Updated 26-XII-2018

Wilson Stout 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.

Wilson Stout Howell

One of the early workers in the laboratories of Thomas Edison was the brother of John White Howell, coauthor of the book The History of the Incandescent Lamp1. While John Howell is a familiar figure to many, the efforts of Wilson Howell (1855-1943) in the early days at Menlo Park are not so well known.

Wilson and John Howell were sons of Martin Armstrong and Abigail Lucetta (Stout) Howell4,7. They were born in New Brunswick, New Jersey and were descendants of one Edward Howell who came from England before 1639. An extensive biographical write-up of John is available in the biographical literature4 but none is known to exist that details Wilson's life. In this writing a glimpse into the life of Wilson Howell is extracted mainly from a book John Howell wrote later in life2 as well as from the three volume set of books written by Francis Jehl3, also an early assistant of Thomas Edison.

Wilson Howell was born on December 21, 18557; John was born on December 22, 18574. The origin of the passages extracted from the Jehl books are identified by the italic face notations below.

Volume 1, page 405
"Wilson S. Howell came in December, 1879. He had studied at Blair Academy in Blairstown, New Jersey. He has told me since, however, that he went to college on the hill at Menlo Park. In a letter to me he writes:

'In December, 1879, Francis R. Upton invited a party of young people to visit Mr. Edison's laboratory at Menlo Park, I being one of the party. We saw there the first public lighting of a few of the streets of Menlo Park by the old paper horseshoe carbon filaments. I was so impressed by what I saw that on the following morning I again visited the Edison laboratory, sought out Mr. Upton and requested that I be permitted to work in the laboratory in order to gain information which would enable me to be the first to benefit from the commercial application of Mr. Edison's invention of a system of incandescent lighting.

'Mr. Upton referred me to Mr. Edison, who discouraged my application by saying that the world was full of young fellows who knew little or nothing of electricity. Upon my agreement to work without compensation for the privilege of standing at the feet of the master, I was told to take off my coat and get to work.

'Immediately on my arrival at Edison's laboratory...I was put to work under your orders exhausting lamps, working with a young man named Hill. I stuck at this job for several months.'"

Volume 2, page 497
"Wilson S. Howell once wrote to me:

'Your letter gave me much joy; it revealed to me that your judgment coincides with mine on the question of Mr. Edison's absolute independence of his assistants as far as brains and inventive ability were concerned. Claims to the contrary by light-headed, loose-tongued or envious men make only the impression on me that they do not tell the truth.'"

Volume 2, page 511
"Wilson S. Howell told me of an amusing incident that once happened in the Menlo Park machine shop. Edison had repeatedly warned Junior that he must never, under any circumstances, go into the machine shop for he was afraid that something might happen to him. The machine shop, he told him, was no place for a child.

"One day as Edison had entered the shop, his eagle eye saw Tommy Junior sneaking out the back door. Tommy Junior ran home while Edison, in the meanwhile, went to the telephone and told Mrs. Edison to give Tommy a spanking for having gone into the shop. Howell and Edison then went up to the second story balcony and from there saw Tommy innocently nearing the gate, where his mother was waiting for him.

"What Edison and Howell saw then need not be described, but the impressions lasted and Tommy never could understand how his mother at home saw him in the shop".

Volume 2, page 527
"I remember an incident told me by Wilson S. Howell. In 1880 an assistant of Edison was carrying out some work of an experimental nature. He was given a lad to help in coarser parts of the work, who had come from a farm and was now making his start in life. He was simple and willing with good manners, but was not apt at carrying out instructions, and as a result things often went wrong. After several admonitions his patience was exhausted, and he asked Edison to discharge the boy. Edison eyed the lad, and good-naturedly presented him with another opportunity of a different nature. The boy was sent to Kruesi, under whose management he did well and soon became a useful helper. Later, I was told, he became a full-fledged mechanic."

At one point Edison attempted to make a more efficient thermopile and tests were being run. The following described one situation when Francis Jehl was asked to be involved. That case was described by Wilson S. Howell:
Volume 2, page 529
"Mr. Edison's judgment and prevision were generally so excellent, so accurate, that a miss was rather disturbing to him. After he had carefully thought out a plan, he was not always meekly patient if the test or demonstration upset his calculations. He would not hesitate to question a test and request its repetition, carefully going over the methods and conditions of the tests to find a flaw or error which would upset the conclusions.

"Mr. Jehl was asked one day to make a test for Mr. Edison, the results of which were very disappointing. The test was repeated but still the figures were not pleasing. Each step in the test was questioned and carefully gone over by the great inventor, but its accuracy could not be shaken. As a last resort, Mr. Edison asked Mr. Jehl if he had made any allowance for the friction against the air of the light beam from the mirror of the Thomson Reflecting Galvanometer used in the tests. Jehl acknowledged he had not but would calculate it at once if Mr. Edison would give him the constant."

