The Dowager’s Diary – Week One Hundred and Thirty

August 16-23, 1917

During the middle of August, 1917, I found Kate Roosevelt ahead of her time, but wasn’t surprised being that her late husband, Hilborne Roosevelt, was something of a Renaissance Man himself. His most famous invention was the electric pipe organ that won first prize at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876, but the list of things added to his credit is long and varied and include: the dry-cell Leclanche Battery that he held the patent on; the Champion Electric Burglar and Annunciator.

Alexander Graham Bell, New York to Chicago Telephone Call 1892

An alarm system used by hotels, it ran off of an indicator board that had small moveable tabs bearing the name of a location and when activated, the hotel room number or protected entry point would come up along with the sound of a bell ringing. From his organ factory located at 204 West Eighteenth Street in New York City, Hilborne Roosevelt also invented a water motor known as “Jaques Improved Hydraulic Engine for Blowing Organs.”  Four models were offered for sale. Adding to list of accolades, Roosevelt also invented a rubber overshoe that could be put on without the use of hands. But probably the most important but disappointing of his inventions was the one he collaborated on with Alexander Graham Bell to bring telephone service to New York City. Known as The Telephone Company of New York, Hilborne Roosevelt saw no future in it, calling it simply a gadget.  On July 30, 1878 Roosevelt and his investors sold the firm to the newly-formed, Bell Telephone Company of Boston for $18,000. Apparently, his cousin President Theodore Roosevelt felt the same way and refused to have telephone service installed at his home on Oyster Bay, Sagamore Hill.

Thirty four years later, Hilborne Roosevelt’s widow could have used his advice and certainly would have enjoyed all the money she would have had if only he had not shortsightedly sold his fledgling telephone company.

Relying on her Roosevelt resilience, on August 16, 1917, Kate Roosevelt wrote in her diary, “Mr. Stryker here for final talk about putting in Delco Electric Light.” Knowing her late-husband’s history with Thomas Edison, inventor of the electric light, I was a bit taken aback that she was relying on another source of illumination for her farm.

Delco Pamphlet Cover

Quite possibly the reason Kate Roosevelt chose the Delco Electric Lighting System was because their electricity was able to reach rural areas similar to the one she called Merdlemouth, nestled among the evergreens in Hightstown, New Jersey.

In the late 1800s, electric power was being installed in cities across the United States. This electric system ended up being a standardized 110 volt AC system. Outside of the big cities, there was no electricity. Farms had to rely on kerosene lights and possibly a six volt generator to charge the battery on the family radio.

Delco Advertisement

Two inventors, Charles Kettering and Edward Deeds, the “Thomas Edisons” of their time, changed that when they formed the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (DELCO) and developed a number of things that made operating a car easier. In 1912, they invented a self-starting engine for the Cadillac and in 1916, the Delco Light, a line of electric generating plants that was able to provide electricity to farms, country homes, country clubs, cabins, churches and small towns.

Kettering and Deeds built a large plant in Dayton, Ohio where they manufactured Delco Batteries and appliances that used the Delco Light System.

Buick 1912

They sold the business to Billy Durant, a pioneer in car manufacturing and marketing. It was placed under his company’s umbrella, United States Motor Company. In 1918, it evolved into General Motors. Durant had a good track record. In 1907, he was responsible for making the Buick the biggest selling automobile brand in the United States. Kate Roosevelt owned one and made note of it on August 17, 1917: “Left Merdlemouth for Staten Island at 8:45 a.m.in little four cylinder Buick car with George Nash the chauffeur driving.”

I couldn’t help but wonder if Mr. Stryker had sealed the deal with the demanding Mrs. Kate Roosevelt. His sales pitch would have been hard to turn-down. According the Farmcollector.com, “Salesmen with their cars equipped with a portable Delco Light Plant System, wired to a few lights, a water pump and a coffee maker would visit farms at dusk. After lighting up the barnyard and pumping some water, they would brew up coffee and hand ‘round mugs of the steaming drink, hoping someone would sign on the dotted line. After he made the sale, out came the appliances available to work with the Delco Electric System.”

Charles Franklyn Kettering

Apparently sales were brisk. After selling the business, Kettering and Deeds became millionaires. Never losing his passion for new discoveries, in 1945, Charles Franklyn Kettering and the head of General Motors, Alfred P. Sloan, established the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research in New York City.

Sharon Hazard’s Dowager’s Diary appears on Thursday.

Photo One:
Kate Roosevelt at Merdlemouth
Courtesy Sam Chapin

Photo Two:
Alexander Graham Bell, New York to Chicago Telephone Call 1892
Library of Congress

Photo Three:
Delco Pamphlet Cover
Public Domain

Photo Four:
Delco Advertisement
Public Domain

Photo Five:
Buick 1912
Credit: Americanautomobiles.com

Photo Six:
Charles Franklyn Kettering
wiki