Charles F. Brush

My Friend, The Man and the Inventor

By Fred C. Kelly1

The big fellow being bedeviled by a gang of boys was an especially desirable target because he was disinclined to hit back. Always embarrassed about his size, he was for peace at almost any price. Any other boy in the schoolyard had rare opportunity to show his bravery by picking on one larger and more powerful than himself, for he could do so with what he believed to be safety.

But one day something totally unexpected occurred. One of the boys threw a rotten apple at the big fellow and hit him in the eye. Instantly he forsook his pacifism. He seized the boy who had thrown the apple and gave him a wallop which nearly put him to sleep. Then he promised similar retribution to every boy who had joined in the general hilarity. Before hitting anyone else though, he paused to make this proposal: "If you'll all stand up against the fence and let me throw rotten apples at you as long as I want to, then I won't clean up on the rest of you."

The whole group accepted the offer. There were nine of them and any two could have restrained the big boy, but all were too astonished to think of that.

Their submission marked the turning point in his career.

None was more surprised than he over his ability to assert himself. From that day on he had all the self-confidence he could use. He had no more fear of people nor of any kind of obstacle. Parenthetically, he no longer felt embarrassed over being larger than most people, and he grew into one of the finest physical specimens of the race--six feet two, broad-shouldered, with a deep chest, straight as an arrow. There was something regal about his appearance. When he was receiving his decoration as a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, at Paris in 1881, Gambetta, the French statesman, remarked: "I do not know which to admire most, his extraordinary mental talents or his magnificent physique."

Self-confidence gained in the schoolyard episode may have had its influence in making Charles F. Brush the inventor of the first practical electric light and one of the important men of his generation. However, Brush's genius was not confined to inventing. He was a good philosopher, a shrewd psychologist, and had plenty of humor. He was not one of those inventors who turn over all profits from their talents and efforts to others. He got a decent share of the rewards and became a multimillionaire.

His inventive genius gave him his opportunity, but it may have been his knowledge of human psychology that enabled him to turn that opportunity into wealth and power. When the electric lighting of city streets was first proved practical, neither the new lights themselves, nor the inventor was popular with corporations that sold gas. They did all they could to discourage use of the new invention. They might have done more harm than they did if Brush had not quietly explained to them why they were wrong, even from their own selfish viewpoint, in fighting electric lights. His knowledge of crowd psychology was superior to theirs when he predicted:

Electric lights will increase rather than decrease use of gas. People have been living in darkness so long that they have organized their lives on that basis. But when they get used to light, they are sure to want more of it. After seeing brilliantly lighted streets and stores, they'll want more light in their homes and will burn more gas. As they use more gas for lighting, you can make gas cheaper and that will open up almost limitless industrial uses.

Another problem was to educate the public itself. Brush knew how conservative are the masses. He did not underestimate the slowness and tediousness of overcoming public suspicion of novelty. A frequent argument against the new lighting was that it would ruin eyesight. People stared at the brilliant arc and then complained that it was too dazzling.

"After looking at it, everything else looks dark," they said. "We'll ruin our eyes."

To which Brush calmly retorted: "The same objection may be raised against the sun!"

The habit of staring at the arc hung on for many years and continued to be used as an argument against electric lighting. Scientists themselves had promoted foolish beliefs. As late as 1873, Deschanel's Natural Philosophy, a well-known textbook, said:

The light of the voltaic arc has a dazzling brilliancy, and attempts were long ago made to utilize it. The failures of these attempts were due not so much to its greater costliness in comparison with ordinary sources of illumination, as to the difficulty of using it effectively. Its brilliancy is painfully and even dangerously intense, being liable to injure the eyes and produce headaches.

One reason people stared was that they wondered where the light really came from. They thought there must be some trick to it. The light must come from oil, and where was the oil supply?

Apart from lighting outfits set up for experimental purposes, the first dynamo and lamp actually sold were shipped to Dr. Longworth, father of Nicholas Longworth, at Cincinnati, about January, 1878, and Brush went to Cincinnati to show how the machine should be operated. The light was exhibited from the balcony of the Longworth home on one of the principal residence streets. Brush, who went purposely into the crowd to hear comments, later described the scene:

It was a four-thousand candle power light and, of course, attracted a large crowd. In the gathering were a few men of the type who, if they know nothing about a subject and find others who know nothing about it, will promptly explain it. One man who had collected a considerable audience called attention to the solenoid at the top of the lamp and said, "That is the can that holds the oil," and, referring to the side rod, said, "That is the tube which conducts the oil from the can to the burner." He said nothing at all about electricity--a little oversight apparently unnoticed by his hearers--and they went away happy in their newly acquired knowledge of the electric light.

