Birthplace of the Electric Motor in 1834
By Prof. Thomas D. Visser
Historic Preservation Program,
University of Vermont
History of the Smalley-Davenport Shop
Located on the east side of the road which leads from Brandon to the village of Forestdale, Vermont, about 800 feet south of the intersection of Vermont State Route 73 and Route 53, stands a two story house known as the Orange Smalley-Thomas Davenport Shop. It was probably built around 1830 or earlier as a workshop on the farm of Dr. Adoniram J. Smalley. Here in 1834, Orange Alfonso Smalley, a young blacksmith and mechanic living with his parents, and another blacksmith, Thomas Davenport, experimented with electromagnetism.
Born in 1812 in Hartford, New York, (near Whitehall, N. Y.) Orange Smalley was the sixth of twelve children of Dr. Adoniram J. Smalley, a Dartmouth College educated doctor, and Sophia Goss Smalley. Sophia was the daughter of Joshua Goss, one of Brandon's early settlers and wealthiest residents. A major land owner, whose farm was located west of Forestdale Village, Joshua Goss gave to Sophia at least 70 acres of land on which she and her husband, Adoniram, built their farm. Dr. Smalley's farmhouse was built on the east side of road from Brandon to Forestdale.(1)
By 1833 Orange Smalley became associated with Thomas Davenport, a thirty-one year old blacksmith who had recently moved to Forestdale from Brandon Village. Davenport's wife, Emily, was a daughter of Rufus Goss who was a brother of Orange Smalley's mother. Probably attracted to the newly developed Forestdale iron works, Thomas and Emily lived at her father's farm which abutted the Smalley farm. The Rufus Goss house is a two-story brick dwelling, located on Country Club Road west of Forestdale.
In December of 1833, Thomas Davenport purchased a large, battery-powered, electromagnet at the Penfield Iron Works at Crown Point, New York, where this newly developed invention was being used to separate iron ore. For the next several months, he and Orange Smalley worked together in Smalley's shop on experiments in electromagnetism. By the summer of 1834, they succeeded in producing rotary motion.(2)
After refining the machine, Davenport and Smalley demonstrated their "electromagnetic engine" to Professor Turner of Middlebury College at Middlebury, Vermont, in December of 1834. In a handwritten note of January 5, 1835, Professor Turner described "Davenport and Smalley's Specification of their Invention of an Electro-Magnetic Machine." His description of the invention was illustrated with the drawing shown here. (3)
Soon after this public demonstration, Smalley and Davenport had a disagreement about how they should proceed with their invention and decided to part company. In his autobiography Thomas Davenport wrote:
But it was after several months of continued executions and many sleepless nights that I persuaded a mechanic to assist me in making further experiments. This gentleman after aiding in the construction of ten or twelve machines of different arrangements in which the power was increased more than a hundred percent was obliged to relinquish his engagement for the want of funds, but retaining however his entire confidence in the value of the invention. (4)
A more detailed account of the collaboration was offered by Orange Smalley, who was interviewed in 1890 for a series of articles about the invention of the electric motor published by Franklin W. Pope in The Electrical Engineer.
Shortly after his removal to Forestdale, Davenport formed the acquaintance of another artisan living there named Orange A. Smalley. Smalley was ten years younger than Davenport, bright, enterprising, and with a natural taste for scientific pursuits.... It came about that he and Davenport soon became constant and congenial companions during their brief periods of relaxation from daily toil. Smalley at this time owned a workshop, and had accumulated a few hard-earned dollars in the diligent pursuit of his trade of blacksmithing and wagon-making....
During the greater part of the year 1834, these two worked together in the building still standing at Forestdale, which at the time was occupied by Smalley as a shop. Early in the summer of that year they succeeded for the first time in obtaining rotary motion by electro-magnetism....
After much further experimentation, Davenport and Smalley finally succeeded in completing an organized apparatus which was capable of maintaining continuous rotation by automatic means....
