Sunday, 30 July 2017

Dunedin's Electrical Entrepreneur, Mr R.C. Jones (With a Guest Appearance by "Electra", The Wonderful Electric Lady)

Robert Clay Jones, 1852 - 1928
Electrical Engineer, Entrepreneur and Inventor
Taken in Wellington circa 1910
[Source : Turnbull & Jones]

I am often amazed at the stories I just happen to stumble across in the course of my regular blog research. The story of Mr Robert Clay Jones of Dunedin was just far too good to be overlooked and forgotten. And in fact, as is usually the case, once I delved more deeply I became fascinated by this gentleman. The passion and ability Mr Jones exhibited in variously promoting, inventing, demonstrating, and lecturing on the uses and benefits of Electricity in an age where gas and oil lamps were very much the norm is well worth recounting. Such was his belief in how electricity could be utilized in so many useful ways for everyday household and commercial use that he would eventually make it his vocation.

Robert Jones, the son of a Liverpool Lawyer, first arrived in Dunedin in the 1860's, being accompanied by his widowed mother. By 1871 they had moved to the West Coast where Jones was apprenticed to a Watchmaker and Jeweller in Hokitika. While here he took an active part in the local Vocal and Amateur Dramatic Club as well as contributing to many good causes and charities. But it would be the electroplating of metal in the course of his profession that would 'spark' his interest in electricity.

In May 1874 we find Mr Jones, with some considerable regret, being farewelled prior to his returning to Dunedin in July, initially working as a draper with the firm of "Brown, Ewing & Company". But electrical experimentation and research had by now become not only his hobby but also his passion.

In July 1878, at the Telegraph Office, we find Mr Jones successfully demonstrating an electrical microphone he had constructed based on the new invention of Thomas Edison and Professor Hughes whereby sound could be effectively magnified through a Bell telephone receiver and speaker;

"Speaking into it at a distance of several feet from the telephone, the conversation was reproduced to the listener at the other end with astonishing distinctness... but the most astonishing surprise of all was that a whisper in the microphone, as soft as a lover's whisper, which could not be heard by those a foot away from Mr Jones was audible to the gentleman at the other end of the telephone."  

Dunedin Young Men's Christian Association
Lecture by Mr R.C. Cook on
"The Electric Light (with experiments)",
[Source : The Otago Daily Times, 12 May 1879]

Jones now commenced his popular public lectures on electricity and new technology, ably addressing the "Young Men's Christian Association" in August 1878 on the subject of "Electricity and the Telephone". His talk and demonstration of the "primitive" and the "improved" telephone microphone, which he had constructed from an illustration in the "Scientific American", were concluded with "considerable applause". This was followed up in May 1879 by a lecture on "The Electric Light (with experiments)". It was however noted that a fault in connection to the lecture "was its length and also the minuteness of detail with which every point of difference in the various inventions and patents were described.", the audience not being dismissed until after 10 o'clock.

In October 1879 Jones claims the invention of "The Electro-Thermostat", "an instrument which will give warning immediately on an outbreak of fire in any apartment in which it is placed". But a knowledgeable correspondent calling himself "Thermo-Pile" was quick to state that "while I have no desire to detract from the value of Mr Jones's contrivance, still I would point out that an apparatus of apparently a similar character... has been in use in the Home country for a number of years." The latter states that he looks forward with some interest to a fuller description of Jones' apparatus but unfortunately no more appears to have been said on the subject. The Turnbull and Jones history does however state that Jones, and in business with Mr J.K. Logan, "supplied Dunedin's first electrical alarms" but I am unable to confirm this from any other source.

In 1881 Jones built a curious electrical mechanism for the singing of "The Messiah" in St. Matthew's Church, beings based on M. Carpentier's invention of a communication device between a conductor and a hidden choir. Jones "arranged a similar piece of electrical mechanism, whereby the exact beat of the conductor was most successfully made plain to the organist by a little hammer at his side - a great improvement on the usual looking-glass system".

In August 1881 Jones is noted as having been a partner in "Watt & Co, Engineers & Electricians", the partnership being mutually dissolved on this date. We next find Jones lecturing on "The Daily Practical Applications of Electricity", being fully illustrated with experiments and lantern slide demonstrations. But as soon as November 1881 the apparently new partnership of "Jones and Le Lievre, Electro-Platers & Importers" (both having worked for "Watt & Co") was also likewise mutually dissolved.

But Jones' business involvement with "Watt & Co." appears to have endured as their battery powered "electro-dynamic engine" which "converts electricity into motive power", and having been designed by Messrs C.[Chase] Watt and R.C. Jones, was shown in October 1882; "These engines are eminently suitable for driving sewing machines, fret saws, dental engines, and every kind of light machinery." At a YMCA Church social later the same month Messrs Watt and Jones jointly exhibited not only their new Electro-Dynamo but also "a frictional engine machine, a battery of Leyden jars, electrical chimes, dancing figures, laryngoscope lit by the electric light, and galvanic, telegraphic, and telephonic instruments." Both gentleman would then lecture on the subject of electrical lighting with Jones continuing to speak on "Electricity and it's Applications".

In 1884, Jones took employment with the Union Steam Ship Company as their first 'Electrical Officer' and had the responsibility of installing electrical lighting on many of their