Robert Jemison Van de Graaff
A pioneer in the field of nuclear physics, Robert Jemison Van de Graaff invented some of the earliest particle accelerators. Born and raised in Tuscaloosa, he received his master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Alabama in 1923.
After graduation, Van de Graaff spent a year as an engineer for Alabama Power Co. He traveled to Europe in 1924 to study atomic physics at the Sorbonne University in Paris and Oxford University. It was in the laboratories of Oxford that he realized that advanced subatomic research would require the rapid acceleration of particles and very high voltage. He set to work constructing a machine to achieve such intense power and, in 1929, created an electrostatic device later named the Van de Graaff Generator.
By the 1930s, Van de Graaff had returned to the States and created an accelerator that could generate one million volts. He was quickly offered a position at MIT to continue his work and received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1945. The following year, he started the High Voltage Engineering Corp. to supply electrostatic generators for medical treatment and atomic research.
Following his original particle accelerator, the introduction of an insulated core transformer allowed researchers to generate high amounts of energy without the need for electrostatic charge. Van de Graaff continued to explore the possibilities of particle acceleration through the 1950s and accumulated seven patents in his field.
Although she never saw a dime from her invention’s success, Birmingham’s Mary Anderson introduced the first functioning windshield wiper blade at the turn of the 20th century. Before drawing plans that would establish today’s industry standards, she built the Fairmont Apartments in Birmingham. She also spent part of the 1890s in California operating a cattle ranch and vineyard.
Prior to her invention, rainy-day motorists had to apply oil to their windshields to keep rainwater from obscuring vision, or open their windows altogether. Anderson conceived her wiper blade creation while visiting New York one winter. While riding a trolley through town, she saw the driver stop his vehicle and clear his windshield by hand. Upon returning to Birmingham, she drafted a simple solution: a lever-operated arm set with a rubber-wiping blade. She patented her new invention in 1903.
Two years later, she contacted a Canadian production firm with hopes of selling her product, but was turned down. The firm claimed that the wiper blade had no commercial value. Anderson moved on from the episode and did not try to sell her invention again. When her patent expired nearly 20 years later, however, wiper blades quickly spread through the market and became a common feature in modern automobiles.
Miller Reese Hutchison
Born in Montrose in 1876, Miller Reese Hutchison led a life of continuous innovation and became one of the South’s most prolific inventors. By the time of his death in 1944, Hutchison had more than 1, 000 patents to his name.
While he began developing electrical products during his time at Auburn University, Hutchison is perhaps most widely known for inventing the first electrical hearing aid. The device, originally developed to restore a long-time friend’s hearing, spread around the world and earned Hutchison the praise of medical experts and European royalty.
In the early 1900s, as motorized transportation became more common, Hutchison saw an urgent need for louder traffic warnings. His answer was the cacophonous Klaxon horn. The battery-powered horn’s famous “Ah-oo-gah” sound was much more alarming than previous horns and prompted a more immediate response from other motorists and pedestrians.
Hutchison’s achievements drew the attention of Thomas Edison, who brought him into his fold for consulting in 1910. Two years later, Hutchison become chief engineer of the West Orange laboratory in New Jersey. While with Edison’s laboratory, he worked with the U.S. Navy to supply submarines with the lab’s storage battery.
Photo courtesy of the Birmingham Public Library
Although born in Pennsylvania in 1864, Erskine Ramsay is remembered throughout Alabama for his industrial aptitude and philanthropic nature.
Working with his family in various trades, Ramsay learned the fundamentals of machine work, business and mining by his late teens. In 1883, he was made superintendent of H. C. Frick Coke Co.’s mines.
Ramsay’s success in Pittsburgh drew the attention of Tennessee Coal and Iron Railroad, who relocated him near Birmingham. At TCI’s Pratt Mines, Ramsey quickly rose through the ranks to assistant general manager.
Ramsay began to develop new devices that would make the mining process safer and more efficient. Among his patents, Ramsay produced mine carts with brake systems and shelter cages to protect the passenger. He also developed shaking screens to sift minerals. Ramsay excelled in the mining industry and went on to hold high ranking positions with other groups, becoming president of Pratt Consolidated Coal Co. in 1904.
Later he chaired the Birmingham Board of Education, the Republican National Committee and served on the the Coal Production committee during World War I.
When not inventing flying machines, John Fowler could most often have been found in his clockmaker’s workshop in downtown Mobile. He had the contract for maintenance of the large street clock on Mobile’s Royal Street.
Photos courtesy of the University of South Alabama Archives
John E. Fowler
Years before the Wright Brothers’ famous flight at Kitty Hawk, John Fowler experimented with several flying machines near the present day site of Mobile’s Brookley Aeroplex, where Airbus is now building its first U.S. assembly plant. Fowler is considered by many to be the first aviator of the Port City.
The Mississippi born watchmaker moved to Mobile in the late 1800s. After a near-death sailing experience in a Gulf squall, Fowler committed himself to street preaching on the Mobile waterfront. It was in one of these public engagements that Fowler announced his intention to build a flying machine to soar over Mobile Bay.
