Birth: August 20, 1815
Death: February 25, 1897
Plot: Section 153, Lot B
Jearum Atkins is not a household name like that of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. However, he was responsible for important, incremental improvements in engineering technology during the Industrial Revolution. One reason for his lack of fame might be due to the fact that he sold his most potentially profitable invention (Self-Raking Harvester) to Cyrus McCormick. Atkins, in 1852, perfected the design of Cyrus McCormick’s original grain reaper, allowing McCormick to build the fully automated harvester, for which McCormick eventually became famous (he bought the “raking” design from Atkins!)
A small granite square monument marks Atkins’ grave on the Yeadon side of Mount Moriah Cemetery (Section 149). The inscriptions the four sides of the marker indicate his patented inventions (followed by their patent award dates):
Self-Raking Harvester 1852 – 1868
Safety Valve Regulator 1868
Smoke Stacks 1868
Hydraulic Steering Apparatus 1890
Atkins lived during the Industrial Revolution – when machines were invented to replace manual labor and automate as many processes as possible. The device mentioned above, the “Self-Raking Harvester,” was an improvement upon the McCormick reaper – the latter simply cut grain. This saved the effort exerted by people with sickles, but the greater work was that of raking the cut grain so it could be bundled. Atkins’ redesign was such a success that after production began in 1860, farmers seldom bought any other machine.
Described as “one of the most remarkable men ever born in this country,” which nature endowed with “a phenomenal capacity for mathematical and physical inquiry” (Cassier’s Magazine, Vol. 5, 1893-4), Atkins applied for and received many patents from the U.S. Patent Office. His original inventions did not fare as well as his improvements on other people’s work. For instance, he improved the design for the steering mechanism of steam ships (“Hydraulic Steering Apparatus, patent issued 1890), using an application of hydraulics. Atkins’ list of engineering inventions, patents, and patent applications seems endless. Most of these in fact were contrived as he lay in bed, an invalid for twenty years due to a spinal problem. His fame and fortunes waxed and waned, but he continued to design, redesign, and achieve.
Atkins’ caliper patent was a simple improvement on the mechanical measurement caliper. His smoke stack design was intended for steam locomotives, to improve the efficiency of the exhaust of steam. The safety valve regulator was intended for steam boilers, through which high-pressure steam could be vented so as to keep the pressure vessel from exploding. In Atkins’ time, many were killed by accidental explosions of pressure vessels in locomotives and steamships. Possibly, his invention helped prevent such incidents. (Mark Twain’s younger brother was killed in 1858 when the boiler blew on the paddlewheel steamboat on which he was a passenger.)
As we consider the contributions of Jearum Atkins to engineering design and technological advance, let us realize that many original inventions are not necessarily all that useful. They are in many cases springboards for further development and improvement, often by people other than the original inventor!