What kind of place stimulates creative minds and sparks a surge of invention and innovation? This series of blog posts explores that question with regard to innovation in the Berkshires.
The series is inspired by the Berkshire Museum’s participation in the Places of Invention exhibition, a project of the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the National Museum of American History and supported by the National Science Foundation.
Electricity is the natural force that powers our lights, our televisions, our iPhones and anything else with a cord or batteries. Can you imagine even one day without it? We rely on a deep understanding of this force without thinking about it or the numerous Berkshire inventors who made important developments that dramatically changed the way we live over the past century.
Great Barrington native Franklin L. Pope (1840-95) was one of America’s first practicing electrical engineers. In his hometown he began his inventing career selling sketches of locomotives as they went through the city. An explorer, inventor and patent attorney, he served as president of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers and wrote a great deal about history as well as electrical engineering. Sadly, Pope met an ironic and terrible end when he was accidentally electrocuted.
Two brothers from Stockbridge contributed to the development of our modern quickly connected world. Predicting major changes in urban transportation, Stephen Dudley Field (1846-1913) designed the first electric trolley, which was installed in New York City in 1874. His brother, Cyrus West Field (1819-1892), became world-famous in 1857-58 after laying the first successful transatlantic cable, stretching 2,500 nautical miles from Ireland to Newfoundland and transmitting messages across the ocean in a matter of minutes. His collaborator Samuel Morse (1791-1872), who invented the electric telegraph and the famous code used to send messages across the cable, was also from Massachusetts.
To escape the dismal air quality of Pittsburgh, William Stanley, Jr. (1858-1916) moved in 1885 to Great Barrington, where he was employed by electrical pioneer George Westinghouse, who held over 300 patents. Within a year of living in the bucolic Berkshires, Stanley demonstrated the first complete system of high voltage alternating-current transmission ever, lighting the offices and stores along Main Street, Great Barrington. All future transformers and AC distribution systems were based on his prototypes. When Westinghouse came to inspect Stanley’s system in 1886, the fresh, restorative environment encouraged him to build an estate in nearby Lenox, Erskine Park. The property included a private powerhouse on Laurel Lake that supplied electricity for the 1,500 incandescent lamps in the house (the largest private electrical installation at the time) and by 1895 supplied power to the entire town of Lenox.
After moving to Pittsfield, Stanley founded the Stanley Electric Company, where he continued to improve his distribution systems and experimented with other technologies. The business was purchased by Edison General Electric Company in 1903, where the legacy of Stanley’s transformer lived on at the city’s largest employer until 1986.
The Berkshires continued to draw electrical inventors into the 20th century. Some innovative engineers were even born here, such as Frank Sprague (1857-1934), who had grown up in North Adams. He was a prolific inventor who made revolutionary contributions to electric motors, elevators and streetcars, and became known as “The Father of Electric Traction.” This title shows the strong connection the Sprague family had to not only their workers, but all the people of North Adams. So, in 1930, when his son Robert Sprague (1900-1991) needed a larger facility for his Quincy-based company, he came back to the Berkshires to look. The old textile mills of North Adams provided the perfect location and, after setting up a branch of Sprague Electric there, Robert soon became the largest employer in the city. This Berkshire-based company would go on to produce components used in advanced weapons systems during World War II, the Gemini moon missions in the 1960s and the 1980s consumer electronics market.
The author, Shannon Groat, served as a Spark!Lab host in Berkshire Museum’s Spark!Lab, where opportunities for children and families to explore their inventiveness—to create, innovate, collaborate, and problem-solve—are available every day.
Check out Berkshire Museum’s video highlighting the company that makes the paper on which United States currency is printed. Can you guess? You can find it on the Places of Invention interactive map, part of the Places of Invention exhibition at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.