own first recording, Edison recited the beloved children’s poem “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” It is wonderful and almost magical, even in our own age of technological marvels, to hear Edison’s own voice from so very long ago. You can hear him reciting the poem here.

Controversies

Edison arrived at some of his invention ideas simultaneously with others, and in some cases his inventions were based on the breakthroughs of his predecessors. Consequently, you’ll find various reports objecting to giving Edison credit for some of his inventions – controversies that erupted during Edison’s lifetime and in some cases continue today.

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For example, the invention of the light bulb is often credited to Edison, although Sir Joseph Swan (1828-1914) and at least 22 other inventors came up with the idea before him. Where they failed to perfect their ideas, however, Edison succeeded, as he always strove to use superior materials and clever marketing to materialize and promote his inventions. His incandescent light bulb can truly be said to be the father of modern lights.

article about who really invented the electric light bulb, Evansville Courier and Press newspaper article 29 November 1929

Evansville Courier and Press (Evansville, Indiana), 29 November 1929, page 7

Another controversy involving Edison resulted from patents pertaining to the movie industry. As seen in this article, Edison strongly protected his inventions in the courts in 1908. In the end, he won.

article about Thomas Edison and legal controversies regarding motion picture inventions, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 25 March 1908

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 25 March 1908, page 3

More Breakthrough Edison Inventions

I could literally write a book about Thomas Alva Edison’s inventions. Many of his inventions that should be common knowledge include these:

  • An early stock ticker machine, around 1869
  • The “Improvement in Phonograph or Speaking Machine,” in 1878
  • A motion picture camera called the Kinetograph, in 1891
  • The Kinetophone, or talking motion picture, in 1912
  • The first steel alkaline storage batteries, 1900-1910
  • The battery which was introduced on the Model T for Henry Ford, in 1908
  • The telescribe, which allowed for recording both sides of a telephone conversation, in 1914
  • Various military devices during World War I, including detection devices for airplanes, submarines, periscopes and guns by sound ranging, as well as ship camouflaging

However, there is one product he didn’t create – and why he didn’t do so is one of the greatest mysteries of all time.

Mysterious Invention Oversight

With his nearly complete hearing loss, why didn’t Edison invent a hearing aid?

The stories of how he coped with his damaged hearing are heart-wrenching. In order to improve the clarity of sound, his method was to place his ear against a phonograph cabinet and bite on wood. Surprisingly, this seemed to improve his hearing. While raising our family in Fort Myers, Florida, we’d often visit Edison’s Winter Estate – and we all remember viewing furniture with his bite marks.

Apparently, Edison’s poor hearing bothered the people around him more than himself. Some theorize he preferred silence over distracting noises. In 1914, his wife Mina located a physician who had hopes of fully restoring Edison’s hearing. He agreed to undergo the procedure, but on the day of the operation Edison told his personal assistant:

By the way, will you telephone that doctor and tell him he is not to come over today: I am not going to have the operation.

article about Thomas Edison refusing an operation to restore his hearing, Boston Herald newspaper article 19 July 1914

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 19 July 1914, page 41

Perhaps Thomas Edison truly preferred to concentrate in a world of near-silence.

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Nikola Tesla, Electrical Genius, Inventor & Eccentric, Dies

Ask most people who was the late 19th and early 20th centuries’ electrical genius and master of inventions, and they will answer: Thomas Edison. However, on 7 January 1943, all alone in room 3327 of the New Yorker Hotel in New York City, an eccentric 86-year-old man died who was the true wizard of electricity: Nikola Tesla. Not only was Nikola Tesla the father of modern radio, he perfected alternating current (AC) electrical power, invented the Tesla coil, and made breakthroughs in a staggering array of fields including radar, X-rays, robotics and nuclear physics.

photo of Nikola Tesla in 1890, age 34

Photo: Nikola Tesla in 1890, age 34. Credit: Napoleon Sarony; Wikimedia Commons.

At the height of his powers Nikola Tesla was recognized as the equal of Thomas Edison (the two once worked together, but became bitter rivals), but in his later years he became so strange that the public increasingly ignored him, contributing to his lack of fame and recognition today. There is no doubt Tesla was a genius, fluent in eight languages, with an astonishing ability to receive visions in which he saw inventions so specifically that every detail was clear in his mind before he ever set pen to paper.

There is also no doubt that the man grew increasingly bizarre, obsessed by such things as the number 3 (he would walk around a block three times before entering a building), pigeons, and a deathly fear of having contact with dirt. Despite making over 700 inventions in his lifetime and some of the most important breakthroughs in the history of science, Nikola Tesla died broke and heavily in debt. He was the very definition of the eccentric genius, or “mad scientist,” yet modern life is dependent on many of the brilliant ideas that sprang from this strange man’s mind.

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This old newspaper obituary gives many details of Tesla’s life, career and numerous inventions, and includes this comment from the “Wizard of Electricity”:

There are too many distractions in this life for quality of thought, and it’s quality of thought, not quantity, that counts. ~ Nikola Tesla

obituary for Nikola Tesla, Seattle Times newspaper article 8 January 1943

Seattle Times (Seattle, Washington), 8 January 1943, page 26

Tesla’s obituary reads:

New York, Jan. 8.—Nikolai [sic] Tesla, 86 years old, the electrical genius who discovered the fundamental principle of modern radio, was found dead in his hotel room last night. He died in bed sometime yesterday. Gaunt in his best years, he had lately been wasting away.

Tesla was never married. He had always lived alone, and it is not believed he had any near relatives.

Despite his more than 700 inventions, Tesla was not wealthy. He cared little for money; as long as he could experiment he was happy. Much of the time he did not even have a laboratory, and worked where he lived.

Tesla was the first to conceive an effective method of utilizing alternating current, and in 1888 patented the induction motor which converted electrical energy into mechanical energy more effectively and economically than by direct current. Among his other principal inventions are lighting and the Tesla coil.

“The radio, I know I’m its father, but I don’t like it,” Tesla once said. “I just don’t like it. It’s a nuisance. I never listen to it. The radio is a distraction and keeps you from concentrating. There are too many distractions in this life for quality of thought, and it’s quality of thought, not quantity, that counts.”

Evidently, he did a lot of thinking that never materialized. It was his custom on his birthday—July 10—to announce to reporters the shape of things to come.

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On his 76th birthday, he announced: “The transmission of energy to another planet is only a matter of engineering. I have solved the problem so well I don’t regard it as doubtful.”

