Updated 31-XII-2018

John Wellington Starr

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.

The casual reader of the technical literature that deals with the early history of lighting by electricity will occasionally come across the name of John Wellington Starr. Not much is usually mentioned about him except that he obtained an English patent in 1845, in the name of Edward Augustin King, for "lamps" that had either platinum or carbon as resistively heated elements. Historians have concluded that Starr's patent was the first significant step toward the final development of a commercially practical lamp by Thomas Edison in 1879.

A one-day visit was made to The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County where death notices were sought for a J. W. Starr in the paper indexes that exist for that time (about 1847). A promising entry was found in the index for the Cincinnati Daily Gazette and the following obituary (No 6030, Volume XX, 29 Dec 1846, p.2) was read in hard copy:

"Messrs Editors: - It is with sorrow we are obliged, through respect to the memory of the honored dead, to announce to the public, through the medium of your columns, the decease of John W. Starr, Esq., a young and talented Gentleman, a native of our beloved Cincinnati, and the discoverer of the Electro Magnetic Light. After securing his right to his discovery in the United States, his native land, he visited Europe, secured Patents from the British Government, and also in France, but alas! death has stopped his earthly career, and God hath said unto him, 'come up higher.' - He died in Birmingham, Eng. on 21st November, at his lodgings, at Mrs. Mellons. He is interred in Key Hill Cemetery, near the Cemetery Chapel. He has left an aged father and two sisters to mourn his loss; but their loss is his eternal gain. Requiescat in pace."
A visit to the web site http://www.groundwork.org.uk/birmingham/jewellery/walk.htm informs one that the Key Hill Cemetery was Birmingham's first public cemetery. It opened in 1836 and closed for burials in 1982.

A copy of the King patent, No. 10,919 (1845) was obtained. There is no mention of Starr's name in the patent. It does say:"...the Invention of 'Improvements in Obtaining Light by Electricity,' communicated to me by a certain Foreigner residing abroad;..."

Bob Rosenberg of Rutgers University informed me of a web site that led to two articles that deal with Starr. The web site is http://edison.rutgers.edu/Names search/DocDetImage.php3. This site consists of images of notebooks of Francis Robbins Upton, Edison's mathematician. Two references were given by Upton on images 46 and 47 of the second notebook. These will be given in the bibliography below.

A lucky break occurred for the writer while he was browsing through an early edition of the Electrical World and Engineer. A letter to the editor appeared in response to the article by Edwin W. Hammer (referenced below). As the contents of the letter bear directly on the present subject matter it is repeated here verbatim:

"To the Editors of Electrical World and Engineer:
"Sirs:--In common doubtless with others I have read with much interest the narrative of Mr. Edwin W. Hammer concerning 'Incandescent Lamp Development to the Year 1880,' which recently appeared in your columns.

"He begins, rightly, as I believe, by giving some consideration to the early incandescent lamp work of J. W. Starr, best known by the British Starr-King patent of the year 1845, but seems to have little more information about Starr than can be gleaned or inferred from that patent.

"There is, however, further information at hand, and while some of it may be legendary, there can be no doubt that in a general way Starr's story is told with substantial correctness by articles or communications appearing severally in Nature, 7 Sept 1877, pp.459-460; the Telegraphic Journal, London, 1 Jan 1879, p.15, and the Scientific American, 18 Jan 1879, pp.40-41.

"The Nature reference is a communication from Mr. Mathieu Williams, who says that he assisted Starr in his experiments on the light; that the results of the said experiments with batteries were such as to convince Mr. Starr that a magneto-electric arrangement should be used as the source of power in electric illumination, and further that Starr died suddenly in Birmingham in 1846, while constructing a magneto machine.

"The Telegraphic Journal and Scientific American articles are more full in their details, especially the latter, and refer to a caveat filed by Starr for his light in the United States, reciting the claim thereof; speaking also of capitalists, including George Peabody, who were ready to assist him; of a kind of electric candelabrum whereon electric lamps were to be mounted of number corresponding to the States of the American Union, as they were at that time, saying that the system was exhibited to Faraday, who pronounced it a perfect success, and that Starr died suddenly during the night following the exhibition, the supposed cause of his death being "excitement and overwork of the brain."

