Monday, April 30, 2012

An excessively angry electrical entrepreneur

Adolph Wittemann: Cortlandt Street, 1886. From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

William E. Sawyer (1850-1883) was one of the brightest electrical engineers and entrepreneurs in the booming new industry of electricity. His light bulb was well designed and a staunch competition to Edison's. In October 1877, he invited some electrical engineers to his offices on 21, Cortlandt Street, in Lower Manhattan, New York. Sawyer presented them construction plans for an electrical "apparatus for rendering visible objects at a distance". Probably the meeting was meant to acquire investors in order to fund future research and development. Sawyer was used to that. His life was a constant flow of meetings with bankers, investors and business partners, most of them rather ignorant about electricity but eager to earn a lot of money in the booming new industry. Sawyer maintained a number of changing workshops and offices all over Lower Manhattan which, by 1880, was a lively urban center of industry and commerce. Sawyer also was a very ill-tempered man. He was often drunk, quarreled with his wife and finally shot a man for no good reason. It is not true that there had been a quarrel over Edison's light bulb, as some newspapers would have it. The New York Times had the real, breath-taking story: issues of April 6, 1880April 7, 1880April 8, 1880April 27, 1880, April 29, 1880May 1, 1880, October 1, 1881. Sawyer died soon after, before going to prison. His electrical patents became property of the future Westinghouse Company.

Exercise: Was William E. Sawyer a) a "Gentleman Scientist" b) an engineering professional c) a physics academic? Explain why newspapers would invent funny details like as if Edison's light bulb was the reason for Sawyer's quarrel with Dr. Theosophus Steele when it obviously was not? Is it OK for newspapers to do so? Listen and learn how to properly pronounce "entrepreneur"!

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