Updated 04-I-2019

Charles Joseph Van Depoele

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.

Charles Joseph Van Depoele

Although the name of Van Depoele is better known in fields other than lighting, it still should be mentioned in the pages of history of the incandescent lamp. The following is an obituary of Charles Van Depoele taken verbatim from an issue of the Western Electrician4.
"The announcement of the death of Charles J. Van Depoele at Lynn, Mass., March 18th, was received with surprise by his friends throughout the country as it was not generally known that Mr. Van Depoele had been seriously ill. The deceased occupied a most prominent position among electricians and was a pioneer in electric lighting, railway and mining work. He took out many valuable patents in these departments. It is estimated that more than 100 patents were issued to him on electrical inventions. Most of these patents are now controlled by the Thomson-Houston Electric company, in whose service Mr. Van Depoele was engaged as expert and inventor at the time of his death.

"Mr. Van Depoele was a native of Belgium and was educated at the College of Poperinghe. At the age of ten years he engaged in the study of electricity and from that time devoted most of his life to electrical development. When the first telegraph line was built between Bruges and Poperinghe, Van Depoele, who was at that time a mere child, evinced great interest in electrical appliances and as his father's position enabled him to secure access to the operating rooms of the telegraph, he made use of his opportunities and soon engaged in experimental work. These operations he followed up with much success, and he prosecuted his studies with enthusiasm. When fifteen years of age he exhibited an electric light of his own design fed from a battery of forty Bunsen cells. Shortly after this his family removed to France, and the young enthusiast was encouraged in his work by several prominent scientists who had been attracted by his experiments and exhibitions. From 1864 to 1869 he attended the Imperial Lyceum at Lille and took an active part in the work at that institution.

"He did not remain in France long, believing that America was the best field for his operation. He came to this country accordingly, locating at Detroit. Here, however, many difficulties were encountered. He was comparatively unknown in this country and was without means to carry on his experiments on a large scale. For a few years he found it necessary to engage in mercantile pursuits, but did not altogether abandon his studies. He found an opportunity for displaying his lamp and took occasion to present his views to many American capitalists who, however, did not feel inclined to venture into the new enterprise. At this time Mr. Van Depoele had built several types of dynamos and lamps, but he was not satisfied until he had produced a commercial arc lamp. He was a firm believer in the ultimate success of electric lighting, long before any practical steps toward the solution of the problem had been taken.

"It was this belief, no doubt, that led him to give up an excellent business in Detroit to devote himself entirely to his experiments. His persistence was rewarded. He succeeded in lighting several public buildings in Detroit, and this attracted the attention of capitalists, who became interested in the work and promised support to the young inventor. A company was formed for the purpose of exploiting the Van Depoele system, but little was done in this direction and Mr. Van Depoele decided to make Chicago his headquarters. Here another company was formed, the Van Depoele Electric Manufacturing company, and the work was vigorously pushed.

"Mr. Van Depoele then turned his attention to the electric railway problem and soon had an experimental road in operation. He had conducted some experiments in this line at an earlier date but had not followed them up. As early as 1874, while Van Depoele was engaged in Detroit experimenting with electric generators, motors, etc., it occurred to him that trains of cars and ordinary street cars could be run by electricity. This he explained to many of his friends, who received it with some skepticism. On many occasions, however, the transmission of power by electricity was exhibited by him in his shop in Detroit; the belt of a ten horse power engine was disconnected from the main shaft driving the machinery, and the engine was made to drive a large dynamo, which supplied current to another dynamo, belted as a motor to the main shaft in the shop. The question of making an experiment upon street railways in Detroit to exhibit what could be done in the way of driving vehicles by means of electricity was then discussed, but at that time there was naturally more attention given to the principles of electric lighting than to motors for electric railways. However, it was proposed by Van Depoele to use overhead conductors to transmit current from a generator to electric motors on cars to be thus driven, and the mode of thus transmitting the current was well understood by him at that time. Many different modes of transmitting the current were discussed - underground transmission as well as overhead. Exhibitions of the transmission of power by electricity were given at various times, after 1880, in the shops of the Van Depoele company, at Chicago.

"In September, 1883, an electric car was operated at the Chicago Inter-state Fair on the Van Depoele system.

"Mr. Van Depoele has devoted much time during the last few years to the application of electricity to mining machinery, and he secured valuable patents in this line. Since the Thomson Houston company absorbed the Van Depoele interests Mr. Van Depoele has been engaged in expert work at Lynn. He was a man of great ability, an indefatigable worker and according to those who knew him best, fairly worked himself to death. An excellent portrait of Mr. Van Depoele reproduced from a photograph taken just before leaving Chicago, is presented.

"Mr. Van Depoele was 46 years of age. He leaves a wife and several children."

It was announced in the Western Electrician in March of 18881 that the Thomson-Houston Company purchased the motor business of the Van Depoele Electric Manufacturing Company of Chicago. The Van Depoele concern thereafter was to devote its efforts to the production of arc and incandescent lighting. In December of 1888 an article appeared2 that described their new incandescent system. They said:
"The lamps are manufactured in sizes from 10 to 150 candle power. The socket is constructed with the utmost simplicity. Two kinds are used, the plain or keyless sockets. The key-sockets may be turned in either direction, and it is impossible to injure them by turning. The lamp when in position is held firmly in place, and cannot possibly jar or work loose."
An average life of 2000 hours was claimed. No mention was made in the article about the design of the lamp base.

In the 13 July 1889 issue of the Western Electrician it was announced that the Thomson-Houston Company purchased the lighting business of the Van Depoele Company3. Thus, Thomson-Houston had purchased the entire businesses of the Van Depoele Company.

It's of interest to mention that, to the writers knowledge, the William J. Hammer Historical Collection of Incandescent Lamps never contained a Van Depoele lamp.

References & Bibliography
  1. "Purchase of the Van Depoele Motor Business by the Thomson-Houston Co.", Western Electrician, Vol.2 No.12, 24 Mar 1888, p.145.
  2. "Van Depoele Incandescent System", Western Electrician, Vol.3 No.26, 29 Dec 1888, p.328.
  3. "Van Depoele Company's Business Purchased", Western Electrician, Vol.5, 13 Jul 1889, p.16.
  4. "Charles J. Van Depoele", Western Electrician, Vol.10 No.13, 26 Mar 1892, p.193.
  5. "Charles Joseph Van Depoele", Who Was Who in America, Historical Volume, The A. N. Marquis Company, 1967, p.618.