Today in History – February 25, 1837 – Thomas Davenport patents the electric motor and electric railway. Thomas Davenport, an American blacksmith, first invented the DC electrical motor in 1834 and used it to make a small model of electrical railway in 1835. He patented a device for “Improvements in propelling machinery by magnetism and electromagnetism” in 1837. Davenport was the first to make practical use of the DC electric motor, by using it to power shop machinery. He was so successful that he made a business of this and started a workshop in New York City where he published a journal on electromagnetism.
Davenport’s story is made even more remarkable when considering that he was born in poverty and was only freed as an indentured servant in 1823. He used whatever resources he could put his hands on to develop his invention, including cutting up his wife’s wedding dress into strips of silk to provide the necessary insulation to maximize the number of windings. Emily Goss Davenport was much involved with her husband’s inventions and recent historians note that she was well-educated, kept the notes on the invention and recommended the use of mercury as a conductor which turned out to be critical in its success.
The basic design and operating principles used by Davenport are still used in most electric motors today. Electric motors can be found in everything from air conditioners to consumer electronics. The average new automobile in the U.S. has over 30 electric motors in it, to operate everything from the electric starter to the power windows. The energy consumed by electric motors represents the single largest use of power in the United States.
For more information see the Engineering Pathway’s educational resources on Thomas Davenport and on electric motors. For related curricular resources, visit the Electrical Engineering Education or the Mechanical Engineering Education disciplinary communities.