Henry House

Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.
Thomas Edison

Henry Alonzo House (1840-1930)
Henry Alonzo House (1840-1930)

Henry Alonzo House (1840-1930) was an extremely prolific American inventor, who secured over 300 US and foreign patents for various machines. Interestingly, one of his early patents (US Patent No. 109619) from 29 November 1870 is for a calculating device. Besides the patent application, nothing is known about the calculating instrument of House, so obviously it remained only on paper, and even the patent model of the device didn’t survive (up to 1880, the US Patent Office required inventors to submit a model with their patent application).

The calculator of Henry House (see the patent drawings below) is a 4-positional simple column adder, made to improve portable or pocket calculating machines of the time, so that can be easily manipulated, and at the same time made very simple, accurate, and complete. The improvement of House in pocket register or calculator, which is composed of a series of concentric rings, numbered with digits in regular order from 0 to 9, consists in combining with the mechanism which will move the rings forward, a mechanism which will move them back again for commencing the calculation with any given number.

The patent drawing of Henry House' calculating device
The patent drawing of Henry House calculating device

There are thirty characters on each one of the rings, and a corresponding number on the wheel G, so arranged that, when all the numbers on the rings representing the same value are opposite each other, these rings will be engaged with each other by the pawl x, and when the cipher on the wheel G is opposite either one of the corresponding marks on the ring J, the pawl z will engage the latter with the former; consequently, by turning the wheel G in the direction indicated by the arrow in fig. 1, three ciphers can be brought in line with each other opposite the opening i, through the front of the case.

There are thirty ratchet-teeth on the back of each one of the rings L J, so spaced that, when the rings are adjusted, as shown in fig. 1, their teeth will be in lines coinciding with the teeth on the back of wheel G.

The teeth on the ring L are acted upon by a spring-pawl, f, on a vibrating arm, D.

The teeth on the ring J are acted upon by a hooked spring-pawl, o, and the teeth on wheel G are acted upon by a hooked spring-pawl, o’.

Before using the instrument to calculate, the knob G’ is turned until the ciphers on the wheel G, the ring J, and ring L are brought in line opposite the slot i. The instrument is then held in the left hand: with the fingers of the left hand or right hand the arm D is vibrated, and its pointer c’ moved opposite of the required number marked on the face of the case, each time moving the arm back as far as it will go.

The patent drawing of Henry House' calculating device
The patent drawing of Henry House calculating device

The first ring L will indicate the units column, the second ring J will indicate tens, and the third ring G will indicate hundreds and thousands.

By means of the wheel G, and its external knob G’, the rings can be quickly turned back to the ciphers, or to any required numbers.

Biography of Henry House

Henry Alonzo House (1840-1930)
Henry Alonzo House (1840-1930), 180 cm tall, with blue eyes and gray hair

Henry Alonzo House was born on 23 April 1840, in Brooklyn, New York, the youngest son of Ezekiel Newton House (16 Nov 1806–1 June 1863) from Bellows Falls, Vermont, and his second wife Susannah House, nee King (22 Sep 1803–28 Nov 1862), from New York. Henry had an older sister, Harriet Hephzibah (1836-1905), and a brother, James Alvord (1838-1906).

At that time (the early 1840s) Ezekiel House (the eldest son of James House (1784-1869), a Pennsylvania farmer, and his first wife Hephzibah Newton (1786-1849)), an architect, builder, and painter from Vermont, was assisting his brother—Royal Earl House (1814–1895), the inventor of the first printing telegraph, to develop his remarkable machine.

In 1846 the House family moved to Little Meadows, Pennsylvania, where Ezekiel built a home on the side of a hill, known as the Castle. In 1852 the family removed again to the nearby Owego, New York, where there were better educational facilities. Here they lived in a house by the Susquehanna River, and Henry show his flair for inventing at an early age. He and his brother James (James will continue to assist Henry in his later inventions) built a boat, which they used to carry people up the river on excursions and also to transport goods down the river, thus earning money with which to pay their father for the material used to build the boat.

In early 1854 Ezekiel House had taken a contract to build a county courthouse in Rockford, IL, and left Owego. Henry and James soon followed him and started in business with their father. In 1857 Henry took a position with his father who was superintending the raising and reconstructing of the old city hall in Chicago, IL. In 1859, while working on a building in New York, Henry injured a muscle of his right hand severed by a chisel that dropped from a scaffold. During this enforced idleness of several months, he started his career as an inventor, designing and patenting an automatic gate (US patent No. 29696 from 1860).