The description of Davenport agrees in every essential particular with that recently given to the writer, from his own recollection, by Mr. Smalley, who is still living and although almost an octogenarian, is in full enjoyment of his memory and faculties. He may be seen standing in the photographic view of his old-time shop, which forms one of our illustrations. (5)
Davenport left Forestdale and continued refining the electric motor with the help of others. In 1837 he obtained U. S. Patent No. 132. In an effort to promote the invention. Thomas Davenport moved to New York City where he set up a workshop and exhibition space for his "electro-magnetic engine." He also published a newspaper on a press powered by one of his electric motors. Davenport was unable to secure sufficient financial backing to develop the electric motor commercially and after several years he returned to Brandon in poor health. He died in 1851 at the age of 49 after moving to nearby Salisbury, Vermont.(6)
Although many have assumed that the Smalley-Davenport Shop was a blacksmith shop, this may not have been its historic use. Instead it was probably a general purpose farm workshop with rooms upstairs for hired help or storage. Its architectural form does not correspond with the typical one-story blacksmith shop with a brick forge and a dirt floor. Smalley's account published in The Electrical Engineer describes the building as a shop, rather than a blacksmith shop. Also a deed for the sale of a nearby lot in 1846 refers to the sale of a small building standing on the John Phelps lot "north of Orange A. Smalley's shop."(7) A map of Forestdale published in 1854 shows the locations of the Smalley and and Phelps residences.
Research indicates that numerous deeds for properties located farther south in Forestdale sold during the 1840s refer in their descriptions to a "Smalley Blacksmith Shop" or the "blacksmith shop and wheelwright" as a point of reference, however. These shops were possibly the blacksmith shop and wheel shop which appear on the 1869 Beers map located at the intersection of the road to the paint works. This intersection is about a half mile south of the intersection of Routes 53 and 73. Also, curiously, an 1841 deed description of one property located in Forestdale near the intersection of the road to the paint works refers to the "Smalley blacksmith shop or where it stood before it burned down". (8)
In 1851, Orange Smalley sold his shop and its two acre lot to John Day. The property description mentions that the land adjoins John Phelps south line. Day mortgaged back to Smalley the property described as "the same two acres of land and shop this day deeded to me by said Smalley." (9)
Orange Smalley acquired title to his parent's farm in 1836. (10) His father died the following year. In 1839, Orange Smalley married Nancy Alma Carlisle. Several years later, he built a house diagonally across the street from his parent's house.
Although built on the west side of the road from Brandon to Forestdale, Smalley's house was moved to a new location by horse around 1912. Today the two-story, five-bay wide house, stands on the east side of the road, two houses south of the Smalley-Davenport Shop. A row of locust trees planted by Orange Smalley on the west side of the road is about the only surviving visual evidence of the homestead. Remnants of stone foundations on the east side of the road south of the Capen house mark the location of outbuildings. These buildings may have been associated with the Smalley farm, although during the early 20th century the sheds were used as storage buildings for the nearby Newton & Thompson wood products factory. (11) The excavations associated with the construction of a large metal building on the site several decades ago probably destroyed most of the archaeolgical evidence of Smalley's farm.
In addition to being a farmer, wheelwright and blacksmith, Orange Smalley operated a tavern from at least 1847 through 1868. (12) By the late 1860s through the 1880s, Smalley was the foreman of the nearby Brandon Kaolin & Paint Works. (13)
By 1865, evidence that Smalley's former shop had been converted into a residence is found in a deed recording the sale of the building by John Day's widow, Jane Day, to Harry Baker. The deed refers to the property as her "homestead." Also the Brandon Town Records Grantor Index which records this transaction lists the property as a "house and lot." (14) In 1867, a list of property evaluations in the Brandon Town Records Field Book shows Harry H. Baker owned a house and half acre lot described as the "Day Place." (15)
The 1869 Beers Atlas map of Forestdale shows an irregularly shaped building or buildings marked "H. H. Baker" at the current site of the Smalley-Davenport Shop. It is unclear whether the irregular shape was intended to correspond with the footprint of building with the rear addition. Further south on the Beers map is a building marked "O. A. Smalley" on the northwest side of the street, which was probably his home. Another site marked "OAS" directly across the street may have been the outbuildings associated with Smalley's farm visible today only by the remnants of foundations southwest of the Capen house. (16)