On another birthday, Tesla predicted that power would soon be projected without wires through the stratosphere.

When he was 78, Tesla announced he had perfected a “death beam” that would bring down a fleet of 10,000 enemy planes 250 miles from a nation’s borders and make millions of soldiers drop dead in their tracks. His beam, he said, would make war impossible.

Tesla was born at Smiljan, Croatia, when it was part of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. His first electrical invention was the telephone repeater, which he perfected in 1881 while working for the Austrian government.

Three years later, Tesla came to the United States, became a citizen and an associate of the late Thomas A. Edison. Later he established the Tesla Laboratory in New York and devoted himself to research.

Tesla had lived at the hotel where he died for years, and amused himself by feeding pigeons in the nearest park. Several years ago, he hired a boy to take five pounds of corn twice a day and feed it to the pigeons. He said he had found it “more convenient” to use the boy.

Note: FamilySearch International (FamilySearch.org) and GenealogyBank are partnering to make over a billion records from historical obituaries searchable online. The tremendous undertaking will make a billion records from over 100 million U.S. newspaper obituaries readily searchable online. The newspapers are from all 50 states and cover the period 1730 to the present.  Find out more at: http://www.genealogybank.com/family-search/

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Amazing Inventors: Thomas Edison & the Electric Light Bulb

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this blog post, Duncan searches old newspapers to learn about Thomas Edison and his invention of the electric light bulb that changed the world.

In the late 1870s, Thomas Alva Edison was attempting to create an affordable, sustainable, and practical incandescent light. Previous light bulbs had been created that were capable of emitting light; however, they burned out within minutes or hours making them impractical for regular use. By the time Edison took up the challenge, he was firmly entrenched in his famous Menlo Park laboratory and the world was abuzz with the possibilities.

photo of Thomas Alva Edison, by Louis Bachrach, c. 1922

Photo: Thomas Alva Edison, by Louis Bachrach, c. 1922. Source: U.S. Library of Congress.

It is hard for us to understand the world they lived in back in the 1870s. No bright lights. Ever. Can it be imagined? There was candlelight and firelight, but no synthetic light. Imagine the bump in the night that needs to be investigated, but you can’t just flip the switch to illuminate the scene. No, you must light a candle and attempt to locate the intruder in the deep shadows of a single flame. There were no flashlights. No headlights on the car. No lit numbers on the clock. Most work had to end once the sun when down.

As Edison worked to illuminate the world, he faced several problems. As mentioned, the filament then used in light bulbs burned out too quickly, and it produced a black film on the inside of the bulb—which dimmed the weak light even more. Others had tried to perfect the light bulb. And they had failed. It just wasn’t possible, they said.

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While we all know that Edison succeeded in his quest, it wasn’t a sure thing at the time. Today school children everywhere know and revere Edison.  But it wasn’t always that way. He wasn’t the only scientist of his age—just one of many working on similar projects. Since many of them had failed with their light bulb experiments, other inventors didn’t think that Edison could do it either. Edison’s lack of a regular education was a particular point of scorn—as shown in this 1879 newspaper article:

The truth is that Mr. Edison, although very successful in discovering improvements in subjects in which he was practically engaged, lacks the knowledge and training which have persuaded the greatest chemists in the world of the inadaptability of electricity for general lighting purposes.

article about Thomas Edison inventing the electric light bulb, New Haven Register newspaper article 16 August 1879

New Haven Register (New Haven, Connecticut), 16 August 1879, page 2

Disregarding the naysayers, Edison persevered. At one point, it appeared that a filament made from platinum would last longer. Platinum has a higher resistance to heat than other metals. It also expands and contracts in sync with the glass of the bulb. This promising metal was needed in quantity to run experiments and—if proved successful—to provide enough material for the mass-produced product. However, general consensus maintained that the metal was so rare it was “about to become extinct.”

Edison didn’t give up. He wrote letters to American and British consuls throughout the world and to the scientific community. In his letters, he described the metal, “how and where it was found and might be found, how it could be identified and treated” and so on. He even included a sample of platinum, at his own expense. Encouragingly, he also offered a $20,000 prize.

Edison and Platinum, Idaho Statesman newspaper article 14 August 1901

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 14 August 1901, page 6

And so the race was on. What better way to motivate someone than to offer a cash prize for finding large deposits of platinum, and a steady string of customers for the product once the light bulb was in regular use? And prospectors did find it and mine it in abundance.

Platinum in California, New Haven Register newspaper article 26 July 1879

New Haven Register (New Haven, Connecticut), 26 July 1879, page 1

In life, unlike a light bulb, few things happen in a vacuum. So what were some of the after effects of Edison’s venture into crowdsourcing for platinum? Edison’s ever-curious mind saw another business opportunity when he was learning to separate gold from platinum. Using his new method, he was able to take tailings—the “junk” materials discarded in the mining process—and extract the gold. In one ton of tailings that had cost him just $5, he was able to extract $1400 worth of gold. While the amount of gold that could be extracted varied, this was obviously an astonishing discovery.

As this 1880 newspaper article reported:

At the rate of $1400 to the ton…he computes that at the various mines around Oroville “there are at least $50,000,000 in the tailings.”

Edison's Discovery in Gold Mining, Macon Telegraph newspaper article 2 April 1880

Macon Telegraph (Macon, Georgia), 2 April 1880, page 2

This is an astonishing sum! To understand his claim, $50 million in 1880 converts into about $1.2 trillion today.

Edison’s use of platinum in light bulbs greatly increased the metal’s value. In 1885, five years after Edison announced the creation of a practical light bulb, platinum’s market value was just $3 to $5 an ounce. Just five years later, its price nearly matched that of gold at $20 per ounce.

A King of Metals -- The Value of Platinum as Affected by Electric Lights, Daily Inter Ocean newspaper article 19 October 1890

Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois), 19 October 1890, page 32

Platinum was now being produced in quantity—and other uses were found for it. The ring on your finger may even be made of platinum.

