Updated 22-XII-2018

Prof. Moses G. Farmer

This article was written by fellow lamp engineer and collector Edward J. Covington, and originally appeared on his own website of biographical sketches of persons involved in the lamp industry. Following his passing in February 2017, and with kind permission of his family, Ed's words have been preserved here in the hope of maintaining access to his writings for the benefit of subsequent generations.

Moses G. Farmer pictured in 184811 and 18936

The name of an inventor appears in the incandescent lamp history books who was, perhaps, the first person to have a room in his house lighted by electric incandescent sources. His name was Moses Gerrish Farmer (1820 - 1893) and he lighted a room in his house in Salem, Massachusetts every night during the month of July, 1859. There is some confusion in the writer's mind about what that particular light source looked like. The material unearthed in this regard is presented here. An article appeared in the Scientific American in which the 1859 Farmer lamp was discussed2
"There seems to be little doubt but that Professor Moses G. Farmer, at present connected with the torpedo station at Newport, R. I., was the first to make successful experiments with the electric light in this country, and that this discovery dates as far back as 1859. A correspondent of the New York World communicates to that paper a recent interview with Professor Farmer, which he commences with the following extract from a letter, written by the professor some time since, to a gentleman in Salem, Mass.:
'Some few of the citizens of Salem...will doubtless recollect a parlor at No. 11 Pearl Street, Salem, Mass., which was lighted every evening during the month of July, 1859, by the electric light, and this electric light was subdivided too! This was nineteen years ago, and it was undoubtedly the first private dwelling house ever lighted by electricity. A galvanic battery, of some three dozen six gallon jars, was placed in the cellar of the house, and it furnished the electric current, which was conveyed by suitable conducting wires to the mantel-piece of the parlor, where were located two electric lamps, one on each end of the mantel-piece. (I would not wonder if the screw holes were there at this day.) Either lamp could be lighted at pleasure, or both at once, by simply turning a little button to the right for a light, to the left to extinguish it. No matches, no danger, no care to the household, nor to anyone except to the man who attended the battery. The light was noticed as being soft, mild, agreeable to the eye, and more delightful to read or sew by than any light ever seen before. Its use was discontinued at that time, for the simple reason that the acids and zinc consumed in the battery made the light cost about four times as much as an equivalent amount of gas light.'
It was pointed out by Dolbear11 that in 1859 oil had not been struck yet and the normal burning fuel was a mixture of alcohol and spirits of turpentine.

Apparently Farmer became interested in developing a light and operating system after reading about Draper's earlier work4. According to this source:
"In 1847 Professor J. W. Draper, of New York, made a very interesting series of investigations on the heat and light evolved by platinum wires when traversed by powerful electric currents, and suggested that the currents might be regulated automatically. The results described by Professor Draper some years afterwards attracted the attention of Professor Moses G. Farmer, then a resident of Salem, Mass., who was thereby led to attempt to make a practical application of Draper's results in an incandescent electric lighting system. Professor Farmer made a great number of experiments, relating not only to the construction of the lamp itself, but to the automatic control and regulation of the current. Among the substances tested for the purpose were aluminum, platinum, iridium, palladium, carbon, etc. Of all the metals, pure iridium was found to give the best results. The next best in order were alloys of iridium and platinum, and of platinum and palladium. Very satisfactory results were also obtained from carbon when enclosed in an atmosphere free from oxygen, as in the Starr lamp...Two incandescent lamps were placed in the parlor, one on each end of the mantelpiece, and these were connected to the battery in multiple arc. The switches for turning the lamps off and on were placed in a closet in another room. Figure 3 (shown below) illustrates one of these lamps. It consists of a thin strip of platinum supported in metallic clamps formed of the blades of ordinary mechanical drawing pens, to which the conducting wires were led through a hollow section of ornamental metallic gas-tubing, which formed a supporting standard of the lamp..."

Farmer's First Lamp of 18594

The only article found that described the "burner" of the lamp was that by Dolbear11. Professor Dolbear said:
"The filament was of platinum wire and the current was maintained by a battery in his cellar. He says that his parlor incandescent lamp had a platinum filament 1-1/2 inches long, .115 of an inch broad and .0008148 of an inch thick, that it gave light equal to five fluid wicks..and a good lamp gave 3 or 4 candle power as we now reckon it. So his five fluid wicks would have given 15 or 20 candle power..."
This early work is now left and work that Farmer commenced at a later date is mentioned4:
"In 1865, the thermo-electric battery, in which electricity is generated directly by the heat of coal or other combustible substance, was brought prominently into notice. In the hope that this invention might furnish a cheap source of electric energy, Professor Farmer again turned his attention to the problem of electric illumination. Between 1865 and 1868 he was almost constantly engaged in experimenting in incandescent lamps and electrical generators. During this time he had five such lamps connected in multiple arc. The electric current in the system was controlled by an automatic regulator, so sensitive as to be affected even upon the slight cooling of the lamps by a current of air produced upon the opening or shutting of a door of the room in which the apparatus was placed. This apparatus was on exhibition in Boston until 1868, when it was accidently destroyed by fire. The form of the lamp employed by Professor Farmer in most of these experiments is shown in figures 4 and 5." (shown below)

Farmer's Second Lamp of 1865-18684

The exhibition in 1868, as mentioned above, was held at 109 Court Street3.

Moses Farmer patented a stopper lamp, U. S. No 258,903, dated 6 Jun 1882.

References & Bibliography
  1. "On the Production of Light by Heat", John William Draper, The American Journal of Science and Arts, Vol.4 2nd Series, Nov 1847, pp.388-402.
  2. "The First Electric Lamps", Scientific American, 11 Jan 1879, p.17.
  3. "The Speaking Telephone", George R. Prescott, Electric Light, and other Recent Electrical Inventions D. Appleton & Company, New York, 1879.
  4. "An Analysis of Some of the Edison Patents for Electric Lighting", The Electrician and Electrical Engineer, Vol.4, Jul 1885, p.246.
  5. "Professor Moses Gerrish Farmer", The Electrical Engineer, Vol.15 No.265, 31 May 1893, pp519-520.
  6. "Episodes in the Life of Moses G. Farmer", The Electrical Engineer, Vol.15 No.266, 7 Jun 1893, pp.543-544.
  7. "Engraving of Moses Gerrish Farmer", Supplement to The Electrical Engineer, Vol.15 No.266, 7 Jun 1893.
  8. "Prof. Moses G. Farmer", The Electrical Engineer, Vol.15 No.266, 7 Jun 1893, p.545.
  9. Prof. Farmer in Chicago", The Electrical Engineer, Vol.15 No.266, 7 Jun 1893, p.550.
  10. "Burial of Prof. Farmer", The Electrical Engineer, Vol.15 No.266, 7 June 1893, p.564.
  11. "Moses G. Farmer as an Electrical Pioneer", A.E. Dolbear, Electricity, Vol.13 No.4, 4 Aug 1897, pp.56-58.
  12. "Incandescent Lamp Development to the Year 1880-II", Edwin W. Hammer, Electrical World and Engineer, Vol.36 No.23, 8 Dec 1900, p.880.
  13. "Moses Gerrish Farmer", Bernard S. Finn, American National Biography, Vol.7, Oxford University Press, New York, 1999, pp.721-722.
  14. Finding Aid for the Moses G. Farmer Papers, 1830-1893.
  15. "Death of Professor Moses G. Farmer", Electrical Review, Vol.22 No.15, 3 Jun 1893, p.191.