Letters from Canada: 1836-1837

Background: We know relatively little about Cook's years in Canada, but they could not have been easy ones for him. By the time he wrote the letters detailed below, Cook and his wife may have been in Canada for some four years. It is certain that they were there in the Spring of 1834, when they ran an announcement in the Kingston Chronicle (May 17):"MR. AND MRS. COOK, Portrait and Miniature Painters in Oil, Beg leave to offer their professional services to the Ladies and Gentlemen of Kingston and its vicinity…. They also respectfully invite an examination of the specimens [apparently including a self-portrait and other samples; [see Self-Portrait, ca 1832, and As a Portraitist] at the Commercial Hotel." The newspaper's editor endorsed Cook's work on the same page, calling the samples "beautiful specimens of their skills…worthy of the public notice and encouragement." (Cited by Barbara Snyder, "Nelson Cook in Canada," Canadian Collector [Sep/Oct 1976], p. 20). Yet despite this praise and, presumably, earlier portraits done in the area (see Barnabas Dickinson, Parrit Blaisdell, et al.), no new customers appeared in Kingston and the Cooks soon moved on to York/Toronto. Yet the Kingston experience may well have been a precursor of the challenge to face the couple in Canada -- a region which another artist described as "' too young to afford… profitable employment….'" (Snyder, p. 22). If so, it makes Cook's conduct outlined in these letters a bit more comprehensible....

The Thomas Davenport papers in the Manuscripts Division of the Library of Congress include four letters written by Nelson Cook to his brother Ransom from December 1836 to October 1837. While he makes some mention of his portraiture, Cook's central purpose was to discuss his role as an agent promoting Davenport's "Electromagnetic Engine." They suggest a sequence of events of political, financial, and even familial embarrassment to the painter and offer likely insight to his character.

Thomas Davenport Biography
Thomas Davenport (1802-1851) was the eighth of 12 children born to Daniel and Hannah (Rice) Davenport. His farmer father died when Thomas was 9 and the boy was apprenticed to a blacksmith at 14 where he served as an indentured servant and in somewhat ill health until the age of 21. Although he had only 3 years of formal education, he memorized books on science and inventions while tending to his master's forge. Following his apprenticeship in 1823 he started his own blacksmith business at Forestdale hamlet in Brandon, VT. In 1827 he married well-educated Emily Goss, also of Brandon and they had at least two sons: George Daniel Davenport (1832 - 1864) and Willard Goss Davenport (1843 - 1919). In 1833 curiosity led Davenport to travel 25 miles to Crown Point, NY to see a battery-powered electromagnet designed by Professor Joseph Henry of Albany Academy and later of Princeton, and used to sort iron ore at Penfield and Hammond Iron Works. Intrigued by the magnet's commercial potential, Davenport purchased it for $75, dismantled it with Emily's assistance to see how it worked, and by July 1834 had designed and built an electromagnetic motor, similar to today's DC motors. Not only did Emily make detailed written records of her husband's progress, it was she who suggested mercury be used as a conductor when all other materials proved unsatisfactory. Although crude, Davenport's motor was the prototype for every electrical motor used in the world today. But apparently he was too far ahead of his time, and his patent request was denied, due in part because no patents yet existed for electrical devices. He persisted in making improvements, getting letters from learned scholars vouching for the motor's usefulness, and again went to Washington, DC to get a patent in 1835. However, with his funds nearly depleted before reaching the patent office, he was forced to return to his Vermont home. He eventually ran out money at Troy, NY where he had no choice but to sell his motor to Rensselaer Institute for $50. Months passed and although short on funds, Davenport built another motor with the aid of fabric from Emily's wedding dress for wire insulation. Beginning in the fall of 1835 he supported his family by exhibiting his new motor at various locations, including Saratoga Springs in the summer of 1836. Here he met Ransom Cook, who agreed to contribute his bankroll, mechanical know-how, and most of his available time to Davenport's efforts. The two men built a model of Davenport's motor, which included a modification recommended by Cook. In late fall 1836 this new, improved model was taken to Washington for patenting, but as fate would have it, a patent office fire destroyed the model in December 1836. Undaunted, Davenport and Cook built another model and on February 25, 1837 US Patent No. 132 was granted for the first electric motor ever invented and the model is still on exhibit at the Smithsonian today. As evidence of Ransom's and Davenport's close working relationship, the patent obtained by Davenport is witnessed by only two individuals: Ransom's nephew (W.W. Ayres) and Ransom's son (Charles). Within one week of the patent approval, Edwin Williams, Secretary of the American Institute, proposed that Davenport and Cook sell 3,000 shares in the "Electro-Magnetic Joint-Stock Association" and promised them each a $12,000 return within 30 days. Davenport and Cook set up a laboratory near Wall Street in NYC and held periodic exhibits of their electric motors for many interested visitors, including Samuel F.B. Morse, whose long-distance, electromagnetic telegraph was still 7 years away. However, after many months with no money forthcoming from Edwin Williams due in large measure to the financial Panic of 1837, Cook discouragedly sold his shares at a greatly reduced price, effectively severing his partnership with Davenport. It was also during this time that Nelson Cook served as an agent for the motor while in Canada doing his painting. Following Ransom's departure, Davenport persisted on his own for several years until 1840 when another prospective investor failed to deliver on his financial promise. Utterly dismayed, Davenport had a nervous breakdown and returned to Vermont, where he was too weak to conduct his blacksmithing work. Instead, he and Emily settled in Salisbury, VT and worked together writing his memoirs. But before his book was finished, Davenport died in 1851. Unfortunately, with batteries of the day being so unreliable, what ultimately failed Davenport was the lack of a constant flow of electricity to run his motors. Ironically, what he failed to discover in his lifetime and what took others 20 years to ascertain was that by reversing the direction of his motor, water or wind power would have transformed his invention into a generator of electricity.