In his book Jehl followed the above quote from Howell with the following:
Volume 2, page 529
"In such cases, when Edison joked he gave a broad smile, put his left hand behind his neck, scratched his right ear and marched away."
Jehl told another story about Howell:
Volume 2, page 534
"I remember another amusing incident that happened when Howell entertained a group of visitors from his home town, New Brunswick. While he was explaining the testing table, a young lady inquired about the Leyden jars. Howell explained that they were used in storing static electricity. Interested , she edged toward Howell who demonstrated to her how the jar was charged by a friction machine. He 'loaded' the jars with electricity and then instructed the party to take each other's hands, chain or link-like. Howell was pressing one of the interested girl's hands and pretending to touch the Leyden jar knob with his other. He asked the girl and the others in the party if they felt any electricity passing through them. The maiden blushed and said that she seemed to sense a peculiar sensation, but that it did not seem strong. She did not know electricity could feel so pleasant. When Howell actually touched the knob of the jar, the group wriggled and shrieked loudly. They all looked a bit embarrassed for a moment, but soon they were laughing and chatting about the shock of electricity they had received."
Jehl described some of the events associated with the introduction of the Edison lamp on board a sailing ship:
Volume 2, page 563
"I often smile when I recollect with what care Upton and Wilson S. Howell carried the lamps from the laboratory to the steamer. The delicate things were wrapped in cotton batting and placed in a basket, and how carefully the two walked through the streets in New York to avoid collisions with passers-by.

"The S. S. Columbia sailed from New York in the early part of May, 1880, with a cargo of thirteen locomotives, two hundred cars and other railroad supplies. As there was no Panama canal in those days the good ship had to round Cape Horn. She arrived at Portland, Oregon, on July 26. The Edison electric light system had finished its first practical test satisfactorily in every respect."

Volume 2, page 722
"Howell recalls his experience with the laying of the first underground conductors for incandescent lightings as follows:"

'The question of underground wires was vital to the success of the Edison system in large cities. Nothing had been done towards the successful laying of wires under city streets and it was necessary to do a considerable amount of experimentation to determine a practical method of insulation. Mr. Edison planned an underground system running under the streets of Menlo Park lighting about six hundred lamps in the streets and dwellings. I remember one pair of cables which started out to light a circuit southward towards Mr. Carman's house. It consisted of two cables, each having twenty-five No. 10 B. W. G. copper wires. After runing a hundred feet or more, one or two wires were dropped from each cable and so the cable tapered until at the end of the line near Mr. Carman's house it consisted of only one No. 10 wire.

'How to insulate these wires was a knotty problem. Mr. Edison sent me to his library and instructed me to read up on the subject of insulation, offering the services of Dr. Moses to translate any German or French authorities which I wished to consult. After two weeks' search I came out of the library with a list of materials which we might try. I was given carte blanche to order these from McKesson & Robbins and within ten days I had Dr. Moses' laboratory entirely taken up with small kettles in which I boiled a variety of insulating compounds. The smoke and stench drove Dr. Moses out.

'The results of this stew were used to impregnate cloth strips, which were wound spirally upon No. 10 B. W. G. wires one hundred feet in length. Each experimental cable was coiled into a barrel of salt water and tested continually for leaks. Of course, there were many failures, the partial successes pointing the direction for better trials. These experiments resulted in our adopting refined Trinidad asphaltum boiled in oxidized linseed oil with paraffin and a little beeswax as the insulating compound to cover the bare wire cables, which had been previously laid alongside of trenches throughout the streets of this little Jersey village. Barrels of linseed oil, bales of cheap muslim and several tons of the asphaltum were hauled in, two 50-gallon iron kettles were mounted on bricks, and the mixing operation was soon progressing in a big way. Through the pot in which this compound was boiled, we ran strips of muslin about 2-1/2 inches wide. These strips were wound into balls and wrapped upon the cables. Up from the ground came the wires once more, suspended on wooden sawhorses above the earth. After the man who served these tapes upon the cables had progressed about six feet, he was followed by another man serving another tape in the opposite direction, and he in turn by a third serving a third tape upon the cable in the direction of the first winding. After the cables were all covered with this compound and buried, the resistance to the earth was found to be sufficiently high for our purpose. I remember the first circuit which was completely ready for lighting ran from the machine shop to the Pennsylvania Railroad, branching north and south along the track. I had informed Mr. Edison that afternoon that the circuit was ready to light, but was told not to turn the light on until he gave the word. This happened to be the night of the election for President of the United States and Mr. Edison announced that I should not light this circuit unless Garfield was elected. That night in the upper story of the Edison office a group of kindred spirits gathered about a table at which presided Mr. Edward H. Johnson at the key operated upon a loop in one of the Western Union lines passing through Menlo Park which carried the press dispatches to the New York papers. As the news came over the wire of the results of the election in distant states, a tally was kept and as soon as Mr. Edison saw that there was a safe majority for Mr. Garfield, I was ordered to turn the light on the circuit along the track.'"

