Bernard A. Drew: Scientific Americans with county links



George Milton Hopkins (1842-1902), staying at his summer home The Cedars in Cheshire, took a trolley ride to Pittsfield one day but suddenly fell ill. An editor of Scientific American, he was diagnosed with uremic poisoning, and his family was summoned to his bedside from Brooklyn, N.Y. This was in August 1902. He died on the 17th.

A prominent patent attorney and electrical engineer, Hopkins was the son of George P. and Harriet A. Hopkins. He was author of "Experimental Science" (1890), a popular school textbook. He was revising the work at his cottage when befallen. A good friend of Thomas A. Edison, Hopkins conducted a question-and-answer department for Scientific American.


Here’s a typical entry from the May 1900 issue of the magazine: "H. C. K. asks: I would like to know how high the vertical wire of the wireless telegraphy has to be to send a message one mile and how much higher every extra mile? A. For 1 mile, 20 feet; for 4 miles, 40 feet; for 16 miles, 80 feet." That answer would be very different today, wouldn’t it?

Another of Hopkins’ books was "Inventor’s Manual: How to Work a Patent to Make it Pay by an Experienced and Successful Inventor" (1902).

What did Hopkins invent? He received U.S. patent No. 51,999 on Jan. 9, 1866, for a "Music-Leaf Turner," a device that sat atop a piano and automatically turned the pages of a music score "to save a player the embarrassment of losing time and dropping the music in turning the leaves by hand, and to save wear and tear of the music. It is to be attached to the note-board of an organ or piano, or other musical instrument with keys, or to a music-stand."

If you’re not impressed with that, consider that with John A. Straight of Albion, N.Y., he also received patent No. 106,821 on Aug. 30, 1870, for a low-water and high-pressure indicator. Another Hopkins patent, No. 379,872 on March 20, 1888, was for a steam or gasoline engine governor.

No. 521,713 on June 19, 1894, was for a turbine. Are you becoming more impressed? No. 284,555 for Sept. 4, 1883 (and eight later patents) were for a gasoline engine. He held other patents (25 in all), but that’s enough to establish his credentials.

"Home Mechanics for Amateurs" was a 370-page book by Hopkins published two years after his death. "Anyone who likes to tinker about the house will be grateful to the author for spotting the very things, little in themselves, yet so vexatious to the inexperienced mechanic," a New York Times reviewer said Feb. 20, 1904. Hopkins looked at woodworking and metal smithing, telescopes and telegraphs. "A fourteen-year-old boy can follow the simple language and do all it outlines for him, if only his fingers are sufficiently dexterous."

You can find the digitized book online with a Google search.

I might be able to do some of the woodworking Hopkins describes. But you tell me if a 14-year-old today can learn to use a 110-volt electric circuit to power a small furnace just by reading a book. "It occurred to the writer," Hopkins told readers, "in wiring up a couple of experimental arc lamps across the feeders of an incandescent lighting system, that a laboratory electric furnace could be operated on a series carbon plan, without disturbing the protecting fuses of the circuit..." Obviously children 110 years ago were smart in mechanics far more than when I went to Crane Community School.


There was another Hopkins with Scientific American, Albert A. (1870-1939), George’s son by his marriage to Helen Mills Hopkins (1842-1930). Albert surely spent time at the Cheshire cottage.

Albert graduated from Pratt Institute and Polytechnic Institute, both in Brooklyn, and traveled in Europe. He wrote on scientific topics for Scientific American and edited the magazine’s "Encyclopedia of Formulas." He was an art historian and with Edwin Howland Blashfield edited Vasari’s "Lives of the Painters." Hopkins’ collection of photographs of historical paintings was given to the New York Public Library. He was married to the former Josephine Brice.

This Hopkins also edited the intriguing "Magic: Stage Illusions and Scientific Diversions, including trick Photography" (1897). It includes a decapitation trick and a disappearing lady trick.

And there’s a great trick for ending a newspaper column...

Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.


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