Among the most notable from Jefferson County is a man whose work had a tremendous impact on products used widely by many industries.
One of his inventions is credited with preventing many accidents, thus avoiding an untold number of deaths and injuries.
Edward G. Shortt was just one year old when his family emigrated from Ireland to the United States in 1847. John and Esther Shortt settled in Redwood, about 20 miles north of Watertown, finding work in several nearby communities. Edward, the oldest of about a half-dozen children, attended schools in Redwood and Philadelphia. At about the age of 14, he began working with his father in John’s carriage-making shop, where the young boy’s aptitude for invention and problem solving was revealed.
In 1864, Edward moved to Carthage, about 15 miles east of Watertown, and apprenticed in the machinist firm of Brown, Winch, & Bliss, effectively charting the course of his future. Among the talented men he worked under was Jacob Bliss, a man who created many machines, but who shared his methods openly rather than patent them. Shortt would learn much from Bliss, one of the local master machinists.
By some accounts, including the Genealogical and Family History of the County of Jefferson (1905), Edward completed his apprenticeship and remained with the company as a journeyman for three more years, during which time he invented a shaft-coupling device that he patented in 1869. Partnering for four years with local businessman Minor Guyot under the Giant Coupling Company name, he filled orders for the coupling, patented improvements to the original, and handled other machinist jobs. He also partnered with another local inventor, Christian Oberly, in patenting a harvester cutter bar in 1870.
After the coupling company dissolved, he moved to Seneca Falls and worked for Rumsey Manufacturing, a company that specialized in building pumps and engines. Among his inventions developed at this time was a much-improved steam pump. Edward then returned to Carthage and formed the Empire Steam Pump Company in 1881 with the aid of wealthy investors like Charles Emery, who owned the famed Frontenac Hotel and an island in the St. Lawrence.
Shortt continued tweaking his inventions, and the money was soon rolling in. In 1882, a contract was signed with the Steam Engine Company of Watertown for all the pumps Empire could produce within two years. As the hands-on manager of the firm, Edward was completely in his element, free to invent, design, and create.
The innovative processes used in some inventions, like Shortt’s steam pump, often find applications in the work of other inventors. In 1885, a highly successful Watertown firm, the Eames Vacuum Brake Company, was tasked by none other than Thomas Edison with developing an electric brake for his new motors designed to propel cars on New York City’s elevated rail system. Successful completion of that project prompted a letter of thanks from Edison’s company. The new brake by Eames employed the air exhaust design of Shortt’s steam pump.
Empire had great success selling Edward’s signature product. Its popularity spread beyond New York’s borders to the western part of the country, and by 1887, the company was forced to expand operations and increase their work force.
In 1888, Shortt was awarded three patents in relation to his latest invention, the steam-driven “duplex pumping engine,” said to be the best of its kind available anywhere, and particularly suited for marine use. Charles Emery backed the invention financially, a product that earned praise from navy engineers and soon saw use in a variety of watercraft, including screw-wheel boats. It was also suited for many other purposes, like the powering of dynamos for producing electricity.
In 1889, the American Institute of New York awarded Edward Shortt a bronze medal with the inscription, “Presented to E. G. Shortt for Superior Duplex Machines.” Unlike many inventions that are modifications of existing machines, his was cited for originality of design and construction. Using simple methods, Shortt’s cross-port system involved one piston alternately supplying and cutting off steam to the other, a method used by no other engine. His peers were impressed with the engine’s compact design and recognized it as the new standard.
In short order, a contract was signed with Ames Manufacturing of Chicopee, Massachusetts, to begin constructing 250 of the new engines, most of which would be used in yachts. Meanwhile, the Empire facility at Clayton was already working on a 100-horsepower version. In early 1890, several of the new engines were installed in St. Lawrence River yachts.
With success in the form of patented inventions and plenty of income, Shortt did what many inventors do: he kept on working. The drive to solve, fix, and create was part of his nature.
Photo: Patent drawing for Shortt’s steam pump (1884)