A third building shown on the Beers Atlas map of 1869 belonging to O A Smalley appears to be about 500 feet southwest of his homestead and about 650 feet from the intersection of the road which led to the paint works. This corresponds with the location of the large yellow house known locally as Orange Smalley's father's house and the Carriage Shop. This was probably the "yellow house" which he acquired from his brother's estate in 1861. (17) A fourth O. A. Smalley house is shown south of Forestdale on the Beers map about 60 rods north of the Brandon Kaolin & Paint Co. (18)
On November 5, 1872, Orange Smalley sold a two acre lot northeast of where the shop stands to Harry H. Baker for $75.00. (19) This was probably used as a pasture. Some Brandon residents recall hearing that during the 1870s, eight tenants who worked at the nearby Newton & Thompson woodworking factory shop lived on the second floor of the rear ell. Deeds show that the building was conveyed to Harry Baker's son, Herbert Baker, in 1897. (20)
According to Charles Capen, a neighbor born in 1898, Harry Baker's son, Herbert, was a carpenter who added the porches. (21) Possibly at this time or later the front porch was built or extensively repaired and a poured concrete floor replaced the original wooden floor. Wire nails in the clapboards suggest that they were probably replaced. Archaeological research might be conducted to help determine whether the basement foundation on the southwest end of the 1830s section was original, or whether it was excavated in the 1870s or 1890s. Evidence in the basement suggests that the front sill was at least partially replaced and the basement foundation was mortared during the late 19th century. (22)
A photograph taken in 1890 by Franklin L. Pope for his article on the invention of the electric motor in the Electrical Engineer shows Orange Smalley standing in front of the "Shop in which Davenport and Smalley constructed their first electric motor; now occupied as a dwelling." (23)
In 1893, 80 year old, Orange Smalley died in Forestdale, Vermont. (24) His role of the development of the electric motor was mentioned in his obituary and in a posthumous biographical sketch. (25)
Interest in the achievements of Thomas Davenport grew during the late 1890s and early 1900s as the significance of the electric motor finally became generally recognized. The Vermont Electrical Association and the National Electric Light Association observed "Davenport Day" on September 28, 1910, in conjunction with the Vermont Historical Association. A large marble block with a bronze plaque commemorating Thomas Davenport was unveiled at the celebration.
A commemorative booklet records the event with a photograph of the unveiling of the monument surrounded by the assembled dignitaries.
The Smalley shop is partially visible in the background with a large American flag hanging from the south gable. Its clapboards appear to be painted white and the roof is covered with wooden shingles.(26)
The monument stands on eight foot square of land which was deeded to the Vermont Historical Society by Herbert Baker on September 27, 1910. (27) Although it stands in front of Orange Smalley's blacksmith shop, the inscription fails to mention Smalley.
During the 1920s, a small barn that probably dates back to 1860s, was converted into a dress shop or a tea parlor. After a while, it was moved back to its present location southeast of the house. (28)
In 1929, Rev. Walter Rice Davenport, nephew of Thomas Davenport, wrote the Biography of Thomas Davenport, The Brandon Blacksmith, Inventor of the Electric Motor, which was published by the Vermont Historical Society. The book presents a sentimental account of Thomas Davenport's life, based largely on an autobiographical manuscript written by Thomas Davenport in 1849. Soon a lively public debate ensued over the significance of Orange Smalley's involvement in the invention of the electric motor. Numerous letters to the editor published in the Rutland Herald were written by Mrs. Carver W. Smalley and Walter Rice Davenport. A December 1929 letter by W. R. Davenport reflects the tone of the discourse:
If Mrs. Smalley will but go to Forestdale she will see there a marker dedicated to Thomas Davenport, 1802-1851, The Inventor of the Electric Motor. Mr. Smalley was a good man, a fine mechanic and a valuable helper, and he gave some important suggestions, as Davenport himself said, but it is Thomas Davenport who made the immortal invention. (29)
Mrs. Carver W. Smalley was the wife of Orange Smalley's grandson, who with her husband purchased the Smalley blacksmith shop in 1941 and owned it for the next thirty years. A record of at least forty years of her research into the history of the Orange Smalley shop and the Smalley family genealogy is collected in two portfolios at the Vermont Historical Society. During the 1940s and 1950s Mrs. Smalley collaborated with Lawrence Chamberlain, a retired Wall Street broker who conducted extensive research on the history of Forestdale, Brandon and surrounding towns. (30) A view of the house is shown on card sent by Mrs. C. W. Smalley to Lawrence Chamberlain.
