Born to a poor family on July 9, 1802, at Williamstown, Vermont, Thomas Davenport was the fourth of eleven children. He received only three years of schooling and was apprenticed to a blacksmith when he was fourteen. The hard workwas agreeable to the boy, and seven years later, he set up his own blacksmithbusiness in Brandon, Vermont.
In 1831 Davenport went to the Penfield Iron Works, where Joseph Henry had installed the first commercial electromagnet. Davenport watched as the electromagnet lifted 750 lbs. (340 kg) of iron. Amazed and intrigued, he decided to acquire an electromagnet of his own and experiment. In order to raise money forthe purchase, Davenport sold his brother's horse. Once he had the magnet inhand to study, he was able to build a larger version on his own, using his wife's silk wedding dress to insulate the wires.
Davenport eventually ended up with four electromagnets and conceived a way toconvert the electromagnetic force into mechanical power. In 1834 he attachedtwo electromagnets to a pivot, mounting that between the other two magnets which were fixed in place as poles. He attached a battery to the magnets via a"commutator" (a crude switching device), threw the switch, and the pivot rotated. Davenport had just invented the electric motor.
Joseph Henry had done much the same thing a few years earlier, but his effortwas seen as more of a curiosity, because it had an inefficient oscillatory movement that was not very practical. Davenport's motor, however, had a rotarymovement, and it became the prototype for every electric motor in use today.Realizing the importance of his invention, Davenport quit blacksmithing to promote his device.
However, Davenport waited until 1836 before deciding to patent his invention,and ran into nothing but trouble. He decided to personally make a trip to the Patent Office in Washington D.C., and set off on foot. By the time he madeit to Washington, he had spent all the money for the patent application, so back to Vermont he went. He came up with more money and this time decided to mail the application. But then the Patent Office was destroyed by a fire.
Eventually Davenport received his patent, on February 5, 1837, though renownand financial reward never followed. He built several miniature motor-drivenmodels, including a working electric trolley car, but most people treated thedevices as mere curiosities. The probable reason why Davenport's inventionsfailed to receive enthusiastic acclaim was that the motor upon which his devices depended was heavy, fragile, and expensive. In addition to his trolley, he invented an electric railway, electric printing press (upon which he printed his newsletter Electro-Magnet and Mechanics Intelligencer), electrictelegraph and electric piano.
On July 6, 1851, three days short of his 49th birthday, Davenport died in Salisbury, Vermont. His sons claimed he had died from a broken heart after Samuel Morse was given credit for inventing the telegraph.