Monday, March 22, 2010

Richard Dudgeon, Forgotten American Inventor, 1: From Hydraulic Jacks to Street Locomotives


Tuesday, October 5, 1858, was a day New Yorkers would not forget. As dusk descended on the city, lamp lighters moved through the glass-walled Crystal Palace igniting its hundreds of gaslights. Seen from afar, the shimmering building resembled an enormous garden greenhouse alive with fireflies. Next to this pellucid structure, the massive bulk of the above-ground Croton Distributing Reservoir loomed darkly against the autumn sky, its sloping walls green with English ivy.

Inside the Crystal Palace, the annual fair of the American Institute was in progress--a tribute to the young nation's inventiveness and abundance. A late-afternoon crowd thronged the building, marveling at diverse exhibits ranging from the latest in sewing machines to an array of giant pumpkins. With the finest harbor in the world, New York had become the nation's primary port for sea-borne cargo. It was also a major rail hub and the nation's commercial, banking and manufacturing center. The Crystal Palace was a natural venue for inventors and manufacturers of the young nation to display their wares.

A Cry of "Fire!"
One of the fair's three steam calliopes had just finished shrilling "Pop Goes the Weasel" shortly after 5 p.m., when the ominous cry of "Fire!" went up near the 42nd Street entrance. Smoke and flames poured from an unused storeroom. The fire quickly traveled upward via the illuminating gas piping and outward along the resinous pitch pine flooring. Exhibits of paint and chemicals added to the inferno. Although it boasted more gaslights than existed in all the streets of New York, only five hydrants were provided in the entire structure--none of them supplied with fire hoses. The Crystal Palace was a disaster waiting to happen.

Within minutes, flames engulfed the dome. With a thunderous roar, it came crashing down, driving the fire into the wings of the structure. Despite the proximity of millions of gallons of Croton water in the adjoining distributing reservoir, the companies of volunteer firefighters could do little to stem the fire's advance. Miraculously, although more than two thousand persons were in the building, no lives were lost. Smoke and flame were visible from many parts of the city. Like many of his successors, Mayor Daniel F. Tiemann, a wealthy German-American paint manufacturer, loved to direct the firefighters and rushed to the scene. So did the city's pickpockets, to ply their trade openly among the stunned onlookers magnetized by the spectacle of the destruction of the city's showplace. After making sure that all visitors had exited safely, volunteer firemen repeatedly attempted to save the fire apparatus on exhibition.

When morning came, a few firefighters remained to wet down the still-smoldering ruins. Hordes of the curious snatched souvenirs covered with melted glass from the wreckage. Gone was an irreplaceable collection of fine art and manufactured products from all over the world. On 40th Street, the hostelry known as the Fremont House became the unofficial headquarters of the dispossessed exhibitors. Thronging the lobby, they recounted their losses and told of narrow escapes. Among those at the Fremont House was a tall and somber-looking Lincolnesque individual. Standing among the crowd, he listened quietly to accounts of the fire and tales of heroism. Then he walked across the street and stared at the ruins. Somewhere under that tangled mass lay his exhibit of hydraulic apparatus. And somewhere under the wreckage were the remains of the steam carriage he had built and displayed as part of his exhibit.

Richard Dudgeon, Machinist
Later, he identified himself to a watchman patroling the Crystal Palace site by exhibiting a business card reading, "Richard Dudgeon, Machinist, No. 17 Goerck Street, New York." Hearing him speak, a listener might detect the trace of a Scottish burr--and with reason. The youngest son of eight children, Richard Dudgeon was born in 1819 in Tain, a small village in the Scottish Highlands. His father, Thomas Dudgeon, had caught "emigration fever" and made several trips to the United States, eventually bringing over his whole family.

