Fathers of invention

A steam ferry of the Camden and Amboy Railroad.

NEARLY ten times its breadth from stem to stern, powered by a compound engine that rendered the ride both swift and smooth, the John Potter offered as elegant and efficient a link as could be had between Manhattan and the railhead of the Camden and Amboy. Its passengers continued their trip from wharves on the far shore of the Raritan River; the majority journeyed through to Philadelphia and points west or south.

The John Potter belonged to the Camden and Amboy, a railroad monopoly sanctioned by the state of New Jersey and directed by members of the Stevens family of Hoboken. The steam ferry’s design likely came from Robert Livingston Stevens, the mechanical genius in that dynasty of speculators and innovators. When it launched from the Stevens shipyards, the boat’s “internal appointments” were touted as equal to its engineering: two opulent “saloons” provided well-heeled travelers “all the comfort and repose of the most luxurious parlor or drawing-room at home.”1 It was an assessment William Whitehead couldn’t dispute, “after a delightful sail from the city, in that most comfortable of all boats the John Potter.”2

The “delightful sail” prompting Whitehead’s compliment took him just far enough from the hustle and worry of New York. For a 12 1/2-cent fare the boat dropped him off at Amboy Point where the Raritan meets the Arthur Kill, and the town of Perth Amboy looks out upon the broad Raritan Bay, “in which the waters of the Blue Hills of Jersey mingle with those of the Atlantic.” Designating it a “sweet, wholesome, and delightful place,” the East Jersey proprietors had chosen Perth Amboy for their capital. Whatever Amboy now was or was to become, it had been the Whiteheads’ home, William’s habitat in the years 1823-28, when he grew to the maturity and responsibilities of an adult, and the ancestral seat of his wife’s family, the Parkers. In late spring 1849 he found himself “once more, for a brief period,” living amid the city’s antiquated dwellings and venerable trees, in whose shade his attachment to history was born and nurtured.3

The Inventors’ Institute of Solomon Andrews at Perth Amboy.

How brief was his sojourn in the ancient capital isn’t clear, but it was productive. The pages of the Newark Daily Advertiser, already a venue of his jottings for more than a decade, carried four lengthy letters from his stay, written over the span of a month, the last dated the 4th of July.4 These letters enlarged upon Perth Amboy’s natural attractions, its colonial and Revolutionary past, and its many storied sites: both extant ones like the church and churchyard of St. Peter’s, and those long vanished like the famous Mudie mansion, or Benjamin Clarke’s bookshop (“such, by the way, as the present city cannot boast of possessing”). But Whitehead’s letters didn’t ignore what new history was being written in Perth Amboy, or what natural limits were being tested, by a man then busily at work on the outskirts of the quiet city.

Whitehead knew Solomon Andrews, or had known him, and would fondly recall their companionship. From Andrews he “had imbibed some taste for the sciences and been induced to read scientific books.” Though four years older, Andrews seemed “very willing to encourage and guide me.” The son of the embattled local Presbyterian minister and, like his father, trained in medicine, he was already known as “an eccentric young man.”5 By the end of 1828 the two lads had departed Amboy in opposite directions: Whitehead south to Key West, Andrews with his father north to Connecticut.

Solomon Andrews, aged about 35, in an early daguerreotype.

It was a source of regret to Whitehead that he subsequently found little time or opportunity for scientific pursuits. Solomon Andrews, in contrast, having settled for good in Perth Amboy, poured energy and money into inventions. His brain seethed with new ideas, resulting in patents for wickless or “self-generating” gas lamps that he marketed near and far,6 a portable copying portfolio, barrel-making machinery, unpickable locks (for which he was handsomely paid by his best customer, the United States Post Office), and even an implement for making soda water.

Andrews had shared with Whitehead, long ago, some “crude ideas” on the subject of “aerial navigation.” Now, twenty years later, he had established an “Inventors’ Institute” in the confines of Amboy’s old royal barracks; near it stood a newly built hangar, in which he proposed to construct a vessel able to fly “in any and every direction, with or against the wind.”7

Visiting the site in June 1849, Whitehead found “an ungainly looking building, large enough for a moderate sized church, … which, from its appearance and situation is calculated to excite attention.”8 Yet no stranger’s eyes were allowed to see the scientific rites enacted within: light entered only through a few windows near the roof-line, and Andrews meant to keep his experiments a secret. Whitehead, having had no direct contact with him for twenty years, couldn’t judge how his ideas might have evolved, or how close he might be to fulfilling his life’s ambition. But within a few weeks Whitehead was to have his chance. New York papers carried an announcement of Andrews’s decision to open his works for a day of public inspection on Wednesday, July the 4th.9

Arriving on the scene, with day-trippers whose steamboat captains had made the airship a stop on their holiday excursions, Whitehead paid the 50 cents’ admission, and entered to see, hung from the building’s roof, the underpinnings of a vessel still quite unready to fly. It had no passenger car as yet, no rudder, no balloon or hydrogen gas to fill it. All these items were on hand or in preparation, but assembly and testing would take time, and as Andrews “politely explained” the ship remained an experiment. He was no less eager, however, to take to the air and prove the soundness of his design: “If I can only make one voyage to New York and back, it will be enough,” he said, “and I shall not care if my machine is destroyed the next hour.”10

Souvenir card from the May 1866 flight of Andrews’s airship Aereon.

