Tales of invention and inventive tales

When we had a hot-weather spell back in August, I thought of Chester Greenwood, who invented earmuffs. Back around 1870 he was a young man in Farmington, Maine. He took a pair of new ice skates to Varnum Pond and froze his ears in the brisk winter breeze that prevailed. When he got home and thawed out he twisted some stiff wire into a frame and asked his mother to sew on some fur. There has been no excuse for frozen ears since.

In 1977, the Maine Legislature decreed an annual Chester Greenwood Day. And tomorrow, the town of Farmington will parade in earmuffs to honor the memory of the man who blessed the world with a needed boon.

But necessity need not mother all inventions, for Maine also gave us Hiram Maxim of Sangerville, who invented several explosives, along with the machine gun in 1883. Isaac Newton spelled out the machine gun in his laws of motion: To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Hiram merely followed instructions and used the recoil from each shot to load the gun for the next. Then he had but to wait for the World War.

Another Maine inventor made an automobile engine that didn't need spark plugs. He was a farmer in our town of Pownal, and kept a dairy herd of nine bulls and a heifer. This left him time to meditate and he made farm tractors to order before farm tractors were invented. He'd pick up discarded auto parts, meditate, and bolt them together so they'd do farm chores.

I remember an early model he made for Homer Tripp that used two Dodge pickup transmissions in tandem. It had great power, and if Homer put both transmissions in low the thing would plow backward. Homer was the only farmer in Androscoggin County who could turn the stile both going and coming.

One Tuesday afternoon, Thadeus (for that was the inventor's name) was meditating, and he began working on the spark plug.

"After all," he thought, "it's merely a sequentially interrupted impulse." One thing led to another and he said, "Why have a separate installation for each cylinder? Why not an oscillating continuous current that hesitates?" No sooner said than patented. That next week he delivered to Shorty Gilliam a farm tractor without spark plugs that is still running today after 75 years. Or so I have heard.

Instead of going to Henry Ford with his invention, Thadeus offered it wisely to the folks who make spark plugs. They bought it, junked it, and that is why we use spark plugs today. Thadeus still lives in the mansion he built at Antigua with his no-spark-plug money (or so I'm told).

Maine had another great inventor who lived in Wellington, next to Athens and Brighton, who read how a Dutch windmill is built on a turntable so it can be made to face any direction of the wind. He thought the Dutch couldn't be too smart, and he made a windmill that faced all directions at once so that it always faced into the wind.

So one calm morning this inventor was oiling the bearings when a breeze sprung up. The gentleman was inside the twirling vanes and couldn't get out, and as the breeze developed into a northwest blow that lasted 17 days, his predicament was deplorable.

At one time, more than 17,000 curious sightseers were in the field about the mill where they could see the inventor through the whirling vanes waiting for the wind to slack off. The inventor admitted later that from his vantage point inside the twirling vanes the distant Dutch didn't look all that stupid after all.

I must mention the Lombard family, pronounced "lum-b'd" in Maine. They were Waterville machinists who gave us the lombard, a steam log hauler, to replace the horses and oxen that brought sawlogs and pulpwood from stump to brow in the big days of Maine lumbering.

The lombard moved west to the forests of Wisconsin, Oregon, and Washington. Looking - but not much - like a railroad locomotive, a lombard can be seen at the Lumberman's Museum in Patten, Maine.

The lombard huffed and puffed like the steam choo-choo it was and pulled a sled train of logs over a specially built lumbering road called a loghaul. The snow on a loghaul was rolled, packed down, and then iced. Since a loghaul lacked the tracks of a railroad, the pony wheels of a lombard, which was a single sled, had to be steered.

And since this was too much to do by hand, the lombard had a team of horses out front to turn that sled as needed. A man up front on the lombard drove the team. That is, the whole lengthy equipage seemed to be drawn along by two horses.

The important thing for us about the lombard will be the traction. It introduced the cleat-track (or caterpillar) tread as invented by Mr. Lombard of Maine. It remained an innovation of the Maine woods until the British put it on their battle "tanks" in the World War of the nineteen-teens.

After that it appeared worldwide on all manner of heavy equipment, and the Lombard family yelped and whimpered about being robbed. Which I guess they were.

So much for now about Maine inventors.

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