Traveling west from Albany, they settled along the Seneca Turnpike in the Mohawk Valley at New Hartford, N.Y. Now a modest suburb of Utica, the village was then enjoying a remarkable prosperity thanks to the newly opened Erie Canal. The prospects of a youngest son inheriting any of his father's estate were not bright, so Richard left home at an early age. He went first to Albany, where he showed a marked aptitude for mechanics. After a brief apprenticeship, young Dudgeon made his way to New York City and found a job at the Allaire Iron Works. This was indeed a stroke of good fortune. The Allaire Iron Works on Cherry Street proved to be a wonderful training school. The works were then the most famous--and the most advanced--engine-building establishment in America, named for owner James P. Allaire, who had cast with his own hands the brass air chamber for Robert Fulton's North River steamboat Clermont. In 1833, Allaire also built the first "apartment house"--a four-story building on Water Street, with a dwelling unit for one family on each floor.

Dudgeon married Harriet Loretta Clark in 1848. With a wife to support and the prospect of children to come, he began his own business. He opened a modest machine shop on the ground floor of 84 Willett Street, not far from Allaire's works and close to the many shipyards along the East River at Corlear's Hook. This great maritime complex launched one of every seven steam-powered vessels built in the United States. Here Richard Dudgeon began to work on the first of many inventions.

A Patent Granted
French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal first described the principle of the hydraulic jack in the 17th century. In 1795, British engineer Joseph Bramah received a patent for "Certain New Methods of Producing and Applying More Power to all Machinery requiring Motion and Force." It covered the first hydraulic press.

During his apprenticeship, Dudgeon had recognized the need for a portable, powerful and easily operated lifting device. Until then, heavy lifting was done with great effort using inefficient screw jacks that had not changed much from those used in ancient Rome. On July 8, 1851, the U.S. Patent Office granted Patent No. 8,203 to Richard Dudgeon for a "portable hydraulic press." Operated by "water or other fluid," Dudgeon's ingenious invention was a compact hydraulic jack whose fluid reservoir was in the device's head. The "other fluid" was sometimes whale oil and sometimes whiskey. The latter was used principally in winter when other liquids tended to thicken or freeze and led to it being called a "whiskey jack." Keeping a whiskey jack filled was sometimes a problem in a nation where tippling was common.

Dudgeon's hydraulic jack had other shortcomings. The reservoir in the head made the device top-heavy. Also, it could not be extended as far in a horizontal position as when standing upright. Dudgeon corrected these defects 14 years later in a new and improved model with the fluid reservoir in the base. His 1851 jack, however, had been functional enough to guarantee the young inventor financial success almost from the start. Dudgeon jacks were especially popular in the booming shipbuilding industry and in the growing number of railroad shops.

With a steady flow of orders, he moved his machine shop to larger quarters at 17 Goerck Street. Nearby at the corner of Stanton and Goerck streets, the Mechanics Bell hung on a 25-foot tower next to Isaac Webb's shipyard. Signaling the end of each ten-hour workday, the bell celebrated the end of the cruel "dawn to dark" schedule it supplanted.

Dudgeon's Steam Carriage
A lover of animals, Richard Dudgeon decided in 1853 to build a steam carriage, its purpose, as he later wrote, "to end the fearful horse murder and numerous other ills inseparable from their use." One of his good friends was W.S. Hudson, superintendent of the Rogers Locomotive Works in Paterson, N.J., to whom Dudgeon may have turned for advice. He must have completed his first steam carriage by 1857, for there are accounts of its successful operation in that year. The 1858 Annual of Scientific Discovery reported: "Considerable attention has been excited during the last year by the occasional appearance on Broadway of a street locomotive built by Mr. Richard Dudgeon. Its speed was about equal with the average speed of horses in stages and it was apparently controlled with much ease, and with more certainty. The popular notion that horses would be alarmed by such vehicles and that they cannot ascend hills on account of their wheels slipping, were refuted by the performance of the engine, which met with no case of difficulty of this nature, although it ran for a considerable part of several days on crowded streets."