As this 1879 newspaper article reported:

As a result, large quantities of the rare metal were found in various locations. The gravel-heap of a single mine will, it is said, yield more platinum than all the rest of the world does now.

article about Thomas Edison and his use of platinum in electric light bulbs, Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper article 1 October 1879

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 1 October 1879, page 3

Edison proved the naysayers and doubters wrong:

Very few of the many investigators who had studied the subject of electric lighting believed that the experiments [by Edison] would prove important. Edison, it was supposed, had walked into a cul de sac, where others had preceded him and found no thoroughfare. A considerable amount of pity, both here and in England, was wasted on the ingenious man who had gone beyond his depth. Not having been properly educated in early life, he was ignorant, so they said, of the properties of matter.

article about Thomas Edison and his invention of the electric light bulb, Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper article 1 October 1879

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 1 October 1879, page 3

In the end, platinum proved to be essential for the supporting wires to hold the filament, but still burned too quickly to provide a steady light when used as the filament itself. The best material for a filament proved to be carbonized bamboo fiber in a vacuum. Edison made this discovery while examining a bamboo fragment that had peeled off his fishing pole!

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Finding a suitable filament was not the only challenge Edison faced. Along the way, he also had to develop a superior pump to create the vacuum necessary in the bulb, a more powerful generator to produce the electricity, a realistic and safe electric delivery system for electricity, and more. Yet, he met all of these challenges.

Edison wasn’t the only one working on the electric light problem. And he wasn’t the only one to develop a bulb that worked. In England around the same time, Joseph Swan independently created a very similar bulb. In fact, Edison used some of Swan’s ideas as a foundation for his experiments. Swan and Edison later joined forces in the Edison-Swan Company, which then switched from bamboo filaments to cellulose ones.

Edison continued to refine his light bulb throughout the fall of 1879, and by the end of the year he was giving public demonstrations of his marvelous new invention. On 27 January 1880 he was granted U.S. patent 223,898 for his electric light bulb.

photo of the light bulb Thomas Edison used for public demonstrations of his new invention during Christmas week, 1879

Photo: the light bulb Thomas Edison used for public demonstrations of his new invention during Christmas week, 1879. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The genius of Edison comes out in several ways in this story of his perfection of the electric light bulb. He took a project he felt was interesting and worthwhile despite others loudly proclaiming it couldn’t be done—or if it could, it couldn’t be done by him because he lacked the knowledge and training (he was self-educated). He tackled the problem of not having enough of a necessary material by using crowdsourcing and incentives to gather more. While he could have easily worried and worked himself to the bone, he took time to escape from the project and listen to the guru in his head while enjoying the peace of a fishing trip. And it was there that he discovered the solution that was literally a part of his fishing rod. He took a lot of junk and literally turned it into gold. He put in the work and gained the satisfaction of making a lasting contribution to the world.

Historical newspapers (http://www.genealogybank.com/gbnk/newspapers/) are not only a great way to learn about the lives of your ancestors—they also help you understand American history and the times your ancestors lived in, and the news they talked about and read in their local papers. Did any of your ancestors make an important invention? Please share your stories with us in the comments.

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Who Really Invented the Steamboat? Fitch, Rumsey or Fulton?

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary uses old newspapers to research the invention of the steamboat—and describes how much steamboats changed our ancestors’ world.

The invention of the steamboat radically changed our ancestors’ world. While researching your ancestors’ lives in historical newspapers, you will run across many mentions of steamboats. This blog article, including a fun quiz, will test your knowledge of the history of steamboats and help fill in some of the gaps for you.

Who Invented the Steamboat?

Although many, including the writer of this 1815 obituary, credit Robert Fulton (1765-1815) with the invention of the steamboat, it simply isn’t true.

obituary for Robert Fulton, American Beacon newspaper article 7 November 1815

American Beacon (Norfolk, Virginia), 7 November 1815, page 3

Perhaps you are an expert in steamboats; test your knowledge with this handy steamboat quiz and check your answers below.

a quiz about the history of steamboats

John Fitch

Most historians attribute the honor for the invention of the steamboat to John Fitch (1743-1798), who constructed the first steamboat in the United States.

As you can see from this 1786 announcement addressed “To the ENCOURAGERS of USEFUL ARTS,” Fitch “proposed a Machine for the improvement of Navigation” which was endorsed by a number of subscribers who thought that “it might be beneficial to the public.”

a proposal by John Fitch for a steamboat, Pennsylvania Journal newspaper article 4 January 1786

Pennsylvania Journal (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 4 January 1786, page 1

Several state legislatures granted Fitch a 14-year monopoly on all steamboat travel on the inland waterways within their borders. This steamboat monopoly in turn helped him attract investors. His invention used steam to power oars, and in 1788 his commercial steamboat could carry up to 30 paying passengers per trip on the Delaware River. (See Wikipedia’s image of a woodcut by James Trenchard showing Fitch’s steamboat.)

James Rumsey (or Rumsy), Fitch’s Rival

As is the case with many inventions, other inventors worked on the concept of steam navigation simultaneously, including James Rumsey (1743-1792). His steamboat incorporated steam propulsion and was patented by several southern states.

After Rumsey went to Philadelphia in 1788 a pamphlet war arose with Fitch, with each claiming the right to make steamboats. This 1910 newspaper article reported that:

“George Washington had written a letter certifying that he had witnessed trials of the Rumsey boat, and that although he formerly had but little faith in it, he was then convinced that Rumsey had discovered the art of working boats by mechanism.”

history of the invention of the steamboat, Watertown Daily Times newspaper article 18 November 1910

Watertown Daily Times (Watertown, New York), 18 November 1910, page 5

This article also reported that Rumsey “had a controversy before his death with Fitch, whom he accused of ‘coming pottering around’ his shop.”

Several people tried in vain to get the two inventors to work together. It is reported that Fitch tried to secure a patent in England based upon Rumsey’s water-tube boiler. There was even a Rumseian Society formed in 1788 to assist Rumsey, but it was disbanded in 1792 after his death. I recommend you read about it on the Web and at http://jamesrumsey.org/. It is a very interesting story.

Robert Fulton

Although Fitch and Rumsey preceded Robert Fulton with their steamboat inventions, Fulton’s contributions to commercial steamboat operations should not be overlooked.

In 1801, he and partner Chancellor Robert Livingston (1746-1813) built the North River Steamboat, which was later named the Clermont.