Thomas Lockwood, Boston, Mass."

The contents of the article that appeared in the 18 Jan 1879 issue of the Scientific American magazine follows:
Early History of the Electric Light
"A telegram from Washington, to the effect that Edison's application for a patent upon a divisible electric light had been rejected at the Patent Office, was published in the daily papers of November 21. The ground alleged for the refusal of the patent, says the Operator, was that Edison's invention was an infringement upon that of John W. Starr, of Cincinnati, who filed a caveat for a divisible light in 1845. [Edison's patent has since been allowed.]

"Starr was a maker of philosophical instruments, and resided at Cincinnati. Had he lived he might have proved as much of a genius as Edison. He experimented on his invention, and went to England to complete it, Mr. King going as his agent, and two gentlemen, Judge J. W. McCorkle, late member of Congress from California, and Mr. P.P. Love, of Dayton, Ohio, furnished the money, about ,000. Each was to have a fourth interest in the invention. Letters of introduction were given to King and Starr to the American banker in London, George Peabody, who, when the subject was fully explained to him, agreed to furnish all the capital that would be required to promote the project to a successful and practical use, provided that the same was approved and sanctioned by the best and most celebrated electricians in Europe. Professor Faraday was chosen.

"In the meantime Starr and King returned to Manchester, where Starr built what he termed a tree, called "The United States." He had on it twenty-six branches or limbs, which he called by the names of the then twenty-six States of the Union. At the end of each limb he had an electric light, covered by a glass globe, on each of which was painted or inscribed the name of each State. Having thus completed his invention, he and King took it to London and exhibited it to the electricians at the Electrical Society, Professor Faraday being present. So perfect was his invention that the Professor pronounced it a perfect success.

"After the exhibition was over King and Starr went home perfectly elated with the success, and after partaking of a very frugal meal they retired to bed. The next morning Starr, not making his appearance at the morning meal, was allowed to remain in bed, but as the day advanced and he did not make his appearance, King and the landlord went to his room, and not being able to awaken him, they burst open the door, and there found poor Starr dead in his bed. The excitement and overwork of the brain are supposed to have caused his death. From that day to this nothing further has been done with the Starr invention.

"Starr filed a caveat in this country in 1845. His claim may be interesting enough to quote here:

'I claim the application of continuous metallic and carbon conductors intensely heated by the passage of a current of electricity to the purpose of illumination. I do not claim the method of lighting wires by electricity, which is well known, as I have already stated, but I claim the method of heating conductors so as to apply them to illumination, the current being regulated so as to obtain the highest degree of heat without fusing the conductor. I claim the method of obtaining an intermittent light for the use of lighthouse, in the manner set forth, and for signals. I claim the mode of submarine lighting by enclosing the apparatus in a suitable glass vessel, hermetically sealed, and also the mode of lighting places containing combustible or explosive compounds or materials, as set forth.'

"His application for a patent was rejected, however, in 1846, on the ground that the invention was not new, and that there was too much expense in producing the electric light. Mr. Edison says his invention is different from Starr's. He says he cannot patent the divisibility of the electric light, but he can patent the means that allows it. In other words, he can patent a lamp, or any device that will make this division. His application for a patent for a lamp is already before the Commissioner, and is taking its regular course. According to the rules of the Patent Office nothing concerning it can be divulged. It is understood, however, that it is progressing favorably. Mr. Edison has already received seven patents bearing on the electric light, and has filed three caveats. Five more similar applications are now under way. He has had a man in the Astor Library searching the French and English patent records and scientific journals, from the earliest dates down to the past fortnight, and says nothing like his arrangements has been revealed.

"Mr. Edison is making elaborate preparations to introduce and experiment with the electric light. He proposes to commence at Menlo Park with 2,000 lights, using telegraph poles with 15 lights on each arm. This experiment, including the cost of the buildings, engine, generating machines and everything, is estimated at from 0,000 to 5,000."

