Updated 05-I-2019

Dr. John W. Howell

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.

John W. Howell3

Collectors of early incandescent lamps are familiar with the name of John W. Howell, since he co-authored a book titled History of the Incandescent Lamp with Henry Schroeder in 1927. That book is the authoritative source for the identification and description of Edison lamps. While Howell's technical and managerial abilities were notable, he also played important roles in patent litigation cases. After a brief review of his service up to 1928 an example of his influence in a patent litigation case is presented.

A book titled Book of the Incas was published about 1930; it gave biographical sketches of several of the employees in the Edison and National organizations. The description given of John W. Howell in that book is presented below:

"New Brunswick, N.J., was the birthplace of Mr. Howell, December 22, 1857. He is married and living at 211 Ballantine Parkway, Newark, N.J. He was first employed by Mr. Edison in December, 1880, to make tables showing sizes of wire to carry different numbers of lamps for different distances with different percentages of loss. On July 6, 1881, he entered the Edison Lamp Company's factory at Menlo Park, N.J., and considers himself still employed on this old job. He continued in engineering until 1890, when he was appointed Technical Advisor to Manager of Works. In 1892 he was appointed Engineer and Assistant Manager of the Lamp Works, and he organized the Edison Lamp Works Engineering Department. In 1895 he resigned as Assistant manager to devote all his time to engineering. In 1906 he went to Europe for the purpose of studying the tungsten lamp and acquiring the American rights. He was awarded the Edison Medal in 1924 for his achievements during forty-three years of scientific research, and broad services in the development of the incandescent lamp."
The influence John Howell had in a patent infringement case will be told in his own words. In 1930 Howell wrote a book titled Stories for My Children from which the following was extracted. For some reason Howell referred to the person involved in the case as "John Allen" instead of his full name, "John Allen Heany". Howell wrote:
Chapter I
"In September, 1904, John Allen, an inventor, made a deal with some officers of the General Electric Company. He said he had invented a new filament. The company agreed to pay his laboratory expenses while he developed his invention. We also gave him apparatus and baked some filaments for him. In December, 1904, he told us he had finished his work and had filed his patent applications. So in the last week of December, 1904, I went to his laboratory at York, Pa. He explained his invention to me and showed me the filaments. His invention was making an oxide filament - a Nernst filament - which was a conductor when cold and would start without requiring to be heated. He accomplished this by mixing very fine tungsten powder with the oxide. About the middle of January, 1905, he brought a number of his filaments to Harrison. We put them in lamps and exhausted them. In his presence we measured their characteristics on a photometer. At moderate temperature these filaments disintegrated and discolored the bulbs while we were measuring them. They were no good and Allen went home disgusted. He wrote to me asking me to send him the lamps we had tested. I did so, but kept one - a good sample. This one I put in my lamp cabinet.

Chapter II
In 1908 a patent was issued to Allen. It described some construction details of a tungsten filament lamp. The drawings in the patent showed details which, to my mind, represented the state of the tungsten filament lamp in 1907. The date of application for the patent was January, 1905, the very time we were testing oxide filaments for Allen. So I felt sure the patent as issued had not been filed in January, 1905. This patent stated that it was a division of another application which Allen had filed December 29, 1904 - the very week I had visited Allen in his laboratory at York, where he was making oxide filaments - and that the December 29 application described and claimed lamps with filaments of pure tungsten. So I felt sure something was wrong with this patent. I then wrote to our patent department at Schenectady, telling them my suspicions and asking them to send some one to examine the papers relating to this patent in the Patent Office. (After a patent has been issued all the papers in the Patent office relating to it are open to inspection by anyone.) Our patent department sent a man, who examined all these papers, and he reported they were O. K. No changes had been made since the application was filed in January, 1905. I then wrote again, asking if the drawings in the patent had been changed since it was filed. Another man went to the Patent Office and reported that the drawings in the patent had not been changed, but were just as they were filed in January, 1905.This satisfied our patent department that the patent was O. K., but I was not satisfied. So I saw Mr. Rice and told him the story and asked him to send the best expert he could to examine every detail of the papers in the Patent Office. He did send such an expert. In the meantime the officers of Allen's company were trying to sell the patent to the General Electric Company for half a million dollars. Our expert found everything connected with the case in perfect order, all dates and stamps on the application papers agreeing perfectly with those recorded in the records of the Patent Office. Everything seemed O. K. Then he observed a watermark on the paper on which the patent application was written. It bore the name of the Whiting Company. He made a tracing of this watermark and took it to the office of the Whiting Company. There he learned that paper with that watermark was first made in 1906, and yet it was officially stamped by the Patent Office January, 1905. He got from the Whiting Company an affidavit stating that that watermark was first used in 1906. This affidavit was taken to the Commissioner of Patents in Washington and the matter left in his hands. The Patent Office examiner, who had charge of the division in which this case was, Allen, and Allen's patent lawyer were arrested and brought to trial charged with fraud. At the trial the examiner and lawyer pleaded guilty, and they testified that Allen knew nothing about the fraud. Allen also said he knew nothing about it, but there was plenty of evidence that he did know about it. The jury was composed of both white men and negroes. They acquitted Allen and convicted the others, who were sent to jail.

Chapter III
Allen's application of December 29, 1904, which was still in the Patent Office, naturally came under suspicion. An examination showed evidence of fraud in it also. So the Commissioner of Patents started proceedings to investigate this application, and Allen was ordered to show cause why his application should not be condemed as fraudulent. Allen replied that he had been guilty of no fraud, and that he could prove that he had made tungsten filaments and lamps at the time he claimed he had. The Patent Office proceedings were like a regular court trial. The Assistant Commissioner of Patents sat as judge, and lawyers representing other inventors who claimed that they had invented the tungsten filament were present at the hearing and could cross-examine the witnesses.