Livingston was one of our nation’s Founding Fathers and, among other accomplishments, became the first United States Secretary for Foreign Affairs (1781-1783). As you can see from this early advertisement, Livingston and Fulton charged $7 for passage from New York City to Albany on the North River Steamboat.

ad for travel fares on the North River Steamboat, American Citizen newspaper advertisement 5 September 1807

American Citizen (New York, New York), 5 September 1807, page 2

This next historical newspaper account describes, in Fulton’s own words, how he traveled from New York to Clermont, and arrived at the seat (home) of Chancellor Livingston in 24 hours and also includes a nice portrait illustration of him. Clermont would later become the famous name of Fulton’s steamboat, and of course we should note that Chancellor Livingston was the uncle of Fulton’s wife, Harriet Livingston.

letter from Robert Fulton, Columbian Gazette newspaper article 1 September 1807

Columbian Gazette (Utica, New York), 1 September 1807, page 3

There is so much written about Fulton, I’ll leave more in-depth research to you. However, I would recommend reading the many charming accounts of how Robert Fulton wooed and won the hand of his bride Harriet. Some report that she was present at the trial run of his first steamboat. The following account, reported by Fulton’s grandson Robert Fulton Blight, states:

“‘Is it too presumptuous in me to aspire to the hand of your niece, Harriet Livingston?’ young Robert Fulton one day asked her uncle, Chancellor Robert L. Livingston.

“‘By no means,’ replied the distinguished Chancellor. ‘Her father may object because you are a humble and poor inventor and the family may object, but if Harriet doesn’t object, and she seems to have a world of good sense, go ahead and my best wishes and blessings go with you.’”

article about Robert Fulton and his wife Harriet, New York Herald newspaper article 25 October 1891

New York Herald (New York, New York), 25 October 1891, page 32

Genealogical Challenge

I was not able to locate Robert Fulton and Harriet Livingston’s marriage announcement in the newspapers. If any of our readers find it, please let us know and we will update this post to include it.

Update

A sharp-eyed reader, J. Hansen, found the following marriage announcement for Robert Fulton and Harriet Livingston; we are now able to update this Blog article with that newspaper article. Thank you, J. Hansen!

marriage announcement for Robert Fulton and Harriet Livingston, American Citizen newspaper article 9 January 1808

American Citizen (New York, New York), 9 January 1808, page 3

How Steamboats Changed the World

So how did steamboats change the world?

You may be surprised at some of the answers. The emergence of mechanical navigation meant that:

  • Commercial boating was no longer dependent upon the wind.
  • Boats could navigate in a straightforward manner, eliminating the need to tack with the wind. This made navigation in narrower waterways feasible.
  • Travel times were shortened by the steamboat, as seen in this 1808 newspaper article reporting that one could travel from Albany to New York in 35 hours.
notice about the arrival of the steamboat from Albany, New York, Columbian Centinel newspaper article 14 September 1808

Columbian Centinel (Boston, Massachusetts), 14 September 1808, page 2

In addition to the above improvements, there was another astounding way that steamboats changed our ancestors’ lives.

The bitter dispute between Fitch and Rumsey actually led to the formation of the Federal U.S. Patent Office. Starting on 10 April 1790, patents were no longer granted by individual states—they had to be issued on a national level.

Congress named the Patent Office legislation “An Act to Promote the Progress of Useful Arts.”

legislation to create the U.S. Patent Office, Daily Advertiser newspaper article 13 April 1790

Daily Advertiser (New York, New York), 13 April 1790, page 2

Dig into historical newspapers yourself to find out more about Fitch, Rumsey and Fulton, and learn how steamboats dramatically changed your American ancestors’ lives.

See related Blog article:

In Search of Our Early American Ancestors’ Patents on Inventions

How to Date Old Ancestor Photographs with Early Photo Types

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary shows how you can date old, undated family photos by first figuring out what type of photograph they are, and uses old newspapers and other sources to illustrate different types of photos.

Do you have a box of old, undated family photos somewhere up in the attic—or maybe buried in the back of some closet? Have you wondered how you were ever going to figure out who these family members might be, since the old photographs lack inscriptions or dates?

Genealogy is a lot like detective work, gathering clues to make the pieces of your family puzzle fit together. Old, undated family photographs are pieces of evidence, clues that—if you examine closely enough—might yield some answers.

By knowing a little of the history of photography, you might be able to solve the mystery of those old photos by first recognizing what type of photograph they are—which in turn will help you narrow down the date range for when the photo was created. This blog article will help you do that.

The First Affordable Camera

We’ll start with a brief primer on the history of photography. Many think that the photography revolution began with George Eastman and Frank Brownell (of Kodak) in February of 1900, when they introduced the “Brownie,” the first affordable camera. (See http://www.brownie-camera.com/ for everything you ever wanted to know about this early camera for the mass market.)

Here is an advertisement for the Brownie camera from a 1921 Washington, D.C., newspaper.

What the 2A Brownies [Cameras] Do, Evening Star newspaper advertisement 14 August 1921

Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 14 August 1921, page 67

Heliography

However, in my opinion, the true photography revolution started at least 50 years prior, with the French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833). His 1826 heliograph “View from the Window at Le Gras” became the first permanent photograph. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicéphore_Niépce.) It was created with a camera obscura, a device used by artists to project images on a wall or screen. Niépce captured his view by projecting onto a pewter plate coated with a type of asphalt called bitumen of Judea. After a long eight-hour exposure time, the image became affixed.

First Permanent Photograph, 1826, Mobile Register newspaper cartoon 24 September 1983

Mobile Register (Mobile, Alabama), 24 September 1983, page 31

It’s doubtful that you’ll find a heliograph in your personal ancestor photo collection, but with any luck, you’ll find a variety of other types of photos. Perhaps your family pictures are identified—but in all likelihood many are not, so narrowing time periods for the creation of each photo is important in trying to date them.

Some of my earlier GenealogyBank Blog posts provided other tips for dating undated photographs, including one showing how historical newspapers can assist greatly with photo dating by comparing the clothing of people in your undated photos to clothing styles shown in old newspaper advertisements. (See a list with links to these photography-related blog posts at the end of this article.)

You can also use historical newspapers to learn how to recognize photographic types, and also to research photography studios, as shown by the newspaper articles used in this blog post.

Photographic Timelines

To start, familiarize yourself with photographic timelines, such as the timelines available in the list of websites below. Although there are numerous types of photographic processes, most of your old photos are probably ambrotypes, daguerreotypes, tintypes, cabinet cards or carte de visites (CDVs), along with some lesser-known types such as cyanotypes.

Representative Samples of Different Photographic Types

To see examples of different types of photos, use your favorite search engine such as Google. After searching for a specific type, such as a daguerreotype, click the image option.

screenshot of Google search page showing photographic images

Credit: Google & Wikipedia

Ambrotypes

A distinctive characteristic of an ambrotype is that the image is a positive image created on a transparent sheet of glass, by what is known as wet plate collodion printing. James Ambrose Cutting is credited with the process, which dates to the early 1850s.

