So the other day, gazillionaire Elon Musk finally released his plans for a futuristic transportation system he’s dubbed the Hyperloop.
According to press reports, the Hyperloop would consist of automobile-sized capsules that would be transported through an evacuated tube at extremely high speed, propelled by magnetic bands. The whole system is to be powered by solar panels.
Musk is an interesting guy. He was a co-founder of both PayPal and Tesla Motors, and was the creator of the SpaceX company that is involved in the privatization of space travel. Now he’s turned his considerable talent—and fortune—to something he figures is a next-generation people and freight mover.
But while Musk’s Hyperloop has some interesting points, it’s always wise to keep in mind that some ideas—like non-road and non-railroad transportation systems—are nothing new under the sun. A case in point is Oswego resident Henry Wise Farley.
Now, it is entirely possible you may not recognize Mr. Farley’s name. But he was a thinker of big thoughts, a man who saw a need, and was ready to jump into the business of providing a low cost, dependable method of transporting just about anything, but particularly grain, from the nation’s breadbasket here in Illinois east to the New York market.
Farley’s efforts at inventing a new way of transporting freight and people put him right alongside several other 19th century Kendall County inventors. Our pioneers, it turned out, were not only hardy folk, they were also an innovative bunch.
Oddly enough, 19th Century Kendall County was a hotbed of invention and innovation. In his 1877 history of Kendall County, the Rev. E.W. Hicks enumerates the wide range of inventions created by Kendall County residents including plows, cultivators, harrows, reapers, headers, harvesters, binders, horse-drawn rakes, ditchers and scrapers, barbed wire, stoves, stereoscopes, sewing and knitting machines, waterwheels, Mr. Farley’s transportation conveyor, store furniture, railroad improvements, and miscellaneous inventions ranging from an improved lock patented in 1857 by V. R. David of Newark to a double cylinder corn sheller patented in 1876 by Ezra McEwen of Lisbon.
In fact, there seemed to be, in the late 1870s, what amounted to a national mania for inventing things. In the spring of 1876, Thomas Edison had moved all his operations to his new facility at Menlo Park, N.J., and was already churning out a host of inventions, many of which were the basis for technology we’re still using today.
A year later, right here in Kendall County, an Oswego hardware store owner and tinkerer, copied Edison’s idea, although on a smaller scale. According to Lorenzo Rank, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent, writing on Dec. 13. 1877: “In the shop of M.C. Richards & Co., a private compartment is being constructed for the manufacture of models by Eugene for new inventions.” The next summer, Rank reported that tinkering and inventing was proceeding apace, noting: “the boys in M.C. Richards & Co.’s establishment have invented and manufactured some new scientific instruments for making observations of the eclipse.”
Eventually, “the boys” went on to invent an innovative hanger and track for sliding barn and shed doors. That led to manufacturing the hangers in a small abandoned building just north of Waubonsie Creek (where patent Marshall Wind Engine windmills had formerly been made) before the operation was moved to Ottawa, and then back north to Aurora where it eventually became today’s Richards-Wilcox Company.
But few Kendall County inventors outside the Plano harvester folks got as much press as did Henry Farley. A Massachusetts native and one-time railroad shop machinist, Farley was, in his spare time, a politician, serving on the Kendall County Board and as Oswego Village President. But his day job was as a skilled builder and former lightning rod and windmill manufacturer. In accord with the feelings of the era against the railroads’ stifling monopoly on transporting goods and passengers, Farley decided to try something completely different, a horizontal transportation conveyor that would carry passengers and freight without steam locomotives. His idea was to use endless belts placed in series to transport materials for great distances, much like the people movers in modern airports.
Farley was working on his idea as early as November 1874, when Rank reported in the Record from Oswego that: “This place contains a good deal of inventive and mechanical genius; Mr. Farley’s new system of transportation is before the public.”
By 1876, he had his first full-scale model ready for exhibit, and on Saturday, July 29, of that year he exhibited a 1,000-foot working model of it in Oswego that drew widespread attention. According to the Chicago Times: “Mr. Farley calls his invention the ‘Horizontal Conveyor.’ It consists, in popular language, of an endless belt running over rollers, and carrying an endless number of cars of shallow depth. The belt is moved by stationary engines located 10 miles apart, and is so constructed as to round curves and ascend and descend grades without difficulty. The carrying capacity of the belt is at the rate of a bushel of grain to every two and a half feet. It is provided that the conveyor shall be in continuous motion and that the loading and unloading shall be done without any stoppage. In some calculations relative to the belt moving at the rate of 4-1/2 miles a hour from Chicago to New York, it is shown that its average daily capacity of receiving, delivering, and discharging would be 200,000 bushels of grain; and which would coast about 2-1/2 mills per ton per mile, or about one-fourth the cost on the regular [rail] roads.…”
Unfortunately, Farley’s wonderful horizontal conveyor proved essentially unworkable for a variety of reasons, and it joined so many other potentially amazing inventions on the dust heap of history.
But persistence often pays off handsomely when it comes to inventing things. The Stewards, Hollisters, and others down in Plano who labored to improve grain harvesting equipment were prime examples of that. As were such later inventors as Lou C. Young of Oswego who patented a farm silo liner and Oswego druggist Scott Cutter, who patented an innovative telephone and electric wire insulator designed to be attached to standing trees where utility poles were impracticable or too expensive. And of course, the company descended from “those Richards boys” is still doing business on Aurora’s southwest side.
While it would be greatly overstating things to suggest that Kendall County was a Silicon Valley of the 19th century, the facts suggest it was a hotbed of innovation during that exciting era. It will be interesting to see whether Elon Musk’s innovative Hyperloop is any more successful than Henry Farley’s conveyor.