At ‘This Place in History’, we’re in Williamstown with Executive Director of the Vermont Historical Society Steve Perkins.

“Williamstown was the birthplace of Thomas Davenport, the inventor of the first electric motor. So what runs trains, cars, trolleys and even my electric drill at home is all thanks to this guy,” began Perkins

“He was born here. He had a hard life, a very poor farm family. He ended up being apprenticed to Enoch Howe in this house here. He learned the blacksmith trade and ended up in Brandon, Vermont. There was a lot of iron smelting going on in Brandon, where he practiced being a blacksmith. Ultimately, he got very interested in electromagnets after a visit to an iron ore mine in Crown Point, New York.”

“He had this brainstorm that he could take an electromagnet and somehow make it move, to then create an electric motor. So an electromagnet, at the time, was a soft iron core with copper wire wrapped around it. One end usually had a copper probe and the other end had a zinc probe that went into a Galvanic battery.”

“So think potato batteries that you may have made in school. You stick the two probes in the potato. Same deal, just like your car battery. Those have been known for a long time. So scientists had figured out that you could make a magnet that ran on this electricity that was created by the battery. They were using it in the mine to attract small bits of iron,” explained Perkins.

“He was at the mine watching this electromagnet pull small bits of iron out of the dirt and whatnot, and he noticed that it moved when it came into contact with these bits of iron. So he bought the magnet and brought it home to tinker with it and realized that if you put one magnet inside a horseshoe-shape or round shaped electromagnet, that they would start to turn when you electrified it. And so he said great, we’ll make a motor,” said Perkins.

“And long story short, he traveled around the Eastern Seaboard getting investors. He ended up patenting it in 1837. The patent model is down in the Smithsonian right now. Then he went on to create a model of a train that ran around a small round track to prove to people that an electric motor could drive a train. You just needed enough power to do it.”

“Now he died poor and destitute, as most inventors do, at age 49. He was born in 1802. And so he died at age 49, but his invention lived on. Ten, 20 years later, you saw it starting to drive trolleys throughout the United States and all other forms of locomotion,” concluded Perkins.

At ‘This Place in History’!

For more from our This Place in History’ series, click here.

To view a map of Vermont’s roadside historical markers, click here.