The final phase of Baxter’s career included significant contributions as a technical writer, new engineering projects and pursuits, and a return to elevator technology and design.
by Dr. Lee Gray, EW Correspondent
Baxter Electric Motor Co. was declared insolvent in October 1894, and its assets were sold at auction in May 1895. This was the third company bearing William Baxter, Jr.’s name that had failed. The first was Baxter Electric Light Co., and the second was Baxter Electric Manufacturing and Motor Co., which was established in 1886, placed into receivership in 1889 and reorganized as Baxter Electric Motor Co. in 1890 (ELEVATOR WORLD, June and July 2019). Although Baxter’s name was associated with the latter two companies, in both instances he was an employee, rather than an owner. Nonetheless, these failures were doubtless perceived as significant personal setbacks, and they prompted Baxter to abandon all direct participation in the manufacturing world. When he emerged from this low point in his career, it was not as an inventor and industrialist, but as a respected technical writer and author.
While many of the details of Baxter’s career as a writer are unknown, it appears that, by late 1895 or early 1896, he was employed by several publishing companies responsible for some of the leading 19th- and early 20th-century technical journals. These companies included Hill Publishing Co. (publisher of American Machinist), W.J. Johnston Co. (publisher of Electrical World) and one independently owned magazine, Electrical Engineer. The basis for the assumption of Baxter’s employment as a staff writer is the number of articles he wrote for each magazine during 1896: American Machinist, 20; Electrical Engineer, 16; and Electrical World, seven. Additional articles also appeared in Engineering Magazine and Western Electrician (two each), and Cassier’s Magazine, Railroad Gazette and Scientific American (one each).
Baxter’s productivity in 1896 — 52 published articles — was an encouraging start to his new career. All these articles addressed various aspects of electrical machinery. Baxter’s writings explored specific components, such as armatures, coils, motors, generators, wiring and switches, as well as broader industry topics. The latter included “The Present Development and Future Possibilities of Electricity,” “Can Electricity Supplant the Steam Locomotive on Trunk Railways?” and “Electricity and the Horseless-Carriage Problem.” It is interesting to note that only one of the 52 articles in 1896 concerned elevators: “The Electric Versus the Hydraulic Elevator,” which was published in Engineering Magazine. Baxter’s comparative analysis featured no illustrations, and he concluded that the “drum type is used. . . by all the prominent builders. . . [and] must be considered the typical electric elevator of to-day, and the proper one to use as a basis for comparison.” He was aware of Frank Sprague and Charles Pratt’s recently developed horizontal electric screw machine. However, despite several recent installations, he doubted its long-term viability. Four years would pass before Baxter returned, in a surprising way, to the topic of elevator technology.
From 1897 to 1901, Baxter’s career as a technical writer followed the course defined by his entry into the field, with a singular focus on electrical machinery. In 1897, he established a relationship with Power Publishing Co., publishers of the popular journal Power. This new employment opportunity, coupled with his existing association with American Machinist, established the primary outlets for most of his writing throughout the remainder of his career. These relationships were strengthened in 1902, when Hill Publishing purchased Power. From January 1897 to December 1900, Baxter authored 78 articles: 31 appeared in American Machinist, and 30 appeared in Power. During this period, he also wrote articles for a diverse set of other publications: Machinery, seven; Electrical World, five; Popular Science, three; Marine Engineering, one; and Scientific American, one. Baxter’s articles embraced the same broad range of topics explored in his first year of writing and included a lengthy series titled “Hints on the Care of Electrical Machinery,” aimed at providing general instruction to readers on a variety of topics.
In May 1901, Baxter’s editorial focus shifted from writing broadly about electrical machinery to the exclusive exploration of one machine — the elevator. Given the growing interest in electric elevators in the early 20th century, this change of focus seems logical. However, his new subject was not, in fact, electric elevators. His first five articles, published in 1901, concerned hydraulic elevators. These were followed by a five-part series on elevator safety devices, written for American Machinist in 1902, and four additional articles on hydraulic elevators published in The Engineer in 1904. No explanation for this shift in focus has been found, nor is it known why Baxter, an acknowledged expert in electrical machinery, was assumed to have the technical competency to write about hydraulic elevators. Another mystery, which has a plausible solution, is why Baxter’s productivity suddenly dropped off after 1902. (No articles have been found that were published in 1903 or 1905.)
Baxter faded from the pages of American Machinist, Power and other magazines because he had turned his attention to larger projects. In 1903, he authored a 23-page pamphlet titled Commutator Construction, which was the third in a series of “practical papers” published by Derry-Collard Co. of New York. A contemporary review reported that Baxter’s work was “a comprehensive and easily understood discussion of this subject, [intended] to assist those having charge of dynamos and motors. The treatment is plain and complete, and the illustrations are numerous and clear.” The pamphlet’s popularity was such that a fifth edition was published in 1919.
Baxter’s Practical Talks on Electricity (Engineer Publishing Co., Chicago) appeared in 1905. This was a two-part, 369-page, well-illustrated text that examined the “Principles and Construction of Dynamos and Switchboards” in Part I and the “Care and Management of Dynamos and Motors” in Part II. A review in Electrical World noted:
“The author treats the subjects in a conversational manner for the benefit of beginners and for engineers and others who wish to obtain some notion of electricity and its applications. . . . To the working engineer without opportunity to pursue systematically the study of electrical apparatus, this book should prove useful.”