Jehl then continued the story:
Volume 2, page 725
"Howell laid some seven or eight miles of these conductors and was assisted in the carpentry work of laying the mouldings and placing the lamp-posts by H. A. Campbell, our carpenter, who had built the frame annex to the machine shop where the eleven Edison electric generators were placed that constituted the temporary central station for supplying current for Menlo Park's second demonstration, in 1880-1881. Now, more more than a half century since, Howell has written me a letter in which he refers to the successful laying of the underground cable in Menlo Park in 1880.

'Yes,' he writes, 'I did it, yes! With my hands, not with my thinker. I was proud of what I did. Mr. Edison was pleased. We were all happy and it worked as long as needed. Mr. Edison rewarded me handsomely. Other than that I never received a cent from him—no salary. This same compound was used for many years afterward by Mr. Kruesi in the Edison electric underground tubes of the Edison system.

'Edison's mind, and his alone, conceived all that came out of his laboratory, but he had no more than two hands and but limited time to conquer all the details involved in completion of his plans; so he looked to us for manual assistance. In some cases he would put into the hands of some one of his assistants the working out of a scheme or he would ask all of us to help him find certain results from a combination which he would describe to us in words and sketches.'"

Jehl continued by saying:

Volume 2, page 726
""Not only was Howell's insulating substance used in the manufacture of the Edison underground conductor at Washington Street, New York, and at the Brooklyn Edison Tube Factories, but it is used today (1930s) in making the insulating tape that is so universally employed. Yes, the tape that you can buy in almost any store today had its origin at Menlo Park."
Regarding the erection of a small experimental central station Jehl said:

Volume 2, page 824
"In 1882-83 a plant having a tension (voltage) of 330 volts was erected at Roselle, New Jersey. It was a small, experimental central station to be used in demonstrating the possibility of lighting small towns and villages where buildings were scattered. Edison wished to employ a distribution system requiring a minimum investment in copper conductors.

"William (Wilson) S. Howell erected this unique plant. The 330-volt tension required three lamps in series, thus making the plant a multiple-series system one, operated by the Edison feeders. Since the current price was reasonable and the wiring of their homes was free, the consumers consented to forego the individual control of the lamps. Although the plant was an experimental one, it remained in active operation for almost ten years."

Quoting from Jehl:

Volume 2, page 406
"Howell's services to Edison were manifold and valuable....A stanch pioneer, he took part in the erection of many plants and stations. He was chief of the 'lamp testing bureau' organized by the Association of Edison Illuminating Companies. This 'lamp testing bureau' eventually became the Electrical Testing Laboratories at 80th Street and East End Avenue in New York City..."
In his travels during the early 1890s Wilson Howell developed an interest in photography. His photographic subjects during a stay in New Orleans can be viewed on the internet8.

The death notice for Wilson Howell that appeared in the New York Times5 read:

"Announcement was made here last night of the death on Thursday at his home in Escondido, Calif., of Wilson S. Howell, a retired electrical engineer, who was associated with Thomas A. Edison in the early days at Menlo Park. Mr. Howell, who was 87 years old, leaves a daughter, Mrs. Abby H. Lee of Pleasantville, N. Y., and two sons, Wilson S. Jr. of Ribbonwood, Calif., and Asher Atkinson Howell of Norfolk, Va."
The U. S. Social Security Death Index (Family Search Website6) lists the birth and death dates of Asher A. Howell as 29 Aug 1919 and 30 Jun 1989, respectively.

Note: The photograph of Wilson Howell was scanned from Jehl's Volume 1, p.404.

  1. The History of the Incandescent Lamp, John W. Howell and Henry Schroeder, The Maqua Company, Publisher, Schenectady, New York, 1927.
  2. Stories for My Children, John White Howell, Ransdell Inc., Washington, D. C., 1930.
  3. Menlo Park Reminiscences, Vols.1,2,3, Francis Jehl, Edison Institute, Dearborn, MI, 1936, 1938, 1941.
  4. "John White Howell", The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Vol 27, 1939, p.22.
  5. "Wilson S. Howell", New York Times, Sun., Sep 19 1943, p.48 col.3.
  6. Asher A. Howell
  7. http://www.hindskw.cts.com/KennethHinds/10275.html
  8. http://nutrias.org/~nopl/photos/howell/howellf1.htm