In 1975, the building was surveyed for the Vermont Historic Sites and Structures Survey. The photograph taken for the survey shows the exterior of the building in poor condition. Mary Kennedy purchased the property the following year and renovated the house. The current owner, Alice Costello, acquired the title in 1989. (31)
Today, the original part of the Orange Smalley shop stands at the front of the so-called Smalley-Davenport Shop building in Forestdale. This front section measures 20 feet 8 inches by 30 feet 8 inches. The original post and beam framing of the shop is visible with protruding 8 inch by 8 inch corner posts and side posts located at the center of the front and rear sides. The use of three framing bents results in a four-bay wide front and an off-centered entrance instead of the more common framing arrangement with four bents and five bays to allow a center doorway.
interior was substantially altered when the shop was converted into a residence by the 1860s, surviving physical evidence suggests that the shop may have originally had its work area on the first floor with at least four small plastered rooms above. No evidence was uncovered which would indicate whether anyone resided in these rooms or how they were used. The "accordion" type of plaster lath on the walls and ceilings upstairs, the type B cut nails used to construct the partitions, and the vertically sawn boards, studs and floor joists concur with a probable construction date of between the 1820s and the mid-1840s. Weathered boards visible on the west wall of the pantry suggest the possibility that a large opening was located on east rear corner of the shop. In the basement, the subfloor boards are vertically sawn, suggesting they were sawn before the 1850s when most sawmills in the area changed from up-and-down saws to circular saw blades.
According to a former owner, evidence of a large hole in the ceiling of the north parlor may suggest the location of a flue for a blacksmith's forge. (32) This evidence was later concealed by a gypsum board ceiling and could not be analyzed for this project. The attic shows no evidence of such a flue. Patches in the original roof boards and historic photographs indicate that brick chimneys formerly rose though the roof near the ridge near the center of the building and near both ends.
The architectural style of the exterior of the building, with the decorative window casings, the raking eaves and the presence of cut nails in the trim suggest the exterior was completely renovated around the 1850s or 60s. The rear addition to the building was probably built at this time.
The clapboards on the building are fastened with wire nails, however, suggesting they were possible replaced after the mid 1880s. The current window sash, although old, are not original to the house. They were salvaged from other sources and installed by Mary Kennedy in the 1970s. (33) Currently the house is divided into two sections with a small apartment located on the second floor of the rear wing. The small storage barn in the side yard is in poor condition.
Back to Table of Contents
- (1) Sophia (Mrs. Carver) Smalley, "Smalley Genealogy," [ms.], Portfolio of notes, vol. 2., Vermont Historical Society, Montpelier, Vt.; Leon S. Gay, ed., Brandon, Vermont, A History of the Town, 1761-1961, (Town of Brandon, 1961), p. 224; and Quitclaim deed, Ep. J. Smalley to Orange A. Smalley, August 25, 1836, Deeds, vol. 15, p. 419, Brandon Town Records, Town Clerk's Office, Brandon, Vt.Back
- (2) Gay, p. 188; and Kirby, Deborah S. Historical photographs of Brandon and Forestdale, Vermont, Research Applications, 1976.Back
- (3) Professor Silliman, "Notice of the Electro-Magnetic Machine of Mr. Thomas Davenport of Brandon, near Rutland, Vermont," Electro-magnetism. History of Davenport's Invention of the Application of Electro-magnetism to Machinery ., (New York: G. &. C. Carvill & Co., 1837):1; "Claim of Thomas Davenport," Electro-magnetism. 21; Franklin Leonard Pope, "The Inventors of the Electric Motor, The Electrical Engineer 11 (7 January 1891): 4; and Pope (14 January 1891): 34. Back
- (4) Thomas Davenport, ms. 1849. Vermont Historical Society, Montpelier, Vt.Back
- (5) Pope, 7 January 1891: 4-5. Italics added. Back
- (6) Electro-magnetism; and Thomas Davenport, "Prospectus of the Magnet," The Magnet, (4 July, 1840): 1, and Gay, 192-3Back.