Allen had a witnness named Simon, a glassblower, who tesified that he had made a large number of tungsten filament lamps for Allen in November and December, 1903. He brought into court about two dozen real tungsten filament lamps, which he testified were made by him at Allen's orders in 1903. He said he had taken these lamps to his home and had kept them there ever since. The lamps were all numbered. Simon also produced two notebooks, one a pocket notebook in which he had notes of each day's work, the other a large notebook which had been kept in Allen's office and in which Simon had copied each morning the entries made the previous day in his pocket notebook. These books described the making of the tungsten lamps which he had. Each day's entry in each book was carefully dated. Simon also produced the written orders which Allen had given him, directing him how to make each of the lamps. These orders were written on sheets from a pad which was perforated, so the sheets could easily be torn off. These were also dated November and December, 1903. The details of these lamps showed to my satisfaction the state of development of the tungsten lamp in 1908, and I felt sure they were not made in 1903.

Simon was a good witness and his testimony worried our lawyers a good deal, for, if true, it proved very conclusively that Allen had made tungsten filament lamps in 1903. Then we called Mr. Osborn, the "Examiner of Questioned Documents," to Washington to examine Simon's notebooks. He looked over the pocket notebook and said the entries had not been made day by day, but had been made in three sittings. Then he examined the book page by page. The pages were all dated - November 17, 1903; November 18, 1903, and so on. Then one was dated November 21, 1908, and he found two other pages dated 1908 - plainly and unmistakably. On cross-examination Simon insisted these dates were 1903, although they did look like 1908. The Commisssioner of Patents looked at the dates and took Simon and his lawyer into his private office. After they returned to the court room the commissioner said: "Mr. Simon, have you anything to say?" Simon stood up and said: "I made those lamps in 1908 on orders from Allen." They sent for Allen. When he came into court and heard what had happened, he acted like a wild man. He said Simon was a liar, that the lamps were made in 1903, and that his written orders to Simon, which were there, proved it. We got from the court one of the leaves from the perforated pad on which Allen's orders were written and sent a man to York, Pa., where Allen's work had been done, to see what he could learn about it. He found the stationer who had made the pad. He knew it by an imperfection in his perforator. His books showed that he sold the pad to Allen in 1906, and that he had bought that perforating machine in 1906. This stationer was an honest seeming man, and he brought his books to Washington and testified that he made the pad in 1906.

Allen had other evidence to prove that he had made tungsten lamps in 1903. He produced a photograph of a lamp which he testified he had made in January, 1905, and which had been tested in Harrison by Mr. John W. Howell. It was a photograph of one of the lamps which I had tested for him, but I testified that the filament was not tungsten. It was exactly like the lamp I had kept when I returned the other to Allen in 1905. I produced this lamp. In my lamp and in Allen's photograph the platinum wires which led the current through the glass and which extended inside the lamp to support the filament were only about one-quarter the size or area of the filament. If this filament was, as I testified, an oxide filament which had a very high specific resistance and required a small current to heat it, the small platinum wire was anple to carry the current that the lamp required; but, if the filament was tungsten, a low-resistance metal, the current required to heat it would melt the thin platinum before the filament gave light. I made a tungsten filament lamp of the same dimensions as shown in Allen's photograph, and when I passed current through it in the court room the filament did not get red hot, but the platinum wires did get red hot, proving that the lamp in Allen's photograph did not have a tungsten filament. So Allen's application was declared fraudulent and the Commissioner of Patents presented evidence to the grand jury, which indicted Allen for perjury and subornation of perjury. When the case was called for trial, they could not find Allen and he has never been brought to trial..."

"About two months ago - 1930 - I met a man who told me he was interested in an invention of a new filament for incandescent lamps which was several times as efficient as the tungsten filament now in use. He said the invention was not yet perfected and the filaments were not yet entirely uniform in quality, but the inventor assured him it soon would be perfected. He told me the man's name was Allen. I advised him not to put any money in the venture."

It is worth repeating some words from the book Edison: His Life and Inventions, written by Frank Lewis Dyer and Thomas Commerford Martin in 1929. In their chapter titled "The Black Flag" they said: 'Throughout the forty-odd years of his creative life, Edison has realized by costly experience the truth of the cynical proverb that 'A patent is merely a title to a lawsuit.'" This lesson was learned repeatedly throughout the days of manufacture of the incandescent lamp.

Howell attended Rutgers University, College of the City of New York and earned an engineering degree at Stevens Institute of Technology. He held honorary Doctor of Science degrees from Rutgers and Stevens. He married Frederica Gilchrist (1871-1953) in 1895. He was the father of two sons, John White II and Robert Gilchrist, as well as three daughters, Jane Augusta, Margaret C., and Frederica Burckle. John W. Howell retired in Dec 1931 and passed away Jul 28, 1937.

  1. "Edison: His Life and Inventions", Frank Lewis Dyer and Thomas Commerford Martin, Harper Bros., New York, 1910.
  2. "Stories for My Children", John W. Howell, Ransdell, Inc., Washington, D.C., 1930.
  3. "Book of the Incas", ca 1930.
  4. "John W. Howell, Edison Assistant", Obituary, The New York Times, Jul 29 1937, p.19 col.3.
  5. "John Howell Genealogy", archived website of Kenneth Hinds, 2004
  6. "Biography of John White Howell", in The Electric Incandescent Lamp 1880-1925, E.J. Covington, printed by GE Lighting NELA Press, Cleveland OH, 1998, p.137.