More than a century ago, the United States was sparking to life thanks to the advent of electrical systems supporting the productivity of the Second Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century and early 20th century. For electrical engineers, these early pioneer days saw the rise of legendary innovators like Thomas Alva Edison, Nikola Tesla and John Ambrose Fleming, creator of the world’s first vacuum tube.
Yet one incredibly important name from that era often goes unheralded. American inventor and businessman Thomas E. Murray is the pioneer behind many of the foundational elements of the modern day electrical grid, from the design of power plants that produced electricity and distributed it efficiently to insulated electrical cable to electric fuse boxes. A 2011 inductee into the National Inventors Hall of Fame who earned a total of 462 patents during his life, Murray leveraged his technological ingenuity and business acumen to create many of the foundational elements of a system that we take for granted today every time we turn on the television or a lamp.
Thomas E. Murray recently came back into the public spotlight for a brief moment when the New York Times pointed out that the wife of soon to be Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross — Hilary Geary Ross — is a descendant of Murray’s. In fact, Mrs. Ross’ mother was Murray’s granddaughter, making Mrs. Ross the great granddaughter to this giant of American innovation. Some will no doubt say that Murray has at best a tenuous (or maybe fortuitous) connection to the man who will soon be in charge of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (an agency of the Commerce Department), but when we started reading about the significant contributions made by Thomas E. Murray we decided we had to profile this giant of American innovation.
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Thomas E. Murray, The Early Days: Apprentice at 15 Years Old, Chief Engineer by 21, Then On to New York City
Born October 21st, 1860 in Albany, NY, Thomas E. Murray did not have an easy childhood. When he was nine years old, his father and two of his eleven siblings died. By the time he was a pre-teen, Murray was working three jobs to try and support his family. At least one account of Murray’s life indicates that he built his first steam engine at the age of 15 during the same year in which he became an apprentice at Albany Iron & Machine Works in 1875.
Working at Albany Iron & Machine Works started Murray on a path towards self-education in many aspects of mechanical engineering. His talent and special ability to understand how machinery operated helped him attain higher posts until he became the chief engineer of Albany Waterworks by age 21.
It would take the notice of wealthy American businessman Anthony N. Brady, an executive in the nascent utility industry who would go on to be instrumental in developing transportation systems in American cities like Philadelphia and Washington, DC. In 1887, when Murray was 27 years old, Brady hired Murray to manage a power station operated by the Albany Municipal Gas Company. In an account of his life published by Brooklyn real estate news outlet Brownstoner, Murray started to develop his skills as an inventor in earnest while working for Albany Municipal Gas, developing improvements to gas production and distribution. Expanding his gaze beyond Albany, Brady saw opportunity in the fractured nature of the gas and electric utility industry in New York City and sent Murray as a technical advisor to the metropolis.
Murray Creates Order Out of the Chaos of New York City’s Electrical Grid
The utility industry that existed in Manhattan and New York City near the end of the 19th century was a much more chaotic atmosphere than the industry’s current climate in which a single utility provider might service gas and/or electricity needs for an entire region. As a biography of Murray published by IEEE Power and Energy Magazine points out, most of the 775 power stations operating in Manhattan and the Bronx at the beginning of 1898 were localized and inefficient; some only serviced a single customer. The advent of hydroelectric generation of electricity at Niagara Falls in the early 1880s helped to show that power plants could generate large amounts of electricity, but no single electricity company in New York City had the resources to invest in the infrastructure that could deliver electricity generated at Niagara Falls across New York State.
While Brady managed the business side of consolidating control of the disjointed utilities operating in New York City, Murray was charged with the development of alternating current (AC) power plants that could generate more electricity than many smaller direct current (DC) plants in operation. The first power plant designed by Murray put into operation was the Gold Street station in Brooklyn, put into operation by the Kings County Electric Light and Power Company sometime between 1898 and 1900. The plant supplied power to the Edison Illuminating Company, the company built by Edison to commercialize his electric light bulb invention. Edison Illuminating built a series of DC power plants in the early half of the 1880s but the lower cost of AC energy distribution eventually obviated DC as the major form of electricity distributed in New York City and the United States. Murray designed AC plants, but of course the discovery and earliest developments into alternating currents were the responsibility of Nikola Tesla.
