The Metal Life Car: The Inventor, the Impostor, and the Business of Lifesaving

The Metal Life Car: The Inventor, the Impostor, and the Business of Lifesaving

The Metal Life Car: The Inventor, the Impostor, and the Business of Lifesaving

The Metal Life Car: The Inventor, the Impostor, and the Business of Lifesaving

Synopsis

For centuries sailing vessels crept along the coastline, ready to flee ashore in case of danger or trouble; this worked well until weather or poor sailing drove these ships against an unforgiving coast. Saviors and salvors (often the same people) struggled to rescue both humans and cargo, often with results as tragic for them as for the sailors and passengers. Joseph Francis (b. Boston, Massachusetts, 1801) was an inventor who also had the ability to organize a business to produce his inventions and the salesmanship to sell his products. His metal lifeboats, first used in survey expeditions in Asia Minor and Central America, came into demand among the world's merchant marine, the U. S. Navy, and the U. S. Revenue Service. His corrugated “life car” was the keystone to development of the U. S. Life-Saving Service. Francis's metal bateaux and lifeboats played an important role in the Third Seminole War in Florida. His metal pontoon army wagons served in the trans-Mississippi campaigns against the Indians. In Europe, he was acclaimed as a genius and sold patent rights to shipyards in Liverpool and the Woolwich Arsenal in England, Le Havre seaport in France, in the free city of Hamburg, and in the Russian Empire. But while Francis was busy in Europe, Captain Douglass Ottinger, U. S. Revenue Marine Service, claimed to be the inventor of Francis's life car and obtained support in the U. S. Congress and the Patent Office for his claim. Francis had to battle for decades to prove his rights, and Americans remained generally unfamiliar with his devices, thereby condemning Civil War armies to inferior copies while Europe was using, and acclaiming, his inventions.

Excerpt

Joseph Francis was an unusual inventor who also had the ability to organize a business to produce his inventions and the salesmanship to sell his products. His metallic watercraft were employed on a variety of missions. Narrating the story of his watercraft casts a light upon many nooks and crannies of nineteenth-century America. His metal lifeboats, first used on survey expeditions in Asia Minor and Central America, were in demand among the world’s mercantile marine, the U.S. Navy, and the U.S. Revenue Marine Service. His corrugated iron life car was a key to the development of the U.S. Life-Saving Service. His metallic boats were critical to the outcome of the Third Seminole War in Florida. His metal army pontoon wagon bodies served in the trans-Mississippi Indian frontier. Yet few are aware of these services.

In Europe, Joseph Francis’s reputation preceded him. Heads of state, military, and industrial leaders feted him. In return, he sold rights to his patents to shipyards in Liverpool and the Woolwich Arsenal in England, Le Harve in France, the free city of Hamburg in Germany, and Balakna in Russia. While Francis was in Europe, Captain Douglass Ottinger, U.S. Revenue Marine Service, claimed he was the inventor of the metal life car. Ottinger used the United States Congress and the United States Patent Office to support his pretense, and the inventor and the impostor had a decades-long struggle in the patent office and in the congressional chambers. Eventually Congress extolled Francis while it withheld its decision as to who invented the life car.

During the Civil War the task of building bridges to cross rivers and streams fell to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Yet this branch of service had almost no contact with Joseph Francis or his metallic watercraft. Few engineers were aware of his devices. Then, when some Union leaders requested his metal pontoon wagons for their commands, the vindictiveness of Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs kept the Union army from employing them. Thus the army did not use these superior metal pontoon wagons. Francis was the nineteenth-century embodiment of Horatio Alger’s heroes going from rags to riches and from public belittlement to public acknowledgment—but, to begin at the beginning.

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