Richard C. Cox made a meteoric rise from a $90-a-month draftsman on Pittsfield’s 14 million-gallon Farnham Reservoir dam — an undertaking in the town of Washington that cost the city of Pittsfield $386,206 in 1911, $180,838 in 1912 and more before construction was completed.
Work included clearing 46 acres of woods, excavating 94,000 cubic yards of soil and rock and installing 47,000 cubic yards of masonry. Pittsfield Board of Public Works Engineer Arthur B. Farnham suggested the site on Mill Brook, and and it was named for him.
Little noticed, Cox joined the endeavor in May 1911.
“His position was that of a draughtsman and he lived ‘on the mountain’ with the other engineers,” The Berkshire Eagle said in January 1920. “He was in the region for several months and is remembered for his energy, his talks of big things in life and of the ways in which it is possible for a man to accumulate a fortune, even in not altogether promising environment. He was well liked. Though modest in the statement of his views, he created an impression of sincerity, genuine ability and force.”
Cox was born in Matoon, Ill. After high school there he went to Texas to work with the engineering corps on the Santa Fe railroad. Out of work with the Panic of 1907, he came east. Cox was accepted to Harvard in 1909 but limited resources led him instead to Boston University, where he majored in physics. While there he met Marjorie Thompson. They married in 1911.
“I got work as an architectural designer with a marble company at Proctor, Vt. …,” he told The Eagle. “I then went to Pittsfield and got a job as a civil engineer on the Farnham dam. My work was figuring material expansions, and I had had enough physics to sort of carry me along. I remained in Pittsfield until the city went broke on the job, and the construction was interrupted.”
He misstated the situation. The city never went broke. It did underestimate the value of downstream farms and businesses affected by the loss of Mill Brook water — Oliver S. Hutchinson, as an example, was left with a dribble of water to turn the wheel of his Lenox Dale sawmill.
From here Cox moved to Boston and joined a gauge factory in Charlestown. He invented a steam gauge tester that the U.S. Navy purchased in quantity.
“I got a toothache about this time,” Cox said. “That toothache has meant a lot to me, for it gave me an idea which proved the foundation of my fortune. The dentist showed me a dental engine which he used for boring teeth. The machine, it seemed, was being manufactured to retail at $240. I examined it and found that there could not be more than $15 worth of material in it. I went home and experimented and the result was that I developed a machine that cost me $15 and which I put on the market for $25. My machine was just as good. In some cases it was better, for it was light and had the advantage of portability.”
His invention of a transportable dead-weight tester won coverage in two trade periodicals, Power in November 1914 and Coal Age in February 1915. A company called Simplex Tester in Harvard Square manufactured the apparatus.
These devices made his fortune. And in 1920, he spent extravagantly on Cambridge real estate. He paid good prices for several buildings — around $2 million — in anticipation of their quick growth in value.
But then in May 1920, Cox was arrested on a complaint that he wrote a check to Henley Kimball of Beacon Street in Boston to cover auto repairs and it bounced. He persuaded the magistrate it was all a misunderstanding and he made good on the $195 debt. But people began to wonder. His business telephone was disconnected. His home on Brattle Street was dark at night. Foreclosures were filed against him.
In June 1920, three creditors who all told were owed $1,048 filed an involuntary petition in bankruptcy against him.
What came of Cox after that has proven elusive, even with a Boston Globe data base available. The inventor’s home suffered a fire in May 1928. No one was at home at the time. Mrs. Cox and two children were playing tennis nearby. That year, Superior Court heard charges that one Joseph Y. Schooner had conspired with Cox to defraud banks and trust companies by fraudulently entrusting the latter with U.S. Liberty Bonds which were used as loan collateral.
So this is an intriguing story without a fitting end. His life fell to pieces. Was Cox a con man? Or simply an over-confident man? Did he stay in Cambridge? Did he recover from his debts? Did he make any more inventions? Questions with no answers.
But Farnham Dam still holds water.