History lesson: The forgotten inventor from Martinsburg

The forgotten inventor from Martinsburg
Published: Feb. 3, 2023 at 6:09 AM EST
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MARTINSBURG, New York (WWNY) - “Walter Hunt is without a doubt the most famous American inventor that nobody’s ever heard of,” said Cole Mullin, who’s office manager for the Lewis County Historical Society.

If you’ve ever used a safety pin, sewing machine, pen, or revolving pistol, you can thank Walter Hunt.

“Walter Hunt was born 1796 in Martinsburg,” Mullin said. “He was the oldest of 14 children of a Quaker farm family. By the 1820s he lived in Lowville with his wife, Polly, on a farm of their own.”

It was there that Hunt invented a flax spinning machine for a mill owner.

“There was concern of a strike at the flax mill and Hunt suggested he get better machinery to improve production and increase wages,” Mullin said, “and the owner said, ‘well, why don’t you invent that machine.’”

Hunt made countless inventions and patented 30 of them, many of which we still use today, like the safety lamp, a nail-cutting machine, an ice-cutting boat, and a fountain pen, which came from a clumsy friend’s visit to Hunt’s workshop.

“One of Hunt’s friends knocked over his ink well and said, ‘well, why don’t you invent an inkwell that doesn’t spill?’ Then he had the idea why don’t I invent a pen that holds its own ink and make the ink well obsolete.”

He also invented the repeating rifle, because his son enlisted in the U.S. Army during the Mexican-American war. Hunt wanted soldiers to be better equipped. He hoped it would make the war end faster so his son would never see battle.

“So, he invented the 12-round repeating rifle, which after several improvements from other manufacturers became the Winchester repeating rifle,” Mullin said, “which everyone is familiar with.”

He made practical designs for the everyday person, like paper collars and shoe pegs. But he also made impractical inventions, like shoes for circus performers to walk on the ceiling.

“It was made with sandals,” Mullin said. “Performers would strap on their feet and a leather that when pressed on a smooth surface, it would create enough suction and it was famous enough that P.T. Barnum used it in his show.”

They say necessity is the mother of invention, and although Hunt was a brilliant man, he wasn’t business savvy and often found himself in debt.

“He realized he owed his friend $15,” Mullin said. “He was sitting there talking with him and found a wire in his pocket. He began twisting the wire until it made a shape. He left the room — said ‘I’ll be right back’ —- he went to a local businessman and showed him the safety pin and sold him the patent rights on the spot for $100 and went to settle the debt with his friend.”

He did this often: whipping up inventions to sell fast for money, then missing out on the profits of successful products.

An even worse business blunder happened with his invention of the sewing machine. He didn’t want to manufacture it because he had gone broke doing that with other inventions during the recession. So, he waited. But he waited too long and a man named Elias Howe took his idea.

“He was first to market the sewing machine and demanded royalties from anyone else manufacturing sewing machines in America,” Mullin said.

It was a misstep that haunts Hunt even in his grave.

“His plot is three plots away from Elias Howe and his monument is a large marble stone with a gigantic bust of himself, and it literally casts a shadow on the monument for Hunt,” said Mullin.

“He was never a rich man, but being a rich man didn’t matter. He only wanted to be recognized as the inventor.”

Most people will never recognize Hunt as the inventor of his products. But here in the north country, next time you use a pin, fire a rifle, or pick up a pen, remember the forgotten man of Martinsburg.

The Black River Valley Concert series supports the Lewis County Historical Society so they can continue preserving stories like Hunt’s. Upcoming concerts include Ruby Shooz on February 11, Dissipated Eight on February 25, The Nelson Brothers on March 11, and Beartracks on March 25. You can buy tickets at the Historical Society. All shows are located there and begin at 7:30 p.m.