Two creations of Jefferson County’s Edward Shortt were very successful in the 1880s, but like most inventors, he was always thinking, always innovating. Commercial success was important for funding future projects, but his steam pump and award-winning duplex engine, along with the backing of wealthy men like Charles Emery, ensured Edward of a comfortable living standard.
In the early 1990s, as Shortt’s duplex engines began mass production, he delved into designing a better braking system for trains. Other than for financial profit, there were many reasons to do so. Frequent and horrible rail accidents involved great loss of life, particularly in collision situations. The inability to effectively slow and stop such large, moving vehicles often played a role in catastrophic crashes.
A local firm, the Eames Vacuum Brake Company of nearby Watertown, was among the leaders in its field, along with Westinghouse, who had sued Eames in the 1870s for patent infringement. After a long battle, the suit was abandoned in 1880. Since that time, both companies had flourished.
The braking systems used by Eames and Westinghouse were adequate for shorter trains, but nothing effective had been found to control long strings of rail cars. Edward addressed that problem, and by mid-1891, initial samples were produced for testing before the watchful eyes of several industry leaders, including representatives from both Eames and Westinghouse.
The results were reported in Locomotive Engineers Journal: “The Duplex Automatic Railway Brake invented by E. G. Shortt, of Carthage, was recently tested and found to be an admirable device, which promises to win for its originator deserved fame at least, and perhaps a fortune. … There seems to be no question as to the success of Mr. Shortt’s invention and no doubt as to his title to all the credit for it. Experts say it is original throughout and, as is characteristic of all this inventor’s devices, it is perfectly simple, a strong point in its favor, both on the score of cheapness and of reliability in emergencies.”
The conclusion was that his new brake would “lessen the danger to life and limb and valuable property in travel on the railway.” Time was then spent on perfecting the system.
By early 1895, after years of testing and refinements, Shortt had obtained patents addressing a number of innovations: air-brake valves, cylinders, reservoirs, a graduating system, slack adjuster, and a mechanism for operating the brakes.
With more testing and improvements confirming that his new system was workable, several railways adopted Edward’s air brake. His reputation, plus connections fostered by Charles Emery, helped attract attention in the industry. In 1899, Edgar Van Etten of the New York Central Railroad, and George Westinghouse, originator of the air brake, joined Emery and Shortt at Carthage to review his work and examine the possibilities. (Westinghouse’s “interest” may have been more about sizing up the competition.)
Edward soon began assigning his many air-brake patents to the International Air Brake Company of Jersey City, New Jersey, a process that extended over many years and included several new patents as well. His connection with that company, plus his links to financier Charles Emery and Watertown’s New York Air Brake Company, resulted in Edward’s work permeating the industry.
With the brake business going strong and royalties rolling in, Shortt found new worlds to conquer: inventing and designing an engine powered by petroleum products. The Ryther & Pringle Machine Company of Carthage was tasked with building Edward’s creation, a simplified, duplex, high-speed engine that eliminated cams, gears, springs, and other parts from the valve action.
In 1906 he patented an “explosive gas engine” and a pneumatic filter. The following year he patented a fluid-pressure clutch, assigning it to the Ryon-Hopkins Machine Company.
By this time, Edward was sixty years old and still creating, but he wasn’t the only Shortt in the game. Howard G. Shortt, his son, strode in the footsteps of his father, patenting in 1901 a “wood chipper and crusher for grinding wood pulp” into uniform chips in one action, a process that previously involved two separate machines. (Perhaps Howard was the original “chip off the old block”?)
Years later, he invented a “vacuum actuated screen” for use in papermaking, a product appropriate for the multitude of paper mills in the Adirondack region. He followed that with an oiling mechanism that promised to find general use on all types of machinery.
Edward, meanwhile, continued pursuing improvements in gas engines, seeking methods of controlling air and fuel flow for greater efficiency. To that end, he took over the experimental machine shop of the International Air Brake Company in 1913 and attacked the problem for nearly a decade. Progress was made and patents were secured, but it was a vexing problem that had foiled many able inventors.
In 1922, when Shortt was 76, it was announced that after five years of experimenting, he had developed a device to control both fuel and air that would cut automobile fuel consumption in half. The need for a carburetor, so difficult to adjust, was said to be eliminated. Instead, liquid fuel—whether gasoline, kerosene, propane, or methane—could be turned into gas and burned as fuel, leaving no subsequent carbon deposits.
Edward was said to be consulting with companies interested in his latest invention. Had he been a younger man, perhaps something would have resulted, but like other supposed “miracle” products, it seemed to just fade from mention, as did Shortt himself in old age. A few years later, in 1926, he passed away at age 80 following a brief illness.
Newspaper reports from nearly a century ago claim that Edward, a prolific inventor, earned more than 100 patents during his long career. He received great praise and two official medals for his work. The second medal, representing the highest honor bestowed by the Maryland Institute, was inscribed: “To the Shortt Manufacturing Co., by the Maryland Institute for the Promotion of Mechanical Arts.”
The medals, patents, and public praise were far less important to Shortt than the widespread admiration and respect of his peers. Like many of them, Edward preferred remaining behind the scenes, toiling away at difficult-to-solve problems.
Engine designers and other creatives drew from his inventions to improve many related products, both during his career and after his passing. As recently as 1953, Edward’s work was cited in a patent for an improved carburetor.
He received no formal schooling after age 14, and yet for five decades, Edward Shortt stood tall among an impressive cadre of Jefferson County inventors.
Photo: Shortt’s duplex high-speed engine (Engineering and Mining Journal, 1891)