No photographs of Dudgeon's first steam carriage have survived--but his original plans still exist. Contemporary accounts had good reason to call it a "street locomotive," for it strongly followed rail locomotive practice. The "engineer" and "fireman" occupied seats at the extreme rear of the vehicle. Long drive rods, slanted at an angle, connected the steam cylinders with a pair of spoked, large-diameter carriage wheels. A tall smokestack at the front end completed the rail locomotive analogy. Occasionally, Dudgeon's machine towed a light barouche through the streets.
Civic Problems
Richard Dudgeon faced opposition to the use of his first steam wagon on city streets. There are hints of this in his introduction to an 1870 catalog of his products in which he unburdened himself frankly: "If anyone makes a good, manageable steam carriage at his own cost, and goes everywhere, interfering with no one, have it understood that if one tailor says his horse does not like it, and shook his head at it, command the steam carriage man never to take it out his door again. That is what Old Tieman did for my first. His venerable relative sitting by him; and he looked at him, as if he might have said. 'Ain't that smart, Pappy?' "

The term, "Old Tieman," of course, does not refer to a haberdasher, but to Daniel F. Tiemann, a former almshouse governor and later mayor of the city in 1858 and 1859. It is easy to imagine the imperious Tiemann decreeing that Dudgeon's carriage would not be allowed to operate on city streets. The "venerable relative" would have been Tiemann's German-born father, Anthony, who avidly followed the younger Tiemann's political career. Papa had retired ten years earlier from a thriving paint business in the uptown village of Manhattanville and left it to his son. History does not record this as fact, but thanks to the Tiemann edict, a team of horses probably towed the Dudgeon steam carriage to the Crystal Palace and its rendezvous with fire.

The Crystal Palace
The structure in which Richard Dudgeon's steam carriage was immolated had a short but fascinating history. Erected in 1853, the Crystal Palace was inspired by the success of London's edifice of the same name. Boston auctioneer and carriage builder Edward Riddle proposed a similar project to New York investors. These included attorney Theodore Sedgwick, banker August Belmont, steam packet operator Edward Knight Collins, newspaper editor William Cullen Bryant, and assorted members of old Hudson Valley families with names like Schuyler, Livingston and Hamilton. The investors formed an association and petitioned the Board of Aldermen for the use of Madison Square at 23rd Street for permission to erect a "house of iron and steel for an Industrial Exhibition."

When news of the project became public, residents near Madison Square sued to halt its use and won. The Board of Aldermen then granted the group permission to use a new site on the outskirts of the city, four-acre Reservoir Square, on Sixth Avenue between 40th and 42nd streets. Secretary of State Daniel Webster facilitated the proposed exhibition building by declaring it a bonded warehouse. Soon after use of Reservoir Square was approved, Edward Riddle sold his shares in the project to the other investors, who took over the organization of the exhibition.

A competition to design the building was announced. Among the participants were Joseph Paxton, architect of the London Crystal Palace, and Leopold Eidlitz, later one of the designers of the state capitol building in Albany. James Bogardus and his assistant, Hamilton Halpin, submitted an innovative plan. Bogardus, a watchmaker and self-taught engineer, developed and patented a method of mass-producing modular building elements of cast iron that would make him famous.

The coveted award went to Georg Carstensen, designer of the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, and Charles Gildemeister. Their plan called for an octagonal base with a superstructure in the form of a Greek cross surmounted by a dome 100 feet in diameter. Each of its four arms measured 365 feet. The selection of the winning design had been a compromise. Association directors had wanted a replica of London's building, which had a rectangular footprint.

Twenty-eight different iron works supplied cast iron. The building's structural elements, weighing 1800 tons, supported a central dome towering 149 feet into the air. Emulating the color scheme chosen by Owen Jones for London's Crystal Palace, the outside of the iron frame was painted a bronze color, with ornamental work touched with gold. Inside, the iron frame was painted a deep cream color, with ornamental work again gilded. A full palette of other colors highlighted the interior. A total of 15,000 blue and gold glass panes sheathed the structure, but New York had learned from the British experience. The clear glass installed in London's Crystal Palace caused it to heat up uncomfortably on sunny days. New York's Crystal Palace employed translucent glass manufactured by the Jackson Glass Works, near Camden, N.J.