The Wikipedia article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ambrotype has several examples, and mentions that many were hand tinted. If you think you have an ambrotype take note of the casing, as the style can also be a clue to the time period.

Carte de Visites and Cabinet Cards

Although these two types of photos are different, I’ve chosen to group them together because they are commonly confused. Both types were printed on paper or card stock, and originally created through a type of albumen printing which was used to bind images to paper.

Carte de Visites (CDVs or Cartes)

The Carte de Visite was made in 1850 by Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard (1802-1872), and is known as the first pocket-sized photograph. It is also referred to as a calling or visiting card.

He created a negative and made varying sizes, but typically his photos were small and in the range of 2 3/8” x 4” to 2 ½” x 4.” The smaller size of CDVs offered the advantage of portability and affordability. If you are lucky, you’ll find the photographer’s name imprinted on the back.

This example, rescued from an antique shop near Austin Texas, is tentatively labeled “George W. Bohun.” I believe it was shot by Rudolph Uhlman who, according to a University of Missouri-Kansas City article “A Preliminary Survey of Photographers and Artists in St. Joseph Missouri 1859 to 1889” by David Boutros, worked at 225 Edmond Street between 1876 and 1885. (See http://www.umkc.edu/whmckc/Scrapbook/Articles/StJoePhotographers.pdf.)

photo of a Carte de Visite showing George Bohun

Example of a Carte de Visite from the author’s photo collection

Cabinet Cards

Cabinet cards were introduced in 1864 by a British studio called Windsor & Bridge. As they were larger (typically 4” x 6” or 4 ½” x 6 ½”) and printed on card stock, they were more durable than other paper types.

The photographer’s name can be printed on the front or the rear, and the presentation (font, coloring, etc.) can also be a clue to the time frame of the photo. (See Marshall University’s article at http://www.marshall.edu/library/speccoll/virtual_museum/photographers/cabinet-cards.asp.)

This cabinet card from my photo collection identifies the photographer as James S. Cummins. Research shows he lived from 1841-1895, and if my guess is correct, this sepia-toned image was probably taken between 1875-1885.

photo of a Cabinet Card

Example of a Cabinet Card from the author’s photo collection

Cyanotypes

The discovery of the cyanotype process is credited to scientist/astronomer Sir John Herschel (1792-1871), but botanist Anna Atkins (1799-1871) gets the credit for applying the technique to photography. She used it to record images of plants for her research, as described in this 1982 article from a South Dakota newspaper.

Lockwood at Dakota Midland [Hospital Art Gallery], Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 29 June 1982

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 29 June 1982, page 13

Most cyanotypes are small. Popular in the 1880s, you can still find them today, and the photographic process is published on the Web.

This cyanotype from my collection is of an ancestor born in 1875, and I estimate it was taken between 1893-1900.

example of a Cyanotype photograph

Example of a Cyanotype photograph from the author’s collection

Daguerreotypes

To learn more about Niépce’s colleague Louis Daguerre (1787-1851), see these resources:

Daguerre is credited with inventing a new photographic process known as daguerreotype.

His technique also incorporated the camera obscura, but by introducing copper plating with a thin layer of silver exposed to the fumes of iodine crystals, he was able to capture the images. Daguerreotypes were very popular from the 1840s into the 1860s or early 1870s.

After his death, Daguerre was described in this 1851 Massachusetts newspaper as “a scene painter and dioramist in Paris, an ingenious mechanic, and tolerable chemist.”

obituary for Louis Daguerre, Massachusetts Spy newspaper article 16 July 1851

Massachusetts Spy (Worcester, Massachusetts), 16 July 1851, page 2

Daguerreotypes (or dags) changed the world of photography, offering our ancestors their first opportunity to sit for portraits. Many appear to be serious or grimacing in their portrait—which, some people today speculate, was from having to sit still for a long time while their picture was being taken.

However, this may be somewhat of a myth. Exposure time ranged from 60-90 seconds, and after 1845 the sitting time was reportedly just a few seconds. If one wanted multiple pictures, there was no way to make copies of the original—so multiple sittings would have to occur. (See http://mentalfloss.com/article/16677/daguerreotype-qa.)

This 1841 ad from a New York newspaper promoted a daguerreotype exhibition to benefit local charities.

The Daguerreotype Exhibition, Evening Post newspaper article 4 February 1840

Evening Post (New York, New York), 4 February 1840, page 3

This obituary from an 1851 New Hampshire newspaper called Daguerre “the celebrated discoverer of the daguerreotype,” claiming that with this invention “he succeeded in immortalizing his name.”

Death of M. Daguerre, New Hampshire Sentinel newspaper obituary 14 August 1851

New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene, New Hampshire), 14 August 1851, page 2

Dags of many famous people can be found online, including some of Abraham Lincoln at www.lincolnportrait.com.

Tintypes

Tintypes are another commonly-found type of photograph—although they were not created on tin.

The tintype production method is similar to that of ambrotypes. (Other common names of similar photographic processes are melanotype and ferrotype.) Tintype sizes ranged from 2 3/8” x 3 ½” to 4” x 5 ¾.”

Sometimes they were created with a wet plate and at other times with a dry plate. The image was underexposed and darkened by lacquering or other methods, and then coated. Interestingly, the metal used was not tin, but a very thin iron that resembled tin. (A magnet can determine if there is metal in your picture.)

Since tintypes were often taken at carnivals, many have a fun quality about them. Notice in this tintype (a Library of Congress image), a man was seated before two mirrors placed at right angles, in order to provide five images.

Library of Congress image of a tintype photograph

Credit: Library of Congress

Tintypes were often sold in a paper sleeve for protection. However, if your tintype still has the original paper sleeve, don’t be fooled by the location printed on it—it may not be correct. According to this 1901 article from a Kansas newspaper, tintype sellers had a variety of preprinted sleeves from distant locations that came “in handy for people who like to put up a bluff that they have been further away from home than they really have.”

The newspaper article imagined a conversation between a tintype seller and his customer:

“What place did you say? Coney Island or—”

The maid looked at the man sheepishly. “Let’s put it New Haven,” she said. “That will sound better than Coney Island.”

