Mike Hoey asked, “We are floating on a dock at the public boat launch on Lake Morey (in Fairlee), so what brings us here today?”
“We’re going to talk about the namesake for Lake Morey,” Vermont Historical Society executive director Steve Perkins answered. “So, Samuel Morey was a pretty famous inventor. He was born in Connecticut, grew up in Orford, New Hampshire — which is right across the Connecticut River, sort of pointing this way over there — but then ultimately lived in Fairlee.
“Like I said, he was an inventor, and especially interested in locomotion. We’re before trains, we’re before automobiles, so now we’re talking boats. How do we make boats move? Now, his real invention was saying, ‘how do we take steam and turn it into an engine that spins so that a waterwheel will turn and move a boat?’.”
Hoey asked, “Did he do any of his pioneering work in steam power right here on what still would have been Fairlee Pond back then?”
“He developed this engine, and he actually patented it in 1793,” Perkins replied. “He built a boat as proof of concept and supposedly drove it on the Connecticut River, and the legend is that he experimented with it here on this pond. I think you’ve probably heard of Robert Fulton?”
“I have indeed,” Hoey said.
“Yeah, when you think of the steamboat and who invented the steamboat and it says ‘Robert Fulton’ — our argument here from Vermont is that in fact, Samuel Morey was first to have proof of concept of this,” Perkins continued. “In fact, this boat that he experimented with here, he brought down to use as a ferry between Trenton and Philadelphia.
“His backers went bankrupt, but one of the people who saw his boat and understood that boat was a man named (Robert) Livingston, who ended up being the financial backer of Fulton. And so, even at the time when Fulton famously drove his boat years later on the Hudson River, proving that he had a steamboat, Morey was like, ‘wait a minute. I’ve already done this. These guys took my idea.'”
“People in New Jersey and Philadelphia have seen it as a commercial enterprise, even,” Hoey added.
“Exactly — but unfortunately, Robert Fulton gets all of the credit,” Perkins said. “His steamboat worked commercially; Morey’s didn’t.”
“And I understand that all of you at the Vermont Historical Society have a very interesting scale model depicting a byproduct of some of his work,” Hoey pointed out.
“Absolutely, Mike; we have his own model that he made,” Perkins said. “The steam engine itself is above my hand; it’s this little thing right here. This is simply a boiler that runs it. This came directly out of Samuel Morey’s workshop, and one of his descendants gave it to the Vermont Historical Society way back in 1900. This was actually affixed to a tea kettle which showed how it worked; it’s a working model. The Historical Society put it on top of this device here in the early 20th century — and used it. They actually made it run.”
“Although the device is not on public display at the moment, it has been in the past and there’s a chance it may be again in the future at some point,” Hoey said.
“Oh, absolutely, Mike,” Perkins noted. We have 30,000 items just in our museum collection alone. You can see it on our website.”