The New York Crystal Palace officially opened on July 14, 1853, by newly elected President Franklin Pierce; thousands attended the ceremony. Among the first visitors was young Sam Clemens, who came all the way from Missouri. He called it a "perfect fairy palace--beautiful beyond description" and noted that it drew six thousand visitors a day, as he put it, "double the population of Hannibal." Walt Whitman was entranced by the Crystal Palace and saw its exhibits as an embodiment of the vigor of the America he would sing about. Tall and roughly dressed, he returned so often officials assigned detectives to shadow the almost shabby-looking poet.

On 43rd Street, immediately to the north of the Crystal Palace was another tourist attraction--the 280-foot-tall Latting Observatory. An octagonal tower of timber braced with iron, it had the first passenger elevator in New York City, installed by Yonkers inventor Elisha Graves Otis. Telescopes at the top afforded visitors sweeping views of the city to the south and the undeveloped areas to the north.

By the end of 1853 the Crystal Palace turned out to be a financial failure with $100,000 in unpaid bills. Its roof leaked during heavy rains, ruining exhibits and dousing visitors. The following year an attempt was made to revive the permanent exposition. Flamboyant showman P.T. Barnum was induced to take over the management of what had become a white elephant. He reopened the exhibition with a ceremony dedicated to the working classes, but growing debt and delays quickly defeated his best efforts. After investing much of his time and money, he concluded, "the dead cannot be raised." Barnum resigned on July 1, 1854, explaining that he was "weary, fagged, tired and almost sick." He added, "I was an ass for having anything to do with the Crystal Palace."

The exhibition in the massive structure closed on November 1, 1854, with a whopping debt of $300,000. On August 30, 1856, nearby Latting Observatory was destroyed by fire, a frequent menace of buidings public and private. It was a portent of things to come. The investors kept the Crystal Palace going until January of 1857 by renting out the building for concerts and conventions. New York City took over the property in May of 1857. Given the building's shaky financial condition, it is perhaps not so surprising that the 1858 conflagration, which began in paper in a storage room, was attributed to an unknown incendiary.

Among the priceless items destroyed in the fire was armor from the Tower of London, Sevres china, Gobelin tapestries, jewelry and Carlo Marochetti's colossal equestrian statue of Washington. Other sculptures that had been on display included August Kiss's bronze "Amazon Attacked by a Lion," Bertel Thorvaldsen's thirteen gigantic sculptures of Christ and the Apostles, and the most famous nude in American art, Hiram Powers' chained "Greek Slave." Losses totaled $2 million.

After making sure all visitors had left the burning building, volunteer firefighters turned their attention to saving the pieces of fire apparatus that were on exhibit there. They managed to retrieve the hose carts of Empire Hose Company No. 40 and the Oceana Hose Company No. 36. The fire consumed the hose carts of Eagle No. 1 and Croton No. 5, the engines of Gotham Company No. 16 and Pacific No. 28, the hook and ladder truck of Mutual No. 1, and several steam-powered fire engines. The apparatus of the volunteer fire companies was more than mere mechanical equipment. Oceana, quartered on Madison Street, was one of the most elaborate hose carts in the city. Affectionately called "The Old Red Gal," it was beautifully decorated by artist Edward Weir. On one panel, Oceana, goddess of water, was shown with nymphs rising from the sea. On another was a view of the High Bridge that carried Croton water over the Harlem River to the city, and a group of Indians. On the back were views of the Park and Bowling Green fountains. On the front, a painting of a small girl washing her feet at a hydrant.

In an amusing sidebar to the Crystal Palace fire, Horace Greeley, editor of The New York Tribune, was arrested in Paris and jailed for two days with debtors in that city's Clichy Prison. The complainant was a sculptor whose work had been destroyed in the fire and who hoped to force payment of his claim by jailing the cantankerous editor. Greeley had been one of the commissioners of the American Institute Fair.

Editor's Note: With this somber scene we conclude Part One of Richard Dudgeon's history. Part Two appears immediately below.

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