Brush told also of an exhibit of one of the earliest four-light machines to a number of guests at a large factory in Cleveland: "One man looked the whole apparatus over carefully and then, pointing to the line wire, asked, 'How large is the hole in that little tube that the electricity flows through?'"

Another early problem was that users of an electric-light apparatus could not be induced to let it alone. This was especially true when outfits were sold to cities for street lighting. Someone mechanically inclined was sure to try to "improve" the device. Nearly every workman thought he knew more about the mechanism than the inventor did. Complaining of a lamp which had not worked properly, one man said; "I've had it all apart four times, and still it doesn't work." If the lamps didn't work, and news of this became widespread, it would wreck the business. Brush saw that he must make the whole mechanism as nearly foolproof as possible. He put it together without screws or bolts of any kind that could be taken out and lost. All necessary adjustments were made at the factory when the lamp was tested and then the parts were riveted, to make further testing or tinkering impossible. Also they were assembled a little like a Chinese puzzle.

The high-tension dynamos for series lighting that came later did not suffer so much tinkering because, as Brush used to say, they were powerful and "able to look out for themselves; they discouraged familiarity."

Nevertheless, it was impossible entirely to eliminate difficulties caused by trivial accidents and the lack of trained men to install or operate lighting plants. Poorly insulated lines led to "short circuits." Since commercial electricity was just starting, not many experts were available to whom Brush could delegate important work, and he himself used to go about as trouble man. Once he traveled fifteen hundred miles to take a common double-pointed tack from the bottom of a dynamo where it had short-circuited a field magnet. Occasionally damage appeared to have been done maliciously--perhaps by an employee who disliked the mechanism because unable to understand it. Long, fine wire nails were sometimes discovered in the field-magnet coils.

Brush used to tell of one lot of sixteen lamps sent back to the factory by a Boston agent with a letter stating that no one was able to make them work. "I examined and tested the lamps carefully, " said Brush, "and found them all right. Without making any change or adjustment whatever, except to change the numbers to conceal their identity, I sent the lamps back, with a letter stating I had personally examined and tested this lot and could guarantee them to be all right. They were put back in their original places, and worked beautifully, so the agent said; and he requested me as a personal favor to look over all lamps he might order in the future before they were shipped. He wanted to know what was the matter with the first set, but I never told him."

Perhaps it was his experience, in the early days of lighting, with the seeming stupidity of a great mass of human beings that made Brush, all the rest of his life, dubious if not contemptuous of the intelligence of the average man. But no matter how much he may have doubted the average man's wisdom, he always retained his sympathy and kindliness and never lost the common touch. Certainly there was nothing intolerant or haughty about him. He never shut himself off from the public. True, he was fairly inaccessible, but he could always be seen by almost anyone who had a semblance of an excuse to take up his time.

My own first meeting with him was an example of his natural graciousness. One afternoon during my reporter days in Cleveland, while walking along an upper floor of the Arcade Building, which Brush owned, I noticed painted on the glass of an office door the astonishing statement: "Office hours, 12:30 to 1:00." Before I had even looked higher up on the door to see who had so short a working day, it struck me that here must be a man worth knowing. When I observed the name Charles F. Brush, I wanted to get acquainted.

A secretary peeked out at callers through a hole in the door before letting them in. When I told her I was a newspaperman, she said: "I'm sure Mr. Brush won't wish to give an interview."

"But," I told her, "this is not for an interview. Just tell him there's a reporter here who wished to talk to him on a purely personal matter, not for publication."

Brush said I might come in. He arose with courtly courtesy and in a fatherly tone asked the purpose of my visit.

"I just happened to notice your office hours on the door," I said, "and couldn't resist the temptation to meet a man having such a genteel working schedule."

That amused him. "Do you know," he said, between chuckles, "I, too, have always thought that sign was funny."