Gold Street was the first of nine major power stations in New York City which were designed by Murray. Next would be the Waterside AC power station located between the East River and First Avenue and between 38th and 39th Streets in Manhattan, which began operation in October 1901; rising demand for electricity necessitated the construction of a second Waterside power plant by 1906. Sometime between 1901 and 1903, the first of two power plants designed by Murray and situated on Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal; the second was in operation sometime in 1905. New York City power plants constructed according to Murray’s designs would continue to be built until 1926 at sites including Sherman Creek in Manhattan, Hell Gate in the Bronx, Hudson Avenue in Brooklyn and East 14th Street in Manhattan.
The cost-effective nature of the electrical grid planned by Murray both encouraged consumer demand and cut costs for electricity delivery. A page on the Engineering and Technology History Wiki notes that between 1901 and 1911, the cost of electricity in New York City dropped from 20 cents per kilowatt-hour to 10 cents per kilowatt-hour. Along with the design of these power plants, Murray was involved with the business mergers which formed the corporate precursor to Consolidated Edison.
Beyond Power Plants: Murray’s Inventions, From Fuse Boxes to Antiskidding Tires
If Murray’s only contributions to the modern electrical grid was the effective replanning of New York City’s utility needs using AC power plants to replace DC plants, that would be enough to place him high in the pantheon of legendary engineers. Murray’s innovations, however, span such a wide gamut of electrical engineering that it’s no exaggeration to say that America probably owes the most to Murray in making electrical power a commonplace utility in homes, businesses and throughout the United States.
By 1901, just as he was starting out on his career as a power plant designer, Murray already held patents covering electric signage technology. By 1904, Murray established the Metropolitan Engineering Company as a holding company for his patents. His company held a total of 11 patents by 1908 and Murray would continue inventing until late into his life; Murray died in July 1929.
The patent which earned Murray’s place in the National Inventors Hall of Fame is U.S. Patent No. 913754, titled Electric Fuse Box and issued in March 1909. It claimed two longitudinal partial partitions within a cut out box as well as two partial partitions on the underside of a cover and constructed to meet the edges of the two longitudinal partial partitions to create two complete partitions dividing a box longitudinally into three compartments. The invention, comprised of a porcelain cut out box enclosing three metallic terminal conductors, results in a fuse box in which each of the three conductors and the cut out boxes are completely insulated from each other.
In December 1913, Murray was the recipient of U.S. Patent No. 1079948, titled Fuse Plug. It claimed a fuse plug with a hollow cylindrical threaded casing, a threaded shell receiving the casing and having an inwardly turned flange, a disk of insulating material interposed between the casing’s end and the shell’s flange, a partition entering the casing and supported on the disk and then a fuse strip doubled over the partition and having one end doubled over the disk; the fuse strip is also in contact with the shell and the other end extending through the disk. This invention enabled the cheaper production of fuse plug devices using a few easily assembled components.
Murray continued to focus on the insulation of electrical system components throughout his life and in February 1925 he was assigned U.S. Patent No. 1525087, titled Making Molded Conduits. It disclosed an apparatus for molding conduits including a stiff tubular rubber core which is strong enough to support the external pressures of the molded material and a longitudinally movable supporting device for the core including a back plate and a front plate with a rigid tube extending between the two plates for carrying the hollow rubber core in a desired alignment. The resulting invention enabled the rapid and efficient construction of molding ducts in concrete or similar material for carrying electric cables along streets.
Murray also made some intriguing contributions to fields of technology outside of electrical systems engineering. In August 1917 Murray was issued U.S. Patent No. 1237369, entitled Antiskidding Means for Vehicle Wheels. It protected a vehicle wheel with a tire-supporting rim, a tire, an endless chain constructed to extend across the tread of the tire and two pairs of separated hooks secured on opposite sides of the rim and engaging the chain so that two parallel parts of the chain extend across the tire and two parts extend along the rim from hook to hook. This anti-skidding technology is perhaps the earliest version of the snow tire chains used today by many people who have to drive in icy conditions.
Murray’s legacy was also helped considerably by his ability to publish technical writing detailing many of the power plants and other electrical innovations he designed, such as 1910’s Electric Power Plants: A Description of a Number of Power Stations. That same year, Murray was awarded the Longstreth Medal from the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia for improvements made to the safe use of interior electrical wiring.