Tintypes May Prevaricate, American Citizen newspaper article 8 November 1901

American Citizen (Kansas City, Kansas), 8 November 1901, page 3

To learn more about tintypes and the other commonly-used photographic processes, revisit the timeline at Phototree.com (http://www.phototree.com/identify.htm). The site also has tips to help you identify the characteristics of pictures.

Although this is just a sampling of photographic types, hopefully this article gives you a few ideas on how to identify and date your family treasures.

Go get that box of old family photos and look at them closely. Can you identify what type they are, and thereby limit the date range for the people in the picture? Good luck with your detective work!

Related GenealogyBank Blog articles:

History of Trains & Railroads: Locomotives, Steam Engines & More

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary searches old newspapers for articles and ads about trains and locomotives, and discusses how important railroads were in the lives of our ancestors.

Trains & Railroads Shaped Early America

The importance of train travel cannot be overstated in the development of America, and its effect on how and why our ancestors traveled on land. Stagecoaches were an early transportation option, but once locomotives and steam engines proved their worth, travel by stagecoach became less frequent.

picture of a locomotive, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper illustration 15 February 1892

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 15 February 1892, page 5

Our nation’s great westward expansion took off, and trains became the favored mode of transportation until automobiles and air travel took over. Reading old newspaper articles to explore the history of train travel is a good way to better understand our ancestors’ lives and the times they lived in.

Steam Powers the Way

Early trains were powered by steam, but it may surprise you to learn that steam power was not a 19th Century invention. English inventor Thomas Savery (c.1650-1715) is given the credit for inventing steam power for transportation. He didn’t work on steam-powered trains, but this 1848 Connecticut newspaper article notes he did develop a steam engine for a rowing ship.

Thomas Savery the Engineer, Connecticut Courant newspaper article 28 October 1848

Connecticut Courant (Hartford, Connecticut), 28 October 1848, page 165

Although Savery received his steam engine patent in 1698, the first steam-powered engine didn’t arrive in the American Colonies until 1752 or 1753. Evidence of such a machine can be found in this 1753 Massachusetts newspaper article reporting that the Town of Charlestown was:

“so kind as to bring over their fine Water-Engine, which was of great Service in suppressing and preventing the Progress of the Fire.”

notice about a Charlestown, Massachusetts, fire engine, Boston Gazette newspaper article 13 February 1753

Boston Gazette (Boston, Massachusetts), 13 February 1753, page 3

A screw-driven steamboat was invented around 1802 by John Stevens. A Wikipedia article mentions he created a steam carriage around 1826 that ran on a track, but he was not the only one working on the concept.

There are several early newspaper reports of inventors working on steam carriages, including this 1822 New Jersey newspaper article about a petition for a steam carriage being presented on behalf of Isaac Baker, of Ohio.

notice about a patent petition from Isaac Baker for a steam-carriage, New Brunswick Fredonian newspaper article 14 February 1822

New Brunswick Fredonian (New Brunswick, New Jersey), 14 February 1822, page 2

The illustration below, from an 1826 Massachusetts newspaper, shows a 12-horsepower “loco-motive engine” used by the Helton Railroad in England.

picture of a locomotive, Boston Traveler newspaper illustration 7 March 1826

Boston Traveler (Boston, Massachusetts), 7 March 1826, page 4

Early Train & Railroad Companies

If you’ve played that famous board game “Monopoly,” you can surely guess the first railroad thought to have provided regularly-scheduled service.

Yes, it was the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O), chartered on 28 February 1827, to provide service from Baltimore, Maryland, to the Ohio River. It was capitalized with 15,000 shares at $100 each ($1,500,000), what must have seemed like a tremendous fortune at that time.

Perhaps your ancestors traveled on the great B&O, credited to have been the first U.S. company to offer scheduled passenger and freight service?

However, B&O was not the first charted train company. A search of GenealogyBank’s historical newspaper archives finds mention of other train companies. This 1825 Pennsylvania newspaper article reports a petition to incorporate and provide service from Wilkesbarre, Pennsylvania, “to the nearest point on the Delaware.”

petition to construct a Pennsylvania railroad, National Gazette newspaper article 15 December 1825

National Gazette (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 15 December 1825, page 1

This advertisement was published in an 1856 South Carolina newspaper, showing the Virginia Springs Central Railroad’s announcement that its opening line will travel 56 miles. Until the rail line is completed, the company’s stage coaches will continue to operate at fares ranging from $10 to $13.

railroad ad, Charleston Courier newspaper advertisement 11 September 1856

Charleston Courier (Charleston, South Carolina), 11 September 1856, page 3

We can all imagine the excitement generated by the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad on 10 May 1869 at Promontory Summit, in Utah Territory!

To commemorate the final joining, the railroad placed a golden spike and a silver railroad tie. This article from an 1869 New York newspaper reports that that the last spike would be engraved as follows:

“The last spike. The Pacific Railroad—ground broke January 8, 1863, completed May–, 1869. May God continue the unity of our country as this railroad unites the two great oceans of the world.”

The Silver Tie and Golden Spike, Evening Post newspaper article

Evening Post (New York, New York), 15 May 1869, page 4

There were many other train “firsts,” such as this article from an 1898 Minnesota newspaper commemorating the first Minneapolis Locomotive crossing the first railroad bridge across the Mississippi River “at this point.”

The First Minneapolis Locomotive, Minneapolis Journal newspaper article 12 February 1898

Minneapolis Journal (Minneapolis, Minnesota), 12 February 1898, page 14

Railroad Family History for Kids (and Adults)

The children of today may never know the joy of train travel, except as a novelty. To connect your children with this important part of American history, search the newspaper archives to see if any of their ancestors were connected with the railroad industry—that may spark their interest.

In addition to their surname, be sure to search for your railroad ancestors by their job title, such as conductor or switchman. Also search for railway pension records (which are in a separate system from Social Security).

Here is an example of an old newspaper article that may show your ancestors in the context of railroad travel. This 1857 Pennsylvania newspaper wedding announcement notes that the marriage of William C. Pitman and Miss F.A. Fuller occurred on a moving train that exceeded 40 miles per hour!

Pitman-Fuller wedding announcement, Public Ledger newspaper article 10 January 1857

Public Ledger (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 10 January 1857, page 5

This is just the tip of the iceberg for conducting research on how our ancestors were connected to trains, either by occupation or their desire to travel.

Websites and Documents of Interest

Cyndi’s List: Railroads >> Records: Administrative, Employment and Pensions

U.S. Railroad Retirement Board

“I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”

The original title of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” was “The Levee Song,” published in 1894 in a book of songs published by Princeton University titled Carmina Princetonia. If you search GenealogyBank you can locate several references to this famous song, including this one.

