Saturday, September 30, 2017

Railroad Industrialist James Jerome Hill Was an Inventor Too?

Historians at James J. Hill House Say the Patent I Found Might Be His...

Stuart K. Hayashi

As U.S. patents are public information, for several years now they have been searchable on Google Patents. Some years ago, back when Google Patents had a more user-friendly interface, I decided to take a look at the patents of some famous figures, such as Walt Disney; Steven Spielberg; George Lucas; Jamie Lee Curtis (of Halloween fame); and Herbert Hoover, Jr., son to former U.S. President Herbert C. Hoover. Then I decided to look for the patents of nineteenth-century industrialists. I found those of John "Jack" Jacob Astor IV and Cornelius "Neily" Vanderbilt III, both of whom have long been recognized as inventors, though neither were or are as famous as their respective namesakes, the entrepreneurs who founded their respective family dynasties.

Photo of James Jerome Hill from the Pach Brothers,
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Then, on a whim, I decided to see if there were any U.S. patents issued to James Jerome Hill, immigrant from Canada and builder of the Great Northern Railway, even though I did not recall any of the history books I had read about him having mentioned that he had any patents to his name (more about this near the bottom). Hill is often remembered for having constructed a transcontinental railroad across the northern United States without any federal subsidies, in contrast to the Northern Pacific Railroad and the connecting Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads that came much earlier. Hill is renowned for his railroad, but not for any inventions.

There are many U.S. patents which list, as their inventor, a "James Hill" that was obviously not this late-nineteenth-century railroader. However, one U.S. patent in particular caught my attention:  U.S. Patent Number 227,434.   The patent, issued in 1880, was for a new type of railroad dumping car.  Such dumping cars transported freight such as coal, and, similar to today's dump trucks, they can be tilted in order to dump the freight into a pile. Such an invention was certainly directly related to the industry for which Hill is most well-known.  And there were other several details concerning this patent that gave me reason to suspect that the listed inventor was the same man known for the Great Northern.

Figures 1, 2, and 3 from U.S. Patent 227,434,
with the inventor's signature on the bottom.
The patent went to a "James J. Hill" of St. Paul, Minnesota. St. Paul is the location of Hill's mansion: James J. Hill House, still existing to this day and managed by the Minnesota Historical Society, which gives tours of the place.  The timeline also matches:  it was just two years prior to the granting of this patent that Hill purchased the bankrupt St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, which would serve as the basis for the line that would eventually come to be known as the Great Northern. Moreover, the witnesses whose names appeared at the end of the patent were those of Reuben B. Galusha and Edward J. Schurmeier. Men named Galusha and Schurmeier have been involved in the history of the Great Northern.

Still, how could I be sure that this railroad dumping car was not the invention of yet another St. Paul resident named James J. Hill?  I am no expert on how common that name was in St. Paul at the time.  I had not remembered, earlier in September, this being a major topic in the biographies of Hill that I had read (again, more about this at the end). When I googled for "james j hill great northern patent dumping car," I couldn't find any websites specifically about the patent, other than Google's page on U.S. Patent 227,434 itself.  (Here are three internet archives of the results for when I googled "james j hill great northern patent dumping car" on September 30, 2017: 1, 2, 3.)

As you can see in the archive from September 30, 2017 (10:56 p.m. Hawaii time, which would be October 1, 2017 in all the other time zones), as well as in the archives from 2004, 2009, 2012, and 2016, the patent has not been mentioned on James Jerome Hill's Wikipedia page prior to the first publication of this blog entry (September 30).

At Corey Baum's recommendation, I asked the historians at James J. Hill House if they could comment on whether they thought it was plausible that the James J. Hill who received U.S. Patent 227,434 was the same James J. Hill responsible for the Great Northern Railway. On September 20, 2017 -- just four days following Hill's birthday -- James J. Hill House replied. With James J. Hill House's explicit permission, I share part of the reply:
While I think it would take a little more investigating on our part to say for certain (we're not immediately familiar with this patent), I think it's pretty safe to assume that the James J. Hill mentioned in the patent is the same James J. Hill who created the Great Northern Railway, and whose house we operate for tours. You're right that the timelines do match up nicely, as 1880 is two years after he and other investors purchased the bankrupt St. Paul and Pacific which he then expanded and renamed to the Great Northern, and we've never heard of another man of that name living in St. Paul contemporaneously with our Jim Hill. Your research is to be commended! Great work, and thanks for reaching out to us!

In the the days that followed, I looked further into this. It turns out that this invention might have been mentioned in a known biography after all, though as no more than an afterthought of the author. Albro Martin's James J. Hill and the Opening of the Northwest (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1976), says on page 217, "...he had gratified his ego by taking out a patent on an idea he had for converting flat cars into dump cars for spreading gravel."  Anyone who has read this book can be forgiven for forgetting that sentence -- the author, sadly, treats this bit of information as a rather trivial detail.

We cannot yet affirm it with absolute confidence but, as James J. Hill House says, the chances are quite good that the two James J. Hills are the same man.  It appears that not only was James Jerome Hill the mastermind behind one of the USA's most efficient railroad operations, but -- similar to George Westinghouse -- he patented a device of his own design that was highly pertinent to the railroad industry. Besides being a great entrepreneur, it is possible that the James Jerome Hill of history was an inventor as well. Though this dumping car did not impact the railroad industry with anything close to the same magnitude as Westinghouse's air brake did, U.S. Patent 227,434 belonging to the builder of the Great Northern would serve as yet another example of the mind of the Great Northern's builder always being at work, actively employing both imagination and logic in the search for new methods of improving productivity.