In the same year, Engineer Publishing also published Baxter’s first book on vertical transportation: Hydraulic Elevators, a 145- page, thoroughly illustrated study. The book’s contents derived from Baxter’s articles that had appeared in 1901, 1902 and 1904. Engineer Publishing also published The Engineer; thus, it had direct knowledge of the quality of Baxter’s work and writing. The book was not, however, simply composed of reprints of his articles. Baxter rewrote and edited much of the text. It was sufficiently well-received that Baxter was contracted by American Text Book Co. of Philadelphia to contribute a chapter on hydraulic elevators to Practical Mechanical Engineering, a three-volume text published in 1907. A 1908 advertisement in Power described Baxter’s 1905 text as “the only book on elevators and if you have elevators you need it.” The book’s success led Power to commission a new series of articles on hydraulic elevators that began to appear in the magazine in December 1906. The delay in starting the series was likely due to Baxter’s focus on completing his third book, Switchboards for Power, Light and Railway Service, Direct and Alternating Current, High and Low Tension, published by McGraw Publishing Co. in 1906.
Baxter wrote 42 articles on hydraulic elevator systems for Power between December 1906 and March 1909. These articles were likely planned to serve as the basis for a new book. Indeed, Baxter’s Hydraulic Elevators: Their Design, Construction, Operation, Care and Management was published by McGraw-Hill in 1910. (In 1909, John A. Hill, owner and publisher of American Machinist and Power, and James H. McGraw merged their book publishing divisions, forming McGraw-Hill.) Unlike his first book, this work was primarily composed of reprints of his articles arranged in a chapter format. Reviews were favorable:
“This book treats the construction, care and operation of different types of hydraulic elevator machines. The principles of the different types of reduction gearing, counterbalances [and] control systems are all described in detail and explained with the aid of simple diagrams. . . . For those desiring to familiarize themselves with the principles of hydraulic elevators and those who are called upon to operate or supervise the operation of them, the book should prove of great value.”
Another review noted, “The author puts his facts in a way to be easily understood by the average reader.” Among the few criticisms was the observation that “the subtitle ‘Design’ is somewhat misleading, as this book could scarcely be recommended to designers as more than a reference book.”
Unfortunately, Baxter did not have the opportunity to enjoy the success of his new book. He died of pneumonia on January 12, 1910, at the age of 56. Readers of Power, however, continued to enjoy his work through July 1910. Immediately upon completion of his lengthy series on hydraulic elevators, Baxter returned,
perhaps with some relief, to writing about electrical machinery. However, once again, he was asked to focus on a specific topic. His new subject was electric elevators. He wrote 20 articles on this subject for Power, and the intent was very likely, after the series was finished, to publish what would have been the first book on electric elevators. The fact that 10 articles were published after his death speaks to the nature of publishing deadlines during this period and to Baxter’s ability to write, not only very well, but very quickly. (This material will be the subject of a future article.)
Baxter’s success as an author during the last decade of his life was paralleled by a return to inventing and the pursuit of patents. Unlike his efforts prior to 1895, his second engagement with the world of invention was much more eclectic. He filed 14 patent applications between January 1899 and November 1908. The subjects included electromagnets, motor starters, electric motor controls, rheostats, pneumatic hammers, typewriters (three patents) and elevators (five patents). The elevator patents addressed various operating and control systems for electric elevators, and two were assigned to Otis. The nature of Baxter’s relationship with the company remains a mystery. The list of contributors referenced in Practical Mechanical Engineering describes Baxter as “consulting mechanical engineer, formerly with the Otis Elevator Company.” This reference appeared in 1907; however, the application for his final elevator patent (assigned to Otis) was filed in November 1908, which implies an ongoing relationship between Baxter and Otis.
Following his death, Power published an obituary that outlined his long and varied career. The unknown author who eulogized his former colleague wrote what was, while apt, an assessment that allowed Baxter’s past failures to continue to haunt him, even in death: “Like so many meritorious inventors, Mr. Baxter lacked the business ability to reap the full reward of his genius. His elevator patents alone should have made him independently wealthy — but they didn’t.”
- “The Present Development and Future Possibilities of Electricity,” American Machinist (February 13 and 20, 1896); “Can Electricity Supplant the Steam Locomotive on Trunk Railways?,” Electrical Engineer (13-part series published February 19-May 27, 1896); “Electricity and the Horseless-Carriage Problem,” Engineering Magazine (May 1896).
- “The Electric Versus the Hydraulic Elevator,” Engineering Magazine ( June 1896).
- Baxter’s concerns were well founded: for the history of this system, see your author’s From Ascending Rooms to Express Elevators: A History of the Passenger Elevator in the 19th Century (Elevator World, Inc.: 2003).
- “Books and Pamphlets,” American Engineer and Railroad Journal (December 1903).
- “Book Reviews,” Electrical World ( July 28, 1906).
- Practical Mechanical Engineering, edited by Carl S. Dow, American Text Book Co. (Philadelphia: 1907).
- “Advertisement for Hydraulic Elevators,” Power ( June 9, 1908).
- “Book Reviews,” Electrical World ( June 9, 1910).
- “Book Reviews,” Engineering Record ( June 25, 1910).
- “Electrically Controlling Motors From a Distance,” U.S. Patent No. 736,476 (August 18, 1903); “System for Operating Electric Elevators,” U.S. Patent No. 743,426 (November 10, 1903); “System for Controlling the Motion of Electrically Operated Elevators by Means of a Switch,” U.S. Patent No. 878,496 (February 11, 1908); “Elevator Controlling Apparatus”, U.S. Patent No. 1,047,151 (December 17, 1912); “Push Button System,” U.S. Patent No. 1,072,074 (September 2, 1913).
- “William Baxter, Jr. Obituary,” Power ( January 25, 1910).