The Edison Electric Light Company was formed in 1878 by Thomas Edison and twelve other individuals. $ 50,000 was put at Mr. Edison's disposal immediately. A year later the money had been spent without success. A meeting of the incorporators was held and one of them, Robert L. Cutting, Jr., 'pointed out that Mr. Edison seemed to have come to the same place as J. W. Starr, who had experimented earlier with various kinds of incandescent lamps and had published his researches as a scientific contribution, to show that such a lamp was not practicable.' (New York Times, 19 Oct 1931, pg 23, "Light Bulb Balked Edison for Months").
"I have read Mr. Starr's book," said Mr. Cutting, "and it seems to me that it would have been better to spend a few dollars for a copy of it and to begin where he left off, rather than to spend ,000 coming independently to the same stopping point."

"No," said Edison, "I don't think the incandescent light will ever be found that way. It's not a matter of beginning where Starr left off, because I believe the incandescent light lies somewhere between his beginning and his stopping point -- that he passed over it. So have I. That is why I want to go back after it again."

William Mattieu Williams wrote at least two letters to the editor regarding Starr. One appeared in Mechanics' Magazine, Vol 44, 1846, pg 348. A second appeared in Nature, Vol 16, 27 Sep 1877, pp.459-460. This second letter will be printed here verbatim:
"Under the above title Mr. Munro describes, in Nature, Vol. XVI, p.422, M. Lodighin's device for an electric light. This is no novelty but a simple repetition of an invention made by Mr. Starr, a young American, and patented in this country under the title of 'King's Patent Electric Light,' specification enrolled March 25, 1846. An account of it, with drawings, may be found in the Mechanics' Magazine, April 25, 1846, p.312. To this are appended some editorial remarks in which the novelty of the invention was at that date disputed. Those who care to follow the subject further may find a letter of mine replying to this editorial criticism in the Mechanics' Magazine of May 9, 1846, p.348.

"I constructed a large battery and otherwise assisted Mr. Starr in his experiments on this light. The "wick," as Mr. Munro aptly calls it, was a stick of gas retort carbon, like that pictured (Nature, p. 423), excepting that it was affixed to supports of porcelain in order to remedy the fracture which occurred to our first apparatus in which the carbon stick was rigidly held in metallic forceps. Thus the improvement of M. Kosloff was also anticipated.

"The lamp-glass was a thick barometer tube about thirty-six inches long, with its upper end blown out to form a large bulb or expanded chamber. The carbon and its connections were mounted in this with a platinum wire passing through and sealed into the upper closed and expanded end of the tube.

"The whole of the tube was then filled with mercury and inverted in a reservoir, and thus the carbon stick, &c., were left in a Torricellian vacuum. The current was passed by connecting the electrodes of the battery with the mercury (into which a wire from the lower end of the carbon dipped) and with the upper platinum wire respectively. A beautiful steady light was produced accompanied with a very curious result which at the time we could not explain, viz., a fall of the mercury to about half its barometrical height and the formation within the tube of an atmosphere containing carbonic acid.

"I have now little doubt that this was due to the combustion of some of the carbon by means of the oxygen occluded within itself.

"In pointing out this anticipation of M. Lodighin's invention I do not assume or suppose that any piracy has been perpetrated. It is one of those repetitions of the same idea which are of such common occurrence and which cost the re-inventor and his friends a vast amount of trouble and expense that might be saved if they knew what had been done before.

"I may add that the result of our battery experiments was to convince Mr. Starr that a magneto-electric arrangement should be used as the source of power in electric illumination; and that he died suddenly in Birmingham in 1846, while constructing a magnetic battery with a new armature which, theoretically, appeared a great improvement on those used at that date. Of its practical merits I am unable to speak.

Twickenham, September 18 W. Mattieu Williams"

A few days after the above topic was written and placed on the writer's website I was rummaging through some boxes that contained papers that dealt with incandescent lamps. These had been collected over the last 44 years or so. I ran across copies of some articles that had been in storage for some 38 years. The articles had, as their subject, J. W. Starr.