Nelson Cook's Letters from Canada: 1836-1837
Nelson Cook's letter of 5 December 1836 formally accepts an offer from the Davenport-Ransom Cook partnership, apparently via a letter of 19 November, to have him serve as an agent for "the British Provinces of North America." His objective is to seek a patent from the Upper Canada Parliament, and he urges that a "Mr. Bailey," who is to deliver a model of the electric motor, come to Toronto "with all convenient expedition" to meet the November session of Parliament; and much of the letter offers detail on the format of the petition Mr. Bailey should have with him. Cook also discusses a number of political contacts he has made. This includes: Chief Justice Sir John Beverly Robinson, who, while offering advice and service in obtaining the patent, expresses skepticism about convincing the legislature of the invention's worth; William Morris of the Legislative Council [i.e., Upper House], "a great friend of mine"; William McLean, Speaker of the House of Assembly [i.e., Lower House], "favorable to the act [patent]"; the Solicitor General and others. "I know," writes Cook, "that the Members take a greater interest in this business" in consequence of their friendship for me -- I think Mr. Bailey need not hesitate about coming -- for our prospects are very flattering." Cook will cover the costs of the patent.

Cook's next letter, written "in haste" on 2 January 1837, makes a remarkable -- and probably fateful -- turnaround, for he advises that "Mr. Bailey" postpone his trip until the next session of Parliament. He explains that for several evenings he has had conversations with a Reuben W. Hoit, teacher of phrenology from Boston and member of the "Mechanics Institute," who has been working on a "perpetual motion machine." He, too, is developing a model by which to obtain a patent, although he is short of funds and must give lectures on phrenology to overcome "difficulty in his pecuniary affairs." Hoit "does not think the [Davenport's] Engine… of much value" as it will be "as expensive as steam" to operate. Since it will take time for Hoit to raise money and develop his model, Cook urges Ransom to develop a perpetual motion machine first -- "…whoever makes [it] and gets the patent first gets his reward." He closes again urging delay with the original model but leaves the decision to Ransom, "who will know better what to think of the contents of this letter than I do."

In Cook's next letter (2 February 1837) it is clear that he knows he has been conversing with a quack, i.e. Hoit. The agent-painter writes that the Attorney General had asked about the Engine and thought it "unfortunate" that he had written to delay Mr. Bailey's appearance. But it is not too late, the AG assured Cook, as there is a great deal of excitement among the legislators about Davenport's invention. A clearly chastened Cook notes that he has not heard from Ransom in awhile and hopes the latter was not "offended" by his earlier "strange letter." Now he urges that Mr. Bailey hasten to Toronto -- "the sooner we get the patent here, the better." He apologizes again for his haste in writing about Hoit "without well considering the consequences." It must also have been painful for Cook to write that he had seen an article about the invention in a local newspaper, one which convinced some legislators that "it was the most wonderful invention they had ever heard of -- the Chief Justice [Robinson] is decidedly in favor of the special act [patent]." Moreover, a British officer "and the most scientific man in U.C." thinks highly of the electric engine, believes steampower to be "pretty much upset," wants to see the models when they arrive, and tells Cook of battery technology being developed. Cook then offers more information on the legislative process and suggests that Bailey has been "more cautious than the circumstances… require [!]" In a marginal note, Cook writes what must have been a final, plaintive thought," I have sold 200 acres (half of my land) at half its value in order to prepare for Bailey."

The last of the four letters (19 October 1837) has a detached tone to it, as though Cook has been relieved of his duties as agent. By now, of course, the Davenport engine has been patented in the USA for 8 months, yet Cook writes, "I wish to hear all about yourself, & about the Engine, how it works, how large a power you have made, what your prospects are…." -- clearly the man has been bypassed for some time. He has heard indirectly that the motor has been patented in England and tells Ransom that he had tried but failed to put a medical man in touch with him to discuss new developments in battery power. Cook refers to articles from New York and local papers about the motor and about Ransom's lectures [presumably given to promote the invention]. "…[I]f you knew with what feelings I read it, and how my heart swelled with honest pride to find you rising so fast in the world, you would give me credit for having the feelings of a brother…," Cook writes. He would have written sooner, he says, but his painting business "drove me hard," and he goes on to discuss some of his portraits of Toronto's political families, his deteriorating health, etc. There is no further mention of Mr. Bailey.

The Davenport electric engine was clearly a technical wonder in its day but a commercial failure; some of the technology, however, was later applied in the development of America's electric industry. As for Nelson Cook, this episode -- begun with such pride and excitement -- must have been felt as a bitter personal setback, and by the fall of 1837 we see a pattern which marks the years of his later life: financial frustration, a sycophantic relationship with his more successful brother, a dependency on his portrait sitters for social stature, and a pride in his portraiture -- even if that may have been a "second choice" career.