Birthplace of the Electric Age

Nestled in a wooded valley close to Lake Champlain on the border of New York State and Vermont the small town of Ironville proclaims itself as the birthplace of the electrical age. Why is this? Read below to find out.

The Town of Ironville, New York was the first location in the world to put electricity to commercial use and inspired Thomas Davenport to invent the electric motor.

Magnets Attract Great Minds:

The valley at Ironville of the Adirondack Mountains was known to be a great source of pure iron ore in the 1820's. Joseph Henry (pictured above), an early pioneer of electricity was intrigued by the existence of some natural magnetic rocks found in the area. He was working as a Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy in Albany, New York. The naturally occurring magnets existed because the electron spin lined up properly to create the magnetic effect but he did know know this at the time. He visited the Penfield Iron Works at Ironville and obtained some of the high quality iron in order to make a new magnet.

Henry may have known that William Sturgeon in England had created a weak magnet by wrapping bare wire around an iron core. Sturgeon's magnets were short lived as the magnetic fields rapidly collapsed into the iron core. In 1827 Henry came up with the idea to insulate the wire. This allowed him to create a multiple layered winding. He attached the device to a battery (the only known source of electricity at the time) and created the world's first powerful electromagnet. Henry had discovered the key device that makes all electric power possible today. The electromagnet is used in generators to create electricity, it is used in motors to drive motion, and it was used in the world changing invention of the telegraph during Henry's lifetime.


Joseph Henry then created many electromagnets, some were rigged to create motion like oscillation and could ring a bell. Henry created a magnet for Yale University which could lift great amounts of weight. All of this work was experimentary, but it was Henry's magnet at Ironville that led the way to the next great inventor.

Purifying Iron - First Use of Electricity

Henry had created a wheel shaped device that helped separate iron of different qualities. Magnetized spikes rotated on a the wheel through iron filings. The filings of better quality stuck to the spikes and were fed to another furnace. The device was installed at Ironville at the Penfield Iron Works. This device was the first use of electricity for a commercial purpose. Even though Henry may not have made money selling the device (this is unclear so far) the owner of the Ironworks certainly profited by the use of the device. Higher quality iron was in demand since the railroads were growing at the time. The higher quality ore was also sold to the Burden Iron Works in Troy, New York. Thanks to Henry's invention, the Burden Iron Works could continue to produce cutting edge mechanically engineered devices.

Ironville and the Electric Motor

Henry's electric device was in use in Ironville and began to gain fame throughout the region. A blacksmith in Brandon, Vermont, just 40 miles away learned of this magnet. Thomas Davenport traveled to Crown Point and Ironville to get a look at the device in operation. Davenport was inspired by the idea of using electricity to work for human needs. He had to have a magnet of his own!

Davenport tried to buy the Henry magnet from the Penfields, but could not succeed until he was willing to spend all his savings and his brother's horse. Davenport took a part the magnet and rewired it himself. His experimentation led to the world's first electric motor. (picture to the left)

Davenport created many variations on his motor including a model electric train. Unlike Henry, Davenport was more of a visionary. He was the first person in North America to envision the use of the electric motor in all forms of human life.


This web page will be expanded over time.


The Blacksmith's Motor - by Dr. Frank Wicks, Mechanical Engineering Magazine, ASME
Library of Congress, Thomas Davenport papers

Photos and Article by:
M. Whelan

Back to Home 

Photo/Video use:
Commercial entities must pay for use of photos/graphics/videos in their web pages/videos/publications
No one commercial or public is allow to alter Edison Tech Center photos/graphics/videos.

Educational Use: Students and teachers may use photos and videos for school. Graphics and photos must retain the Edison Tech Center watermark or captions and remain unmanipulated except for sizing.

Permissions - Videos: We do not email, FTP, or send videos/graphics to anyone except in DVD form. Payment is needed for this service. See our donate page for pricing, and our catalogue for a listing of videos on DVD.
Professional video production companies may get videos in data form with signed license agreements and payment at commercial rates.

copyright 2010 Edison Tech Center



Home Who is this?