In the early 1960s a few lamp collectors decided to start up a "bulletin" in which one could write on any subject dealing with incandescent lamps. Dr. Hugh F. Hicks, of Baltimore, was instrumental in starting the bulletin and it was Dr. Hicks' sister who created the beautiful cover that adorned each report. One of the contributors was Dr. Charles D. Wrege, of Rutgers University. Along with his report on "James Billings Fuller: An Incandescent Lamp Mystery," he sent along an article that was published in the Harvard Medical Alumni Bulletin on another experimenter of the incandescent lamp, Dr. Isaac Adams, Jr. The article was entitled: "Rx for a Light: The Story of Dr. Isaac Adams, Jr." Accompanying the Adams article were two that dealt with J. W. Starr. Both were entitled:" The Mystery of Grave P-403." The older of the two articles was published as a newspaper item in the Birmingham Post (England) on 18 Oct 1962. The other article was a somewhat abbreviated version of it and it appeared in the publication American Cemetery in April 1963.

An attempt to locate Dr. Wrege was made - and fortune was with me - as he was residing in coastal New Jersey as a semi-retired gentleman. A pleasant telephone conversation was had with Dr. Wrege and he informed me that the Birmingham Post article had been expanded and a more complete accounting of Starr had been published. That article, "J. W. Starr: Cincinnati's Forgotten Genius," appears in The Cincinnati Historical Society Bulletin, Vol.34, Summer 1976, No.2, pp.102-120. The article is the result of painstaking efforts and is a scholarly work of the first order.

The true story of John Wellington Starr became available when Dr. Wrege's article of 1976 was printed. That part of the history of the incandescent lamp has now been cleared of some of the misconceptions in earlier articles..

Fig. 1 of Great Britain Patent No. 10,919, issued in 1845 to Edward Augustin King

  1. GB 10,919 - 1845

References & Bibliography
  1. "List of New Patents", Mechanics' Magazine, Vol.43, 1845, p.xiii.
  2. "List of New Patents", Mechanics' Magazine, Vol.43, 1845, p.382.
  3. "King's Patent Electric Light", Mechanics' Magazine, Vol.44, 1846, pp.312-316 (from Upton).
  4. "King's Patent Electrical Light", William Williams, Mechanics' Magazine, Vol.44, 1846, pp.348-349 (from Upton).
  5. "Incandescent Lamp Development to the Year 1880--I.", Edwin W. Hammer, Electrical World and Engineer, Vol.XXXVI No.22, 1 Dec 1900, p.839.
  6. "Incandescent Lamp Development", Thomas D. Lockwood, Electrical World and Engineer, Vol.37 No.2, 1901, p.96.
  7. "Electricity in Every-Day Life", Edwin J. Houston, Volume 2, P.F. Collier & Son, New York, 1905.
  8. "Electric Lighting by Incandescence", William J. Hammer, Quarter Century Number of the Electrical Review, New York, 9 Mar 1907.
  9. "The William J. Hammer Historical Collection of Incandescent Electric Lamps", William J. Hammer, Transactions of the New York Electrical Society, New Series, No.4, 1913, p.15.
  10. "History of Electric Light", Henry Schroeder, Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, Vol.76 No.2, 1923.
  11. "Sir Joseph Wilson Swan F.R.S. - A Memoir", M.E.Swan & K.R.Swan, Ernest Benn Limited, London, 1929.
  12. "Brief Personal Recollections in Connection with the Jubilee of the Invention of the Carbon Incandescent Electric Lamp by Sir Joseph Wilson Swan in 1878", J. A. Fleming, Journal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, Vol.67, 1929, p.293.
  13. "Light Bulb Balked Edison for Months", The New York Times, 19 Oct 1931, p.23.
  14. "Menlo Park Reminiscences", Vol.2, Francis Jehl, The Edison Institute, 1938.
  15. "The Electric-Lamp Industry: Technological Change and Economic Development from 1800 to 1947"Electric Lighting in the First Century of Engineering". R. L. Oetting, Transactions of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, Nov 1952.
  16. "Edison", Matthew Josephson, McGraw-Hill Book Co., Inc., New York, 1959.
  17. "Sir Joseph Wilson Swan F.R.S. - Inventor and Scientist", Mary E. Swan & Kenneth R. Swan,Oriel Press, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, 1968.
  18. "A Streak of Luck", Robert Conot, Seaview Books, New York, 1979.
  19. "Edison's Electric Light: Biography of an Invention", Robert Friedel and Paul Israel with Bernard S. Finn, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ, 1986.