Thursday, January 21, 2010

Julius Thompson's Odometer, 1854

Generally well known in Middleborough is the Thompson family of painters including Cephas Thompson (1775-1856) and three of his children: Cephas Giovanni, Jerome and Marietta. Generally less well known is Cephas Thompson’s youngest child, Julius, who pursued a life of science rather than art.

Julius always seems to have been somewhat different from his siblings. He was a half-brother to the remaining Thompson children, being the only child of Cephas and his second wife Lucy (Thompson) Thompson, and was the only Thompson child educated at Middleborough’s Peirce Academy, the others being schooled at Bridgewater..

Yet, like his siblings, Julius, undoubtedly drew (and was encouraged to draw) as a child, but his drawings likely proved less artistic than technical. While the others were painting, Julius no doubt was tinkering with gears and mechanical devices in the barn on the family’s River Street farm. Julius did however engage in the more technical aspects of the family’s work, assisting in grinding and preparing paints with his father who recorded in his journal in May, 1843, that the two were occupied in making Ultramarine Blue.

Julius’ interest in mechanics and science assuredly derived from his father. As George Decas has revealed, Cephas Thompson had a definite mechanical skill, and it was later said of the elder Thompson that “his inventive and mechanical genius were of superior order.”

Throughout the 1840s, particularly, when Julius was still residing on the Middleborough farm, Cephas Thompson was most actively engaged in developing inventions. Decas’ account of Thompson’s many developments includes a “Delineating Machine” in 1806, a rolling machine to level ground in 1827, a “Phrenological Machine” in 1834, brimstone matches in 1838, “asphaltum varnish” in 1842, a “filtring frame” in 1843, “Brown Red” paint and a paint color mill in 1844, “Alumina” in 1848, “Citron lake” paint in 1850, a paint dryer in 1853, and a “shaking machine” possibly to mix paint in 1856. No doubt, Julius was involved in many aspects of this work.

Julius also worked independently upon projects of his own, the most noted of which he developed in the years immediately following his 1848 marriage to Bathsheba Thomas Warren: the Thompson Odometer, patented in 1854.

At the time Thompson applied for patent protection for his invention, the prestigious Scientific American took notice of it, and explained to its readers just what the device was. “The odometer is an instrument for telling the distance or space of ground over which a vehicle – such as a wagon or carriage – has traveled….Such instruments have been long known, but from some defects in their operation, do not seem to have come into general use.”

As noted by the journal, at the time Thompson perfected his odometer, such devices were not new. As early as 15 B. C., the Roman engineer Vitruvius had developed a rudimentary device to measure distance traveled. In 1847, William Clayton and Orson Pratt, Mormon trekkers from Missouri to Utah wished to record the distance traveled by their group and so developed the “roadometer” which was built by Appleton Milo Harmon, a member of the group, of wooden cogs. Similarly, Samuel McKeen of Nova Scotia invented a prototype of an odometer which measured distance traveled through recording the revolutions of a wagon’s wheel. However, these early odometers were unwieldy, technically deficient or both.

Thompson’s odometer corrected these problems. Thompson developed a way to transfer the motion of the wheel to the odometer by means of a stationary weight which Scientific American termed “an ingenious contrivance for the purpose.” Thompson’s patent claim explained that “the nature of the improvement of this odometer consists in the peculiar means employed for communicating the motion from the wheel of the vehicle to the working parts of the implement, viz., by having a cylindrical weight placed within its case, said weight being detached, and from its gravity remaining stationary (not revolving with the wheel) and thereby giving motion to the working parts, as the wheel revolves.” Essentially, as the case, attached to the hub turned, the weight, though remaining in a fixed position, turned as well, transferring the revolution of the wheel to the odometer’s ratcheted dials.

On October 31, 1854, Thompson received a patent for his odometer. He was thirty years old, coincidentally the same age his father was when he received his first patent for his delineating machine of 1806.

Thompson tried unsuccessfully to capitalize upon his odometer patent, offering to sell territorial rights to its manufacture. The odometer was touted as being easily mounted to one of a wagon’s outer hubs in twenty minutes time. Dials on the device would be set to zero by aligning them with a mark incised on the case. “I have tried it thoroughly on a carriage wheel”, said Thompson of his odometer, “and find it all that can be desired. It will not get out of order; is safe to indicate, and cannot be interfered with by those who hire the carriage.”

Thompson claimed a number of advantages which his odometer had over others: “the working parts are perfectly protected from dust and moisture, and the operation is sure. The device is simple, but not liable to get out of repair, and may be applied to any vehicle in use.”

It is not readily apparent how successful Thompson was in marketing his invention, but the indication is that sales were sluggish. With the development of photography in the early 1850s, Julius found an interest which combined the family tradition of art with the technological advances of science and he became a professional daguerreotypist. Ironically, it was the success of early daguerreotypists like Thompson that ultimately led to a decline in the livelihood of his family, portrait painting. “In this respect, Julius played a unique role among the Thompson children,” notes Decas.

Nevertheless, Thompson never fully stopped inventing. He later would receive Patent 35,377 for an advanced screwdriver in 1862 and, not surprisingly given his occupation, Patent 44,678 for improvements to an apparatus for drying photographic plates in 1864. At the time of these latter two inventions, Thompson was residing in Taunton. In later life, he appears to have left both inventing and photography behind. He became a dentist.

"Thompson's Odometer", Scientific American, Volume 10, Number 17, page 134.
Julius Thompson’s odometer as it appeared in his patent application of 1854 (the part marked “D” is the stationary weight which revolutionized odometer design at the time and which Scientific American termed “ingenious”). The odometer which most likely was developed on his family’s farm on River Street in Middleborough, failed to bring Thompson much in the way of financial rewards, though it attracted significant attention at the time.

Scientific American, "The Odometer", Vol. 10, No. 4, October7, 1854; "Odometers", Vol. 10, No. 9, November 11, 1854; "Thompson's Improved Odometer" [advertisement], Vol. 10, No. 14, December 16, 1854; and "Thompson's Odometer", Vol. 10, No. 17, page 134, January 6, 1855


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