Tuesday, June 10, 2014

"Dont Fear the Reaper" - The Story of Jearum Atkins, Inventor

Back in 2011, as I was crawling through the weeds, trawling for interesting gravestones in Philadelphia’s Mount Moriah Cemetery, I came upon a most curious monument. It was in the hinterlands of Section 149, which is on the Yeadon (PA) side of the cemetery. (For those readers unfamiliar with this formerly-abandoned 300-acre Victorian cemetery, it actually spans two counties – Philadelphia and Delaware.) The Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. has made great strides in the past few years in keeping the grass, weeds, trees, and other foliage cut and maintained over about 25% of the grounds. However, Section 149 is in the 75% that remains overgrown.

The 3-foot high granite square monument upon which I stumbled marks the grave of one "Jearum Atkins, Inventor(1815 - 1897). I had never heard of him, so I photographed the four sides of the marker and looked him up on the Internet. The curious inscriptions seemed to indicate his inventions.

Jearum Atkins is not a household name like that of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. However, he was responsible for important, incremental improvements in engineering technology during the Industrial Revolution. One reason for his lack of fame might be due to the fact that he sold his most potentially profitable invention to Cyrus McCormick. Atkins, in 1852, perfected the design of Cyrus McCormick's original grain reaper, allowing McCormick to build the fully automated harvester, for which McCormick eventually became famous (he bought the "raking" design from Atkins!)

"Atkins Automaton Reaper" (ref.)

 From the book: Cyrus Hall McCormick, by Herbert Newton Casson (1909)"

"Of all the varieties of difficulties that confronted Cyrus H. McCormick during his strenuous life, the most baffling and disconcerting difficulty was when his Reaper began to grow. For fifteen years—from 1845 to 1860—it had remained unchanged except that seats had been added for the raker and the driver. It did no more than cut the grain and leave it on the ground in loose bundles. It had abolished the sickler and the cradler; but there yet remained the raker and the binder. Might it not be possible, thought the restless American brain, to abolish these also and leave no one but the driver?
As early as 1852 a fantastic self-rake Reaper had been invented by a mechanical genius named Jearum Atkins. This man was a bed-ridden cripple, who, to while away the tiresome hours of his confinement, bought a McCormick Reaper, had it placed outside his window, and actually devised an attachment to it which automatically raked off the cut grain in bundles."

Atkins monument, Mount Moriah Cemetery
Atkins lived during the Industrial Revolution – when machines were invented to replace manual labor and automate as many processes as possible.  The device mentioned above, the “Self-Raking Harvester,” was an improvement upon the McCormick reaper – the latter simply cut the grain. This saved the effort exerted by people with sickles, but the greater work was that of raking the cut grain so it could be bundled. Atkins’ redesign was such a success that after production began in 1860, farmers seldom bought any other machine.

Described as “one of the most remarkable men ever born in this country,” which nature endowed with “a phenomenal capacity for mathematical and physical inquiry” (Cassier’s Magazine, Vol. 5, 1893-4), Atkins applied for and received many patents from the U.S. Patent Office. His original inventions did not fare as well as his improvements on other people’s work. For instance, he improved the design for the steering mechanism of steam ships (“Hydraulic Steering Apparatus, patent issued 1890), using an application of hydraulics. Atkins’ list of engineering inventions, patents, and patent applications seems endless. Most of these in fact were contrived as he lay in bed, an invalid for twenty years due to a spinal problem. His fame and fortunes waxed and waned, but he continued to design, redesign, and strove to achieve.

Jearum Atkins’ patented inventions are inscribed on the four sides of his small, granite monument in Mount Moriah Cemetery. They are (followed by their patent award dates):

Self-Raking Harvester  1852 – 1868
Safety Valve Regulator 1868
Smoke Stacks 1868
Hydraulic Steering Apparatus 1890
Calipers 1868

Atkins' caliper improvement (ref.)
Atkins' caliper patent was a simple improvement on the mechanical measurement caliper. His smoke stack design was intended for steam locomotives, to improve the efficiency of the exhaust of steam. The safety valve regulator was intended for steam boilers, through which high-pressure steam could be vented so as to keep the pressure vessel from exploding. If this sounds too technical for the reader, go look in your basement and find the brass safety valve on the side of your water heater – same idea! Back in Atkins’ time, many were killed by accidental explosions of pressure vessels in locomotives and steamships. Possibly, his invention helped prevent such incidents. (Mark Twain’s younger brother, by the way, was killed in 1858 when the boiler blew on the paddlewheel steamboat on which he was a passenger.)

Quite a bit of history there behind an unassuming little grave stone in the weeds. As we consider the contributions of Jearum Atkins to engineering design and technological advance, let us realize that many original inventions are not necessarily all that useful. They are in many cases springboards for further development and improvement, often by people other than the original inventor!

Read more about Jearum Atkins’ inventions here: