The past meets the future at the first Davenport Electric Fest



The Future

Scores of folks turned out to learn about the latest developments in electric energy at Estabrook Park in Brandon this past Saturday.  It was the first-ever Davenport Electric Fest, a daylong awareness, marketing, and networking event organized by the Brandon Energy Committee (BEC). 

Concerns about the environment and the rising cost of fossil fuels have heightened interest in electricity as an alternative. “Brandon is growing into the future, out of its past. Renewable energy is part of what’s going to drive this,” said Robert Black of the BEC. Another committee member, Jack Schneider, added, “We want to be the first Vermont town to run on 90% renewable energy by 2050.”

Barbara Noyes Pulling of the Rutland Regional Planning Commission said, “Brandon is an example for other towns to follow. This energy group [BEC] is the most active in the state.”

The park was filled with representatives from many companies and organizations, all of whom were there to increase awareness of electric power as an alternative to fossil fuel. 

John Blittersdorf, Vice President of SolarFest, which recently relocated to Brandon, said that his organization’s goal for the day was to “increase exposure to solar power.” He added, “There’s so much misinformation.” When asked about the biggest myth, he pointed to the array of vintage solar panels he’d brought, some dating to the infancy of the solar industry in the early 1990s. “People think you have to constantly replace the panels. These panels are 30 years old and still good!” 

But the day’s focus was squarely on electric motors, whether in cars, buses, motorcycles, or even lawn mowers and leaf blowers.

Zach Mersch of Mean Green electric mowers stated that his company’s mowers, built for large-scale commercial use, could save up to $10 an hour in fuel costs. When a town or school has to mow dozens of acres daily, that savings adds up. So, even at $30,000 per machine, business is brisk. Mersch said they’d recently received an order for 150 machines from a single school district. “It’s been a good year,” he said.


Many people know what it’s like to have to bury their head under a pillow as a neighbor’s gas-powered leaf blower mimics a flatulent jet engine on a Sunday morning. Steve Wisbaum of Mow Electric had the solution: a whisper-quiet electric version. 

In fact, Mow Electric had electric versions of many of the most common home-landscaping tools. Wisbaum said, “In five years, you won’t even be able to buy a gas mower. People don’t want to mess around with gas anymore.” 

And while the commercial riding mowers may cost big bucks, Mow Electric’s push mowers can be had for $400, putting them in line with conventional gas models but with a fraction of the fuel costs.

One of the more unexpected exhibitors was the Vermont State Police, who sent Officer Matt Nesto to show off one of the department’s new electric Harley-Davidson motorcycles. It was a slick-looking machine, like something out of Japanese anime. Nesto said, “Vermont was the first to put electric motorcycles into service. We worked directly with Harley-Davidson to develop them.” 

In addition to the usual environmental and cost benefits, Nesto praised the bikes’ raw power: “0 to 60 in 3 seconds,” he said. He did acknowledge that the bikes had a shorter range per charge than conventional bikes have per tank, but so far, it hasn’t been a problem to recharge when needed. “And when the motor is so quiet, you really become aware of how much noise the wind makes,” he laughed.

W.C. Cressey of Kennebunk, Maine, had Justin Maltese on hand to demonstrate their electric school buses. On the outside, they look like the classic yellow buses everyone remembers. But under the hood, you can see the difference immediately: it’s mostly HVAC systems. The motor and batteries are under the main body of the vehicle. “We’ve got two of them already in service in South Burlington,” Maltese said. “Electricity is the future.”


The Past

At noon, Dr. Kevin Thornton—historian, Brandon resident, and former President of the Brandon Museum—took the stage to introduce David Hammond of the Department of Physics at the University of Vermont. The two men had been collaborating for months on replicas of the electric motors designed by Thomas Davenport in Brandon back in the 1830s. Davenport held the first U.S. patent for an electric motor (1837), hence the name of the day’s event (see sidebar for more on Davenport).

Hammond’s official title at UVM is “Scientific Electronics Technician.” In practice, Hammond is responsible for designing and building models and devices to demonstrate whatever principles of physics the department’s professors may want to illustrate for their students (see sidebar for more on Hammond’s work). Needless to say, Hammond was the perfect collaborator to help Thornton realize his years-long quest to manufacture a working replica of Davenport’s patent model.

Hammond brought a slew of replicas, starting with Davenport’s earliest, crudest attempts at electric motorization all the way through to the design that finally earned Davenport a patent in 1837. These remarkable devices, lined up in chronological order on a table in the main tent, drew crowds of the curious from the very first moments of the day. Hammond spent the morning explaining Davenport’s innovations and happily showing folks how the motors worked. 

The replica of the patent model was undoubtedly the star of the display. Crafted mostly of brass and 200-year-old maple that Hammond had in his attic, it has a visual simplicity that masks a technical sophistication well ahead of its time. Hammond had it hooked up to a throw switch reminiscent of Frankenstein. When he flipped on the juice, electricity created alternating positive/negative magnetic polarity that caused the coils of wire to spin on a central axis. Given our familiarity with electricity and motorization today, it’s easy to underestimate the impact such a device must’ve had in the 1830s.

“Brandon was tremendously lucky in finding Dave,” Thornton said. “There is perhaps no one else alive with the same combination of scientific knowledge, shop skills, love of Vermont, and interest in the Davenport story. He has put hundreds of hours into this project and given us all an incredible gift.”

Hammond made three replicas of the Davenport patent model: one for UVM, one for some acquaintances at Beta Technologies of Burlington, and one for the town of Brandon, where it will be the centerpiece of a 2023 exhibit on Davenport curated by Thornton for the Brandon Museum. 

Seth Hopkins, Chair of the Brandon Selectboard, officially accepted Hammond’s gift after reading a declaration formally adopted by the Statehouse to mark July 9th— Davenport’s birthday—as Davenport Day in Vermont.

Senator Bernie Sanders, a longtime proponent of renewables, sent Haley Pero, his Director of Outreach, to convey his support for Brandon’s efforts to promote electric energy.  

The remarks wrapped up with Bill Moore, Brandon’s Economic Development Officer, and Emily Eckert, an Energy Transformation Representative from Green Mountain Power, giving thanks to everyone who had helped make the event a success.


Thomas Davenport


Thomas Davenport (1802 – 1851) was born in Williamstown, Vermont. At 14, he began an apprenticeship with a blacksmith and afterward moved to Forestdale to set up his own shop (there’s a marker on the spot, across from the Neshobe School). But by 1832, he’d decided to pursue his interest in electricity and closed the business. He devoted the rest of his short life to the quest to design an electric motor. 

Though Brandon was a small town on the edge of the frontier, Davenport managed to connect with other inventors and scientists, keeping abreast of technological developments – such as electromagnets – that he was able to incorporate into his designs. 

He also had significant assistance from his wife, Emily (neé Goss). Not only did she use her family’s money to help subsidize Thomas’s research, but she also made significant technical contributions to the actual work. For example, she suggested an innovative use of mercury to solve a problem with the magnets in an early version of the motor. And more famously, she sacrificed her wedding dress to provide the silk Thomas needed to insulate the copper wires.

For years, Davenport worked to perfect his designs. In 1837, he finally won a U.S. patent, the first-ever for an electric device. But none of his subsequent business ventures succeeded. He was never able to capitalize on his innovations.

Davenport died in 1851, at the age of 48, in Salisbury, Vermont. 

There is more to the Davenport story. The Brandon Museum is planning an exhibit on Davenport, scheduled to open in the summer of 2023, so stay tuned.


David Hammond

Dave Hammond’s office at UVM is equal parts Sci-Fi laboratory and Victorian curiosity shop. As you enter the building, you can’t help noticing the amazing collection of antique scientific instruments on display in the lobby. Hammond has dedicated his career to constructing models and devices to illustrate principles of physics for students at UVM, and these antique instruments serve as inspiration to him.

Hammond grew up in Clarendon Springs, Vermont. He always had an inquisitive mind and spent his childhood collecting natural specimens and dissecting various electronic devices to see how they function. He majored in physics at UVM, graduating with a B.S. in 1984. He was hired part-time by the physics department in 1987 and became full-time in 1990. He’s been at UVM ever since, in a job that seems to be a fantasy for someone who loves to explain how things work.

Hammond got involved with Davenport motors when Kevin Thornton, who was then president of the Brandon Museum, happened to be on campus in the fall of 2021 and stumbled across the antique instruments in the lobby of Hammond’s building. Thornton had been looking for someone to build a replica of Davenport’s patent design for the museum and realized that whoever had amassed this collection would likely be a good ally in the quest. He tracked Hammond down.

The two men had no idea how far the partnership would go.

Hammond spent months researching Davenport and studying his designs. “I was surprised how interesting that time in science was,” he said. “Davenport lived on the frontier, but he was in contact with the leading scientists of the day.”

“Dave built the motor by reverse-engineering Davenport’s original patent model, which is now in the Smithsonian,” said Thornton, who had enlisted a curator down in D.C. to provide photos and measurements. “He even had the brass components tooled by hand.” 

Hammond notes that the wood for the model came from planks he found stored in the attic of his 1850s farmhouse. He could tell from the density of the grain that it was old-growth lumber, and when he counted the rings, he realized that the tree had been over 200 years old when it was felled, likely making the wood the same age as that used by Davenport.

“Davenport had a vision,” Hammond said. “He saw a future that was better.”

Hammond’s working replica will eventually become the centerpiece of the Brandon Museum’s exhibit on Davenport.


Davenport Family

A handful of attendees at the Davenport Electric Fest could claim a special status: they are Thomas Davenport’s kin.

Davenport came from a large family with multiple siblings. He also had two sons of his own. One son, George, died in the Civil War (see Kevin Thornton’s film Death in the Wilderness for the remarkable story) without children of his own. The other son, Willard, survived his service in the war and ended up joining the Episcopal clergy.

Most of the Davenport clan at the event descended from Thomas’s brother Lemuel. They joked that Thomas’s spirit of invention passed down through the generations since Lemuel’s descendant Francis Davenport (now 87 and unable to attend) was also an electrician whose basement was full of motors.

Francis’s grandson, Josh Sainz, Sr., said, “My grandfather’s basement was full of electric motors. When I was four, he gave me a TV to take apart.” Sainz added, “I didn’t really know until high school about Thomas Davenport.”

Sainz’s sons, Josh Jr. and Samuel, said, “We tried to tell our teachers that we were related to Davenport and about what he did, but they didn’t believe us.” 

Thomas Davenport’s great-great-great-granddaughter, Polly Wood-Holland, says, “I’m proud to be a Davenport.” Wood-Holland has worked as a set designer, sculptor, and painter for decades. She’s currently working on the final season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. “I wonder if the impulse to make models is carried down from Thomas,” she added. 

Standing in front of the marker where Thomas Davenport’s workshop once stood, Polly said, “I’m proud of Thomas’s persistence, ingenuity, and bravery. I have a framed copy of the original patent in my house.”

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