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Henry was rejected as a volunteer because of his earlier injury, which had crippled his right hand, and he turned his attention to making another invention—a button-hole sewing machine. In 1862 Henry and his brother James Alvord designed an automatic buttonhole machine.

At the end of 1862, Henry returned to Little Meadows to marry on 24 November his cousin Mary Elizabeth House (26 Mar 1843-19 Sep 1917), daughter of William House, a miller, and Eliza Maria Turner. As Henry’s mother was very ill they hurried to Brooklyn where his mother Susan died on 28 November 1862, and his father Ezekiel followed her the next spring.

Then Henry House move to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he was engaged by a company to implement the making of his buttonhole machine. His brother James joined him there and they soon perfected an attachment to be used on the family sewing machine.

In early 1866, Henry and James built a steam carriage for their own amusement and recreation. It carried seven people, including the driver and the fireman in the back seat. It developed 15 hp and could travel 30 mph on a good level road. It frightened so many horses and even men, so they did not use it long.

In 1869 House turned his attention to developing a machine that could knit various-sized goods (5 patents were issued to House from 1869 to 1872), and established the company Armstrong and House Manufacturing Co. to produce the new knitting machines. In 1873 he invented a bundling machine for kindling wood, and then a machine for dressing of fur skins.

At the end of the 1870s, House designed machines for paper bags and for drying paper dishes. In 1878, House invented and patented a machine for blocking felt hats and established the Compressed Paper Box Co of Bridgeport for this business.

In the early 1880s House designed machines fur picking and treating of pelts. In 1883, he organized a company to make seamless paper boxes. In 1885 House invented machinery for polishing metals. Then he turned his attention to telegraphs and telephones, making numerous inventions and improvements over his uncle’s Royal House devices.

Following a disastrous fire in March 1889, which partly destroyed his factory, Henry House and his son commenced a project to construct a 300 horsepower flying machine. During this time, many patents were issued to House.

In the early 1890s House turned his attention to building fast motor launches using kerosene oil as fuel. He formed a company—Liquid Fuel Engineering Co. (LIFU) and moved to the Isle of Wight, England. The company built high-speed launches for the Duke of St. Albans, Prince of Wales, the German Emperor, King of Belgium, Sir Thomas Lipton, and many other notables.

Henry Alonzo House behind the wheel of his steam driven car—LiFu Steam Wagonette
Henry Alonzo House behind the wheel of his steam-driven car—LiFu Steam Wagonette

While living in England, Henry House became one of the first people in the country to be convicted of speeding. In 1899 he was fined, when he was behind the wheel of his LiFu (Liquid Fuel) steam wagonette. Police using stopwatches and standing at either end of a measured road clocked him doing 18 mph, a full eight miles an hour over the accepted safe speed. He ended up being prosecuted for furious driving and was fined £3, with 11 shillings costs. However, it was not the first time his passion for speed had gotten him into trouble. In 1891, he was fined 10 shillings after a witness reported him notching up 26 knots in a kerosene-fueled boat he was testing on the River Thames. These cases resulted in some free advertising for House’s designs and business. In 1897 House was appointed United States Vice and deputy-Consul at Southampton, and three years later returned to USA.

In 1915, House became associated with the Shredded Wheat Company at Niagara Falls and constructed an entirely new system for baking, handling, and packing biscuits. Several years later, the company erected a new factory to house the new automatic oven which Henry House had designed as part of the manufacturing process. It made an astonishing for the time 456000 biscuits every 24 hours.

Henry House had three sons—Henry (Harry) Alonzo House Jr. (27 Feb 1864-14 Feb 1939), William Newton (3 Jan 1871-3 Feb 1871), and William Ezekiel (23 Feb 1874-16 Oct 1878, who was accidentally shot and killed by his cousin, Alfred Bishop Beers, in October 1878, a great tragedy for the family), and three daughters—Kena C. (b. 1869), Grace (Libbie) Elizabeth (21 Nov 1875-20 Jan 1973), and Bertha Valena (5 Jun 1879-22 May 1959).

Henry Alonzo House, Jr. joined his father in his experimental work in the 1880s and in 1887 obtained his first patent (together with his father). Later he worked as a mechanical engineer in various companies.

Henry Alonzo House died aged 90, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on 18 December 1930.