Then he explained that he spent three or four hours a day at his office and shut himself in part of that time, but thought it only fair to have a brief period when he was known to be more or less available. Not until 12:30 did he unlock his outer door. As soon as the secretary had let enough people into the reception room to occupy him until two o'clock, he had the front door locked again.

I asked him if he had his office number listed in the telephone book.

"Oh yes," he replied, "it somehow doesn't seem right to keep one's telephone number secret. Occasionally someone comes along who is entitled to see me, and without access to the telephone number to make an appointment, how would he ever find me?"

In later conversations I had with him, he always showed great tolerance for human frailty. He had a large farm and met the annoyance landowners sometimes have with tenants. But he never showed any indignation about this.

"We expect too much of a tenant farmer," he used to say. "We expect him to conduct the most difficult business on earth in a manner to show at least a small profit for the owner, and to look after the owner's interest just as fairly as he does his own. Men of that combination of ability and integrity are so rare they would be worth fifty thousand dollars a year. Yet we expect to have such men as farm tenants, where the earning possibilities are only a few hundred a year."

He had contempt for men who followed a trade that they never made a real attempt to master. His greatest irritation was with certain men who represented themselves as capable of repairing copper roofs. He had a copper roof on his home, and it sometimes leaked. Repairmen came, walked over the roof, creating new leaks around the seams, but failed to find the original leak. One day he became so exasperated over his roof problem that he slapped his thigh and exclaimed: "I know what I'll do. I'll go up on the roof and chop a hole about six feet square. Then I'll send for roof repairmen, one after another. Maybe one of them will fall into the hole."

When I dropped in to see him one morning, he took from this pocket a handful of rubies, sapphires, and emeralds. They were all artificial. He had made them himself, just to see how well he could do it and how successfully he could duplicate the color of high-priced natural stones.

"How many people who say they wear costly jewels because of their beauty could tell that these are artificial?" he asked. "All these are worth probably less than one hundred dollars, but if real they would be worth two or three hundred thousand."

He took his best homemade example of ruby to a famous Fifth Avenue jeweler (I think he made a trip to New York just for this purpose) and asked him to appraise it.

"That stone, if genuine, as it looks to be, " parried the gem expert, "would be worth a lot of money."

"But I'd like to know exactly how much," insisted Brush.

The gem expert reached for his magnifying glass, studied the stone intently, and then said, with a smile: "Not one person in ten thousand could ever tell you it's artificial. It's just as beautiful as any natural stone that ever existed and more free from flaws; but the fact remains that it is artificial."

Brush felt a profound respect for that man who knew his trade too well to be fooled.

He was free from fussiness about trivialities. I once wrote a brief sketch of him for a magazine, and the editor, seeking a picture, ordered one taken from a group of scientists. Somehow the art department made a mistake and copied one of Ambrose Swasey, another Clevelander, famous as a manufacturer of telescopes. Fearing Brush might be vexed over such carelessness and possibly blame me for the error, I rushed to call it to his attention before he heard of it elsewhere. When he saw the page with the wrong picture, he laughed uproariously and said: "What a joke this is on Swasey!"

After he had become wealthy, Brush built a house in Cleveland on seven acres of ground on Euclid Avenue, then considered one of the finest residence streets of the world. The place was six years in the building and required the services of many of the best mural decorators and other artists and designers from all over the United States. In the basement was a well-equipped experimental laboratory. He lived and worked in that home for many years and came to have a sentimental feeling against letting the place become rundown after he was gone. He had seen many homes, once beautiful, degenerate into ghoulish-looking rooming houses. He did not intend to have such a fate overtake a house he loved. In his will he provided that when members of his family ceased to use the house as a home, it must immediately be sold to house wreckers. After Brush's death in 1929, shortly after his reaching the age of eighty, the house was dismantled and torn down. The place which had cost a small fortune and had been one of the show places of the city went to wreckers for exactly three hundred dollars.

1. This article was found in the files of the Charles F. Brush High School Library. The header on the pages is "Quarterly Review" and also contains the following on the first page: "Two Articles Commemorating the Centenary of a Distinguished Engineering Graduate of '69". It is possibly an alumni publication of the University of Michigan, published about 1969. This page contains major excerpts from the first article.




These pages on Charles F. Brush were authored by Jeffrey La Favre

© 1998, Jeffrey La Favre, Ph.D.