- (7) Deed, John H. Johnson to Caleb A. Rogers, 16 September 1846, vol. 20, p. 32, Brandon Town Records, Town Clerk's Office, Brandon, Vt.Back
- (8) Lawrence Chamberlain, transcriptions of Brandon deeds, Lawrence Chamberlain Collection, Brandon Public Library, Brandon, Vt.; F. W. Beers, Atlas of Rutland County, Vermont. (New York: F. W. Beers, A. D. Ellis, and C. G. Soule, 1869); and Deed, Lewis Russell to John Sexton, 29 March 1841, vol. 17, p. 286, Brandon Town Records.Back
- (9) Deed, Orange Smalley to John Day, 24 March 1851, vol. 21, p. 171, Brandon Town Records and Mortgage, Orange Smalley to John Day, 24 March 1851, vol. 21, p. 488, Brandon Town Records.Back
- (10) Quitclaim deed, Ep. J. Smalley to Orange A. Smalley, August 25, 1836, vol. 15, p. 419, Brandon Town Records.Back
- (11) Charles Capen, personal interview, 21 April 1992; Seeley Disorda, personal interview, 2 May 1992 , and Sophia Smalley, letter to Lawrence Chamberlain, n. d., Lawrence Chamberlain Collection, Brandon Public Library, Brandon, Vt. According to Mrs. Carver Smalley's letter, Dr. Adoniram Smalley's house was on the east side of the road opposite the house built by Orange Smalley on the west side. Back
- (12) Lawrence Chamberlain, letter to Mrs. C. W. Smalley, 12 December 1942. Smalley Portfolio of Notes. This letter refers to a Tavern Book and Account Book of Orange Smalley which Lawrence Chamberlain consulted during a visit to Mrs. C. W. Smalley in Brandon in 1942. The Tavern Book runs from around 1847 to around 1868. The current deposition of these account books is unknown, however Chamberlain's transcriptions of information from them is included in the Lawrence Chamberlain Collection at the Brandon Free Public Library. Back
- (13) Beers and Hamilton Child, Gazetteer and Business Directory of Rutland County, Vt.. for 1881-1882. (Syracuse, N. Y., 1880) 287. Back
- (14) Deed, Jane Day to Harry Baker, 22 March 1865, vol. 29, p. 427, Brandon Town Records, and Grantor Index, vol. 1, Brandon Town Records. Back
- (15) Field Book, 1867, Brandon Town Records. Back
- (16) Beers. Back
- (17) Quitclaim deed, Ep. J. Smalley Estate to Orange A. Smalley, 1861, vol. 26, p. 104. Back
- (18) Beers, and Brandon Town Records. Back
- (19) Deed, Orange A. Smalley to Harry Baker, November 5, 1872, vol. 36, p. 99, Brandon Town Records. Back
- (20) Kennedy, and Deed, Harry H. Baker to Herbert L. Baker, July 7, 1897, vol. 49, p. 35, Brandon Town Records. Back
- (21) Capen. Back
- (22) The front sill was sawn with a circular saw, suggesting it was milled during or after the 1850s while the other framing members visible in the basement show vertical sawn marks typical of an up-and-down water-powered saw common in mill.s prior to the 1850s. The fieldstone walls of the basement under the front southwest section were pointed with mortar after the front sill was replaced. The floor boards under the entire front section are vertically sawn. Back
- (23) Pope, 7 January 1891. Back
- (24) Brandon, Vermont: A History of the Town, 1761-1961, (Town of Brandon, 1961), p. 225. Back
- (25) "Orange Smalley," newspaper clipping (probably from the Rutland Herald) of an obituary in Sophia (Mrs. Carver) Smalley, Portfolio of Notes, and "Orange Smalley," Book of Biographies, Rutland County, Vermont, (Buffalo: Biographical Publishing Co. , 1899) 328. Back
- (26) Thomas Commerford Martin, An Appreciation of Thomas Davenport, (Vermont Electrical Association, 1910).Back
- (27) Quitclaim deed, Herbert L. Baker to Vermont Historical Society, September 27, 1910, vol. 56, p. 165- 166, Brandon Town Records. Go to deed
- (28) Capen and Kennedy. Back
- (29) "Letters to the Editor," Rutland Herald, 26 December 1929, clipping in Sophia (Mrs. Carver) Smalley, Portfolio of Notes, Vermont . Back
- (30) Sophia (Mrs. Carver) Smalley, Portfolio of Notes. Lawrence Chamberlain's research notes are located in the Brandon Public Library in Brandon, Vt. Back
- (31) Kathlyn Hatch, Historic Sites and Structures Survey, (Vermont Division for Historic Preservation: Montpelier, Vt.) 24 June 1975; Kennedy, and Quitclaim deed, Peter F. Kennedy, Jennie Kennedy & Mary P. Kennedy to Alice Costello, June 1, 1989, vol. 101, p. 388-9, Brandon Town Records. Back
- (32) Kennedy. Back
- (33) Kennedy. Back
c. 1995 UVM Historic Preservation Program
Revised 10/23/95 by Thos. Visser