Fowler’s first attempts at flight involved gliders and propellers spun by wound rubber or pedals. Eyewitness reports suggest that his initial flight was a success, as Fowler glided over Mobile Bay for several miles. He later attempted to incorporate motorcycle engines into a powered aircraft, but these test flights were unsuccessful.
While there is no solid documentation that he ever achieved powered flight, some Mobilians claimed to have seen his craft overhead. Although he may not have put a motorized plane in the air, Fowler is respected for his scientific ambition.
Andrew Jackson Beard
Born into slavery and losing a leg to a railroad accident, Andrew Jackson Beard turned his love of work and desire for railroad safety into one of the most important rail safety features — the automatic car coupler.
Born on a Jefferson County plantation in 1849, Beard took the opportunity of emancipation to follow his love for invention in search of prosperity.
After gaining his freedom at the age of 15, Beard began work on a farm near Birmingham. On the farm, he invented several plows that were patented during the 1880s to bring in a substantial sum. Having grown tired of the long produce deliveries between cities, Beard invested his patent earnings in lucrative real estate.
With his newfound wealth, Beard turned to locomotion and engineered a rotary steam engine in 1892. The engine was thought to reduce the risk of dangerous combustions associated with locomotives of the time. With his focus on railroad safety, Beard designed what many consider his most valuable contribution, an automatic car coupler.
Having lost a leg in a rail yard accident, Beard understood the risks involved with manual car coupling. Before automation, a rail worker was required to stand between two joining cars and set a pin at the moment of collision. The new coupler allowed cars to lock in place without the need for hands-on securing. The principles of Beard’s coupler designs went on to influence modern car components and helped make railroad work immensely safer.
Though he was a New Hampshire native, Daniel Pratt played a key role in the industrialization of Alabama. Born at the end of the 18th century, Pratt formed rural communities and transformed them into prosperous production centers. The cotton gins Pratt developed were used across the South and beyond and spurred economic growth in the early days of many central Alabama cities.
In the 1830s, Pratt recognized Alabama’s potential for cotton farming and founded Daniel Pratt Gin Co. in the center of the state. He began building cotton gins in 1836 as he continued acquiring land around Autauga Creek, founding the town of Prattville, where he constructed a factory, schools and churches. The citizens of Prattville produced cotton gins, tin, wagons and other commodities to support the town’s young economy. By 1850, Pratt’s industrious community was exporting cotton gins across the globe.
After the Civil War, Pratt directed his fortune to spurring Alabama’s wounded economy. He rebuilt damaged furnaces and invested in railroads, iron and steel, major industries within the central Alabama region. Pratt’s iron and coal business continued after his death in 1873 and was eventually incorporated into U.S. Steel Corp.
Artwork by R. G. Skerrett
Horace Lawson Hunley
Horace Lawson Hunley is remembered as the Confederate engineer who devised several early submersible warships, some of which were built, tested or eventually lost in Mobile Bay. Earlier, he practiced law in New Orleans and served in the Louisiana State Legislature.
In 1861, after the Civil War began, Hunley was assigned by the Confederacy to build vessels capable of breaking Union blockades. Collaborating with James McClintock and Baxter Watson, Hunley built several submersible craft intended to torpedo hulls from below the surface. The submarines were equipped with ballast tanks that would fill with water or drain to allow the vessels to rise and dive. Powered by hand cranks, the craft were armed with an explosive at the end of a long spear at the bow.
Of the three submarines made by Hunley, it was his final vessel that garnered infamy and set a milestone in naval warfare. After losing two previous submarines, Hunley built a new, 40-foot warship in Mobile and shipped it to Charleston, SC, where it broke the Union’s harbor blockade. The submarine sank twice in testing, costing Hunley his life on the second run.
The submarine was later raised and renamed the H.L. Hunley in honor of the lost engineer. In 1864, the Hunley sank USS Housatonic in the harbor. This was the first successful submarine attack on an enemy ship, though the Hunley sank shortly after the Housatonic.
George Washington Carver
George Washington Carver is among the most well known inventors from Alabama’s history.
A prolific chemist and agricultural genius, he discovered hundreds of uses for various crops, especially the peanut.
Carver was born a slave around 1864 on the farm of Moses Carver. After emancipation, he was adopted by the Carver family and soon developed an interest in the plant life around his home. He attended college in Iowa, where he studied science, as well as art and piano.
In the 1890s, Booker T. Washington invited Carver to direct the Agricultural Department at Tuskegee. While there, Carver introduced crop rotation to Southern farmers. Farmland throughout the South had been depleted of minerals by years of cotton and tobacco planting. By planting soil-friendly crops like peanuts and soybeans, farmers were able to save their farmland.
Carver continued his extensive agricultural studies for the rest of his life, and produced a multitude of plant-based products, including cosmetics, fuels, dyes, and foods like peanut butter. He patented only three of his discoveries and donated his life savings to the Carver Research Foundation at Tuskegee University.
Text by Thomas M. Little