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Early Lexington KY Inventions
Steamboat, Music of Light, Planetarium

Source: History of Lexington Kentucky: its early annals and recent progress, George W. Ranck, Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co., 1872, pp. 183-187.

With the year 1793 commences the history of invention in Lexington, for at that time, in all reasonable probability, was invented the first steamboat that ever successfully plowed the waters of the world. The inventor, Edward West, was a Virginian, and moved to this city in 1785. He was the first watchmaker who settled in Lexington. His shop and residence both were near the corner of Mill and Hill streets, opposite the present residence of Mrs. Letcher. Mr. West was a hard student and close investigator. He spent all his leisure time in experimenting with steam and steam machinery of his own construction, and the little engine that so successfully propelled his little boat, was the result of years of untiring industry. He obtained a patent for his great invention, and also one for a nail-cutting machine, the first ever invented, and which cut 5,320 pounds in twelve hours, the patent for which "he sold at once for ten thousand dollars."* Models of both inventions were deposited in the patent office, but they were unfortunately destroyed when Washington was burned by the British in 1814. It is said that John Fitch, of Pennsylvania, made the initiatory step in steam navigation in 1787, but it is also known that he had no success till August, 1807, while West's boat was notoriously a success as early as 1793, years before Fulton had built his first boat on the Seine. In that year (1793), in the presence of a large crowd of deeply interested citizens, a trial of West's wonderful little steamboat was made on the town fork of Elkhorn, which was dammed up near the Lexington and Frankfort freight depot for that purpose. The boat moved swiftly through the water. The first successful application of steam to navigation was made, and cheer after cheer arose from the excited spectators, A number of our most respected and venerable citizens remember witnessing this experiment when boys. In confirmation of the early date of this invention, we quote the following editorial notice from the Old Kentucky Gazette, dated April 29, 1816:

"STEAMBOATS.--A steamboat owned by a company of gentlemen of this town (Lexington) was to sail for New Orleans yesterday, from near the mouth of Hickman creek. We are informed that she is worked on a plan invented by Mr. West, of this place, nearly twenty years ago, and in a manner distinct from any other steamboat now in use. On trial against the current of the Kentucky, when that river was very high, she more than answered the sanguine expectations of her owners, and left no doubt on their minds that she could stem the current of the Mississippi with rapidity and ease."

The editor settles the question of the antiquity of the invention, but speaks indefinitely. John B. West, the inventor's son, states decidedly that it was in the year 1793. The memory of Edward West should be cherished by all his countrymen; for to his genius is due one of the grandest inventions recorded in the geographical history of man." since Jason sailed in search of the golden fleece, or the Phoenicians crept timidly along the shores of the Mediterranean, in their frail, flat-bottomed barges. The time when steam was first used as a motive power will form an era in the world's history, for the revolution it had worked has been a mighty one, and a hundred years from now, the little stream called the "Town Fork of Elkhorn" will have become classic. The identical miniature engine that West made and used in 1793 is now in the museum of the lunatic asylum in this city. Edwin West died in Lexington, August 23, 1827, aged seventy.

In 1796,+ Nathan Burrowes, an ingenious citizen of Lexington, introduced the manufacture of hemp into Kentucky, and also invented a machine for cleaning hemp. Like many other inventors, he was betrayed , and derived no benefit from either, He afterward discovered a superior process of manufacturing mustard, and produced an article which took the premium at the World's Fair, in London, and which has no equal in quality in existence. The secret of its compounding has been sacredly transmitted unrevealed. It is now three-quarters of a century since "Burrowes' Mustard" was first made, and it is still manufactured in Lexington, and has a world-wide celebrity. Mr. Burrowes settled in Lexington in 1792, and died here in 1846.

At the beginning of the present century, John Jones, who died in Lexington in 1849, at the advanced age of ninety years, invented a speeder spindle and a machine for sawing stone, which were afterward "caught up" by eastern imposters.

Though not an invention, it may not be inappropriate here to state that vaccination had been introduced for several years in Lexington by Dr. Samuel Brown, of Transylvania University, when the first attempts at it were being made in New York and Philadelphia.** Up to 1802, he had vaccinated upward of five hundred persons in Kentucky.

In 1805, Dr. Joseph Buchanan, long known as one of the most remarkable citizens of Lexington, invented, at the age of twenty, a musical instrument,++ producing its harmony from glasses of different chemical composition, and originated the grand conception of the music of light, to be exhausted by means of harmonific colors luminously displayed; an invention which will, if ever put in operation, produce one of the most imposing spectacles ever witnessed by the human eye.

About 1835, Mr. E.S. Noble, of Lexington, invented an important labor-saving machine, for the purpose of turning the bead on house-guttering.

One of the great mechanical geniuses, or inventors, that Lexington has produced, and one who has done honor to America, was Thomas Harris Barlow. His shop was, for a long time, located on Spring Street, between Main and Water. He settled in Lexington in 1825, but first attracted public attention in 1827, by making a locomotive which would ascend to an elevation of eighty feet to the mile, with a heavily-laden car attached.*** He, at the same time, constructed a small circular railroad, over which the model locomotive and car ran successfully in the presence of many spectators, some of whom are still alive. This model is yet in existence in the Lunatic Asylum of this city. Lexington can claim, therefore, the first railroad and the first locomotive ever constructed in Western America, After this, Mr. Barlow invented a self-feeding nail and tack machine, which was a success. He sold it to some Massachusetts capitalists. In 1855, he invented and perfected a rifled percussion cannon, for the testing and experimental manufacture of which Congress appropriated $3,000.+++ This gun attracted the attention and admiration of the Russian minister at Washington during the Crimean war, which was then raging, and is believed to be the pattern which subsequent inventors of rifled guns have more or less followed. It weighed seven thousand pounds, the bore was five and a half inches in diameter, twisting one turn in forty feet, It was cast at Pittsburg.

His last, and greatest achievement, and one that will long cause his name to be gratefully remembered by the learned and scientific throughout the world, was the invention of the planetarium, now so celebrated, both for the wonderful ingenuity of its harmonious arrangement and working, and for the ease and accuracy with which it represents the motions and orbits of the planets, The planetarium was the result of ten years' patient study and labor, having been commenced in 1841, and finished in 1851.**** It was finally perfected and exhibited in a room in the upper story of the building which formerly occupied the site of the present banking-house, on the corner of Main and Upper streets.++++ The first planetarium Mr. Barlow made, was purchased for Transylvania University, The instrument is now used at Washington, West Point, and in most of the great educational institutions of this country. At the late grand Exposition at Paris, in 1867, Barlow's planetarium was examined with delight and admiration by the savants of Europe, and received a premium of the first class. Mr. Barlow was born in Nicholas County, Kentucky, August 5, 17899, and died in Cincinnati in 1865.

+S.D. McCullough
** Michaux's Travels
++Collins, 559
***Obs. And Rep.
+++Milton Barlow
**** Id.
++++Wm. Swift.

Transcribed by pb October 2000