In fact the ship never left its hangar, and perhaps was forgotten by all but Andrews himself. While the Fourth of July visitors were bound to include some skeptics, Whitehead was not among them: however questionable Andrews’s aerodynamic theories, Whitehead accepted that a flying machine was a possibility. Even before seeing its unfinished state, Whitehead could say that “something of the kind may be expected to emanate from beneath that sealed structure.”11 One need only think of the primitive boats on which Colonel John Stevens, the father of Robert, had tested the practicability of steam navigation. In the fullness of time, under different circumstances, the skill and sheer determination of both Stevens and Andrews proved them right.12

Whitehead wouldn’t venture to predict such success for the 1849 incarnation of Andrews’s flying ship, but neither did he doubt the man’s resolve: “it does one good to see enthusiasm thus displayed,” he wrote. A question, then. When Andrews decided to open his ship house and show the progress of the work, it was chiefly because its existence and purpose were lately revealed by “some unknown pen … in the columns of the Newark Daily.”13 Did Whitehead, greeting his companion of so many years ago, think to admit the “unknown pen” was his?

Copyright © 2019-2020 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] “New York and Philadelphia Line via the Camden and Amboy Railroad and Steamboat,” Hunt’s merchants’ magazine and commercial review 24:6 (June 1851) 764. On Robert L. Stevens see John H. Morrison, History of American steam navigation (New York 1903) 66. The John Potter and the Manhattan pier where it was docked were destroyed in a spectacular fire in 1864: The New-York times 12 July 1864 8:1.

[2] G.P., untitled letter dated “Perth Amboy, June 5th, 1849,” Newark (N.J.) daily advertiser 7 June 1849 2:1.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Three letters dated from Perth Amboy, two from nearby Woodbridge, and a further ten undated columns and reviews appeared in the pages of the Newark daily advertiser from May through August 1849, all subscribed with the cryptic but telltale initials “G.P.” Part of Whitehead’s summer was also devoted to copying gravestone inscriptions in Woodbridge and Piscataway, for the New Jersey Historical Society, with the help of his 12-year-old son William.

[5] “Childhood and youth of W. A. Whitehead 1810-1830.” A transcription of this memoir is held by the Florida History Department, Monroe County Public Library, Key West, Florida, and by the P. K. Yonge Library of Florida, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida; page 23 of the transcription contains the reference.

[6] In 1831, Whitehead’s close friend Daniel Dunscomb Bradford went to London with the intention of “securing a patent for a valuable invention of Dr. S. Andrews” – almost certainly his gas lamp. He hoped to do the same in Paris. Letter to Capt. David Dickson Bradford, 5 July 1831, in a private collection. The “splendid illumination” of St. Peter’s Church using Andrews’s gas lamps left Bishop George Washington Doane surprised and “much delighted” during a visitation in 1832. Letters of Rev. James Chapman to Thomas Naylor Stanford, 7 and 12 December 1832. Thomas Naylor Stanford Papers, MC 608, Special Collections and University Archives, Alexander Library, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J.

[7] “Aerial navigation,” Newark (N.J.) daily advertiser 8 August 1848 2:2.

[8] G.P., “Amboy, and its history,” Newark (N.J.) daily advertiser 12 June 1849 2:1.

[9] Andrews gave the text of this advertisement, which appeared in the New York sun and other papers, in his pamphlet Aerial navigation and a proposal to form an aerial navigation company [cover title: The art of flying] (New York 1865) 6-7.

[10] G.P., “Flying Machine – Steam – The Past,” Newark (N.J.) daily advertiser 6 July 1849 2:1. Cf. “Ærial ship of Perth Amboy,” Newark (N.J.) daily advertiser 3 July 1849 3:1.

[11] “Amboy, and its history.”

[12] Colonel John Stevens’s “ideas of the practical working of railroads, locomotive engines and other adaptations of steam and gas have all been realized,” noted Whitehead, “and many of them carried out by his immediate descendants.” Summoning up the experimental steamboat that, more than a half century earlier, was tested on New York’s Collect Pond, Whitehead asked: “Could the looker-on of 1795 have been readily convinced that the frail, rude, and imperfect model he saw before him, attaining possibly a speed of three or four miles per hour on the smooth surface of a pond, would, before fifty years should have elapsed, be represented by the noble steamship of a thousand tons, breasting unshaken the stormy waves of the Atlantic at the rate of 12 or 15 miles an hour?” In that light, Whitehead advised keeping an open mind about Andrews’s ideas, and even imagined some of their future applications: “we may yet, together, take a flight to the mines of California, or, which would be more to our taste, figure out for ourselves the solution of the problem ‘whence came the Americans?’ by a personal inspection of the ruins of Central America and test its correctness by an examination of the old world during a flying visit of a month.” “Flying Machine – Steam – The Past.” For the later, and successful, incarnations of Andrews’s airship see Mary Kingsley, “The Flying Jerseyman. Dr. Solomon Andrews of Perth Amboy.” Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society 72:3 (July 1954) 163-183.

[13] “Flying Machine – Steam – The Past.” Advertisement in Andrews, Aerial navigation 6.

Images: 1) Steamboat Landing at South Amboy, New Jersey (detail). Gleason’s pictorial drawing room companion 6:13 (1 April 1854) 200; colored engraving in the Special Collections Division, Newark Public Library. 2) Inventors’ Institute, Perth Amboy, New Jersey (detail). Stacy B. Kirkbride, Jr. ed. Kirkbride’s New Jersey business directory, general register and advertising medium (Trenton 1850) 331. 3) Robert Cornelius, Solomon Andrews, daguerreotype ca. 1842. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. 4) “From the car of Andrews’ flying-ship, a souvenir of her trial trip. Friday, May 25, 1866.” Material on Dr. Solomon Andrews’ flying ship “Aereon” and the Aerial Navigation Company. New York Public Library Digital Collections.

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