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Our Rich History: Newport inventors include Granville Woods and first woman patentee in KY

By John Schlipp
Special to NKyTribune

Part 29 of our series, “Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020”

Historic US patents help to document early commercial developments in our region. The Northern Kentucky area, including Newport and Covington, spawned many industries in the nineteenth century, from clothing factories to rolling mills to furniture manufacturers.

Allen’s Iron Stand.

The first US patent granted to an inventor in Northern Kentucky appears to have been James Wright, of Covington, then part of Campbell County (1820 US Federal Census). According to historical patent indexes, Wright’s X2744 patent was granted on February 28, 1817 for a unique Spinning Wheel Improvement. For more about historical patents and related indexes, see this history column.

The first woman patentee from Kentucky was from Newport, Charlotte W. Allen, for her U.S. patent 62,800 entitled “Improved Smoothing-Iron Stand” (1867). According to the 1870 US Federal Census, 30-year-old C. Allen was the presumed spouse of W.H. Allen. Newport City Directories between 1867 and 1869 list Wm. H. Allen as a publisher living in a house on the north side of Bellevue Street by Licking River and Moss. The census record reveals that Mr. Allen was a lawyer. Both he and Clara Allen (listed as C. Allen age 15 in the 1870 Census) served as witnesses to Charlotte Allen’s patent.

Despite cultural and legal barriers during the decades following the Civil War, “the number of patents issued to women was increasing at a faster rate than the number going to men” (Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor, Women’s Contributions in the Field of Invention: A Study of the Records of the United States Patent Office, Washington, D.C., bulletin no. 28, 1923, p. 12). Referring to a 2019 report published by the US Patent & Trademark Office, between 1790 and 1859, only 72 U.S. patents were granted to women inventors, while 32,362 patents were issued to men during the same period before the Civil War (Progress and Potential: A profile of Women Inventors on U.S. Patents, Office of the Chief Economist: IP Data Highlights, No. 2, February 2019, https://www.uspto.gov/sites/default/files/documents/Progress-and-Potential.pdf).

The M. E. Wallace Button-Hole Sewing Machine, patented in 1877. Courtesy of US Patent and Trademark Office.

Other nineteenth-century women inventors of Newport, and their patents, included:
Ruth Tonyhill Brown, for her “Improvement in Buckets,” US patent 143,959, granted on October 28, 1873;
• Mary E. Wallace, for her “Improvement in Button-Hole Sewing-Machines,” US patent 196,729, granted on October 30, 1877;
Maria A. Gaugh, for her “Improvements in Wash Dish Pans and Drainers,” US patent 431,943, granted on July 8, 1890.

Granville Woods, a famous African-American inventor known as the “Black Edison,” developed railroad communication innovations. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Woods arrived in Cincinnati in 1880, eventually residing on Lynn Street in Covington.

Granville T. Woods

His most significant patented inventions were induction telegraphy US patent 373,915, and an improvement in railway telegraphy US patent 373,383. The induction telegraph patent was the first that operated while trains were moving, making it possible for them to communicate while in transit. He also founded the Woods Electric Company in Cincinnati, and ultimately built a similar plant in Newport, Kentucky. See also this Our Rich History column.

Newport was known for its Virginia heritage. Family names such as the Taylors and the Southgates were among the early settlers at the confluence of the Ohio and Licking Rivers across from Cincinnati. Geologist Nathaniel Southgate Shaler (1841-1906) was a prominent professor and scientist of these eminent families. As an inventor, he held multiple patents for his research.

Shaler was paternally descended from Connecticut Puritans, with maternal Virginia ties to the Southgate family. Poor childhood health necessitated primary schooling near the doorstep of his home, as well as the aid of a private tutor. His intellectual scientific curiosity was further piqued by his father, a Harvard-educated physician, while his grandfather instilled his love of the classics. Shaler’s scholastic roots led to his attending Harvard at 18 years old to study earth sciences. He graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Science in 1862.

Nathaniel Southgate Shaler. (Photo from Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, The Autobiography of Nathaniel Southgate Shaler: With a Supplementary Memoir by His Wife. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1909, opposite p. 226)

Shaler enlisted in the Union Army as captain of the Fifth Kentucky Battery. Due to health issues, however, he retired from the military and studied in Europe. In 1868, he pursued research at Big Bone Lick in nearby Boone County Kentucky, advancing his career to full professor in 1869 at Harvard in paleontology, later retitled as professor of geology.

Governor Preston H. Leslie of Kentucky appointed Shaler as Director of the Kentucky Geological Survey in 1873. Subsequently, he published his findings in a highly successful 1876 systematic survey, entitled A General Account of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. The Account prompted the economic rise of the coal industry in the Commonwealth. Shaler left a vast research legacy of 29 books and 234 articles. He obtained four U.S. patents for his inventions, two during his earlier days in Newport. US patents 44,664 (for a refrigerator building to preserve perishable substances, granted in 1864) and 47,991 (for an improved air-cooling apparatus, granted in 1865) are often cited in reference to the history of early refrigeration and air conditioning.

The Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky metropolitan area was also a stronghold of book publishing. The number of books published in the United States increased from 2,600 in 1869 to 4,500 in 1890. Scholar Joan Bourreau claims that book production and the printing trade expanded as a result of “a growing population, interest in bolstering the distribution of information, advancements in printing technologies…and entrepreneurship” (Joan Bourreau, “The Book Boom: Early Bookbinding Inventions,” National Museum of American History, October 1, 2015).

Advertisement for the Crawley Rounding and Backing Machine, as well as the Crawley Bundling Press, both of which were used internationally in bookbinding. Source: The Inland Printer, April 1903, p. 23.

Edwin Crawley, Sr. (1826-1902) of Newport became famous for his time-saving innovations in early bookbinding inventions. Born and educated in Philadelphia, he later moved to New Orleans and then joined the Gold Rush to California in 1849. Crawley next settled in Newport, Kentucky.

At least four of Crawley’s many patents were granted for the famous Crawley Bookbinder’s rounding and backing machinery, as well as bundling presses. Crawley’s other patented inventions included improvements in washing machines, horse-collar machines, and a steam velocimeter for railroad vehicles. However, Crawley’s passion for book publishing and the printing trade was evident with his book binding US patents, including: 184,198 (granted in 1876); 202,156 (granted in 1878); 372,128 (granted in 1887); and 474,819 (granted in 1892). Crawley manufactured bookbinding equipment at his factory at 328-330 Keturah Street in Newport. He ultimately opened branch offices in New York City and London, England. His bookbinding machinery is occasionally seen for sale, even in recent times.

Another prolific patentee of Newport was Ralph J. Stolle (1904-1996). Stolle produced machinery that popularized the well-known “easy-open” pull-tabs on beverage cans, also known as the “pop-top” can. He was granted more than 50 patents for his inventions. Born in Newport, Stolle attended schools in Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati, including the University of Cincinnati. In 1923, he cofounded Stolle Corporation, specializing in aluminum manufacturing.

Edwin Crawley, Sr. Source: The International Bookbinder, February 1902, p. 20.

Alcoa purchased the company in 1975. Stolle resided in Ft. Thomas, Kentucky while working at Stolle Corporation in Cincinnati, and later lived in Lebanon, Ohio. Subsequently, he founded the Ralph J. Stolle Company, including Stolle Machinery in Sidney, Ohio, and Stolle Research & Development Company in the Cincinnati region, supporting immunity products internationally with Stolle Milk Biologics and other subsidiaries.

Perhaps the most famous inventor hailing from Newport was the legendary “Tommy Gun” Thompson. John T. Thompson (1860-1940) designed the submachine gun, popularly known as the “Tommy Gun.” At least eleven US patents were granted to Thompson in the early 1920s for his firearm innovations, assigned to his Auto Ordnance Corporation. Many people recognize the Tommy Gun name from historical references to gangsters and police in the 1920s and 1930s. Lesser known perhaps is that the Tommy Gun firearms served prominently in the U.S. military between World War II through the Vietnam era. See also this Our Rich History column.

Ralph Stolle. Courtesy of Stolle Machinery Company.

In 2013, the Tommy Gun brand appeared in the news related to its trademark. Saeilo Enterprises purchased Auto-Ordnance in 1999, including its federally registered ® trademarks associated with Tommy Gun firearms and branded apparel. Saeilo initiated a trademark infringement lawsuit against a liquor company (ironically named Capone) for selling a vodka brand named “Tommy Guns Vodka,” packaged in a bottle shaped like an exact replica of the famed Thompson submachine gun. See this Our Rich History column. The Tommy Guns Vodka case was settled in 2015 as Saeilo Enterprises, Inc. v. Alphonse Capone Enterprises, Inc.

With ingenuity and some good luck, you might create the next great invention too. Do you have a brilliant idea for a newfangled, unique product, or a new business service? Perhaps you are working on a health innovation, novel software app, or other great gizmo? If so, then your first step is to determine which types of intellectual properties apply. Become aware of how to protect your prospective patents, trademarks, copyrights, and more at the Intellectual Property Awareness Collaborative (IPAC) at NKU’s Steely Library. The IPAC is a designated Patent & Trademark Resource Center (PTRC) representing the US Patent & Trademark Office. PTRCs are a nationwide network of libraries that disseminate patent and trademark information and that support the varied intellectual property needs of the public. For additional information, contact John Schlipp at schlippj1@nku.edu or NKU office phone (859) 572-5723.

John Schlipp, is a Professor and Intellectual Property Librarian at NKU’s Steely Library. He also directs the Intellectual Property Awareness Collaborative (IPAC) at NKU, assisting everyone from inventors to musicians in becoming aware of their intellectual property. The IPAC is an official Patent & Trademark Resource Center (PTRC) of the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. See this website for details about this free community service.

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