"I've Been Working on the Railroad" song, Evansville Courier and Press newspaper article 30 August 1920

Evansville Courier and Press (Evansville, Indiana), 30 August 1920, page 2

Have fun filling in the lives of your ancestors and the times they lived in with railroad and train stories. You never know what you’ll discover about your family history!

Which of Your Ancestors Would You Invite to Your Family Reunion?

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary fantasizes about being able to invite some of her famous ancestors—including flight pioneers the Wright brothers—to a family reunion.

I’ve got a number of friends who get excited about fantasy football.

Whereas this is quite a snoozer for me, I see their point. They love to discuss and theorize about favorite football players—which is not unlike family historians when they get together, who assert their knowledge about favorite genealogical finds. And genealogists love to discuss their favorite ancestors!

Nobody can really speak for their ancestors, of course, but you can—in a round-about way—introduce them at your next family reunion. Someone could present a written report on their favorite ancestor, or the more theatrical members at your reunion could re-enact times and events surrounding your more noteworthy (or notorious) ancestors.

So if you could invite any relation (direct or otherwise) to your next family reunion, who would it be?

The Wright Brothers

One of my choices would be my latest cousin discovery: aviation pioneers Wilbur and Orville Wright, who share Edmund Freeman (1737-1813) and Martha Otis (1737-1790) as mutual ancestors.

I’d love to ask the Wright brothers if they were apprehensive about their flying machine when it first took flight. I’ve read the patents and various reports about their incredible aviation invention, but it would be wonderful to get their first-hand accounts.

Patent No. 821, 393 of 2 May 1906 (available for viewing at Google Patents):

To all whom it may concern:

Be it known that we, ORVILLE WRIGHT and WILBUR WRIGHT, citizens of the United States, residing in the city of Dayton, county of Montgomery, and State of Ohio, have invented certain new and useful Improvements, in Flying-Machines, of which the following is a specification.

Our invention relates to that class of flying-machines in which the weight is sustained by the reactions resulting when one or more aeroplanes are moved through the air edgewise at a small angle of incidence, either by the application of mechanical power or by the utilization of the force of gravity.

This old newspaper article from 1903 reports that the Wright brothers’ flying machine flew three miles against the wind.

A Flying Machine Goes Three Miles against the Wind, Fort Worth Star-Telegram newspaper article, 18 December 1903

Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Fort Worth, Texas), 18 December 1903, page 1

If Orville Wright were alive, I’d love to see him fly his hydro-aero-boat invention. This 1913 newspaper article describes him, not as an aviator, but as a “noted birdman,” and reports that Wilbur Wright had been stricken with scarlet fever. What fun that Orville’s flying boat was tested on “Mad River”!

Orville Wright Perfects New Flying Boat, Evening Times newspaper article 5 December 1913

Evening Times (Grand Forks, North Dakota), 5 December 1913, page 10

Accused Witch Lydia Gilbert

Another on my list of ancestors I’d invite to my family reunion would be accused witch Lydia, wife of Thomas Gilbert. This travesty occurred in October of 1651, reportedly in Hartford, Connecticut (not Salem, Massachusetts). At the time, Lydia and her husband were living in the household of Henry Stiles. A neighbor, Thomas Allyn, was present when a gun discharged, slaying Stiles. Allyn was found guilty of “homicide by misadventure” but three years later, Lydia and others were accused at a Court of Oyer and Terminer of having caused the deed by witchcraft.

Poor Lydia. Wouldn’t you love to hear from her and to reassure her that witchcraft trials were finally put to rest when Governor Phils dissolved this particular Court on 29 October 1692. (Note: that didn’t put an end to all Courts of Oyer and Terminer, a term easily searchable in GenealogyBank. Such courts were authorized to oversee certain criminal cases.)

GenealogyBank’s newspaper archives don’t date to 1651 (although they do contain the first newspaper published in America, Publick Occurrences, in 1690), but there are various references to witch trials contained in the old newspapers, including this photo of the Old Witch House taken in 1914.

Oldest Building in Salem, Mass., Anaconda Standard newspaper article 26 June 1914

Anaconda Standard (Anaconda, Montana), 26 June 1914, page 1

Oyster Cracker Inventor Adam Exton and Wife Elizabeth Aspden

Although not household names today, British immigrants Adam Exton (1823-1887) and wife Elizabeth Aspden (1821-1894) were well known in Trenton, New Jersey, during their lifetime. Adam Exton was the inventor of the oyster cracker, a recipe which became immensely popular. I’d love to invite both of them to my family reunion as well.

I’d like to inquire why Adam Exton didn’t patent this particular invention, as it was soon stolen—and to this day some still disclaim him as the inventor of the delicious invention. However, this piece of family provenance is substantiated in a 1917 newspaper article written by his nephew, also named Adam Exton, who worked in the cracker factory and knew his uncle personally.

Life History of Oyster Crackers, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 31 May 1917

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 31 May 1917, page 4

If you’d like to know more about this topic, search the Web for “Adam Exton’s cracker factory.” The factory still exists and has been renovated into condominiums, known as the Trenton Lofts.

So as family reunion season approaches, consider inviting a few “virtual” ancestors to the party, and don’t forget to search GenealogyBank’s historical archives for the family trivia. You might even uncover a news report of a previous family reunion. When I input “family reunion” into GenealogyBank’s search box, almost 100,000 matches return! Many of these old news articles include old family reunion photos that show the whole family the way they were in the past. What great find to share with the rising generation at your next family get-together so that the young ones can see their ancestors’ faces.

GenealogyBank search box for "family reunion"

GenealogyBank search box for “family reunion”

So which ancestors would you place on your “fantasy ancestral team”? Please share your more extraordinary ancestral finds with us!

The 1876 Centennial Exhibition Celebrated 100 Years of American Freedom

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena writes about the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition that celebrated 100 years of American independence.

Do you remember the American Bicentennial? In 1976 Americans celebrated our shared history and our fight for freedom. Visual reminders of the early history of America were everywhere. My school picture that year had a background of an American flag, and as I stood against that background my arm rested on a faux chair that had a small eagle painted in gold. For those who were around in 1976, it is easy to date that image.

Did you have ancestors living in the United States in 1876? Just as you may have participated in bicentennial celebrations, they participated in centennial activities to celebrate 100 years of American independence. Maybe they even attended the biggest celebration of America’s freedom: the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, the first time an official World’s Fair was held in the U.S. From May to November 1876 in Fairmount Park, the city of Philadelphia provided Americans the opportunity to see history, experience the newest technologies and innovations, and show patriotism just 11 years after the Civil War ended.

Philadelphia International Exhibition souvenir ribbon, 1876, from the Cornell University Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library

Philadelphia International Exhibition Souvenir Ribbon, 1876, from the Cornell University Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library

Approximately 10 million visitors strolled the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition’s 285 acres and saw exhibits in more than 200 buildings. The Exhibition of 1876 offered everything from historical and technological exhibits to food. Most states participated as well as over 30 nations. Patriotism was a big part of the great Centennial Exhibition but so too were the machines and exhibits that touted America’s innovation.

Many of the top American inventors of the day presented their newest creations at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. This was the international event where attendees from around the world were introduced to Alexander Graham Bell’s invention he called the telephone, and Thomas Edison was there showcasing some of his new ideas. Many everyday household items that we now take for granted were either exhibited or introduced at the Exhibition including typewriters, sewing machines and even Heinz 57 Tomato Ketchup. The largest steam engine ever built, weighing a staggering 56 tons, was at the Exhibition and powered the Machinery Hall.

Even Lady Liberty was there—well, part of her arm and torch to be precise. This section of the Statue of Liberty was displayed at the Centennial Exhibition as part of a fundraising effort to raise the money needed to build a base for the permanent statue.

colossal hand and torch “Liberty,” from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

Colossal hand and torch “Liberty,” from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

All good things must come to an end and so did the Centennial Exhibition. On November 10th President U.S. Grant, with a wave of his hand and the words “I declare the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876 closed,” marked the official end of the Exhibition. For ten days after that official declaration the Exhibition continued to stay open and allowed people to visit the exhibits until they were removed.

The International Exposition of 1876 Formally Closed, Critic-Record newspaper article, 11 November 1876

Critic-Record (Washington, D.C.), 11 November 1876, page 3

Today, all that is left of that 1876 event is Memorial Hall, the Ohio House (which now houses a café), and two smaller buildings.*

The Free Library of Philadelphia has an online exhibit, The Centennial Exhibition, where you can learn more about the fate of the buildings and machinery at the legendary Exhibition and about the event itself. Fairmount Park, the park that hosted the Exhibition, has an archival collection available to researchers by appointment.

Want to learn more about the 1876 Centennial Exhibition? The original guides to the Exhibition are available on Google Books. For a look at the history and images from the Exhibition see the “Images of America” book Philadelphia’s 1876 Centennial Exhibition by Linda P. Gross and Theresa R. Snyder (Arcadia Publishing, 2005).

If your ancestors were alive in 1876, perhaps they went to see the Centennial Exhibition themselves—about 20% of the American public did. Even if your ancestors did not actually visit the Exhibition, it was a big event during their lifetime that they most likely talked about in their homes and communities. You can peruse GenealogyBank’s historical newspaper archives to read thousands of news articles containing the original coverage on the Centennial Exhibition. GenealogyBank’s online newspaper archives are a great place to learn about your ancestors’ lives and the times they lived in—from 1690 to the present.

________________________________

*Whatever Happened to: Buildings. Centennial Exhibition Digital Collection. Free Library of Philadelphia. http://libwww.library.phila.gov/CenCol/what-bldgs.htm. Accessed 21 October 2012.

 

Today in History: Bizarre Yet Brilliant Inventor Nikola Tesla Born

Happy Birthday Nikola Tesla!

When most people think about an electrical genius who was a master inventor, they think of Thomas Edison. However, when Edison was working his magic in the late 19th and early 20th centuries he had a rival who was every bit his equal in brains if not lasting fame: Nikola Tesla. Today marks the 156th anniversary of Nikola Tesla’s birth on July 10, 1856. In remembrance and celebration of Tesla’s legacy on his birthday we explore his uncommon life.

A Brief Biography of Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla was born in the village of Smiljan, present-day Croatia, but became an American citizen. In his eventful 86-year life Tesla proved to be a real wizard of electricity: he perfected alternating current (AC) electrical power; made breakthroughs in radar, X-rays and robotics; invented the Tesla coil; and made many important discoveries that justify calling him the “father of modern radio.”

Unquestionably a genius, Tesla spoke eight languages fluently. He experienced astonishing visions in which he saw inventions so clearly that every detail was already sharp in his mind before he ever set them down on paper. At the height of his fame the public marveled at his inventions and recognized him as the equal of fellow inventor Thomas Edison.

Sadly, that fame was not to last. As he aged he became increasingly strange, with ever-more bizarre behavior. He was obsessed by many things, including pigeons and a deathly fear of dirt. The number 3 haunted him: for example, he always walked around a block three times before entering any building. The public lost its fascination with him, and his life ended without acquiring the lasting fame that Thomas Edison enjoys to this day.

Nikola Tesla died broke and all alone in a New York City hotel room on Jan. 7, 1943. Despite making more than 700 inventions in his lifetime and many of science’s most important breakthroughs, he died deeply in debt, unnoticed and forgotten—perhaps the archetype of the “mad scientist.”

He may have been bizarre, but Tesla was not crazy—and many of the devices and procedures we use today sprang from the mind of this baffling, incredibly inventive man.

Tesla's Latest: The Electrician Illustrates Three New Discoveries, Plain Dealer, 9 April 1897

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 9 April 1897, page 8

Published in the Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 9 April 1897, page 8.

The above old newspaper article was written when Tesla enjoyed great renown.

The article begins: “After many months of silence, Nikola Tesla spoke night before last at the Academy of Science, and, as always happens on such occasions, the scientific knowledge of the world was the richer thereby. Mr. Tesla, without going deeply into the details of his methods, announced three discoveries he has made, and gave practical illustrations of them. One will revolutionize the present methods of electric lighting, will exert a tremendous influence upon a hundred different things, and will open to the investigator an infinite number of highways of research, and will end, Mr. Tesla says, in bringing about that sought-for end of all electricians: the transmission of information through space without the agency of wires now needed.”

A collection of old newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s historical newspaper archives, provides tremendous information to help with your family history research—and also contains stories about the times and leading figures that influenced your ancestors’ lives such as this remarkable inventor. You can explore thousands of articles to learn more about the curious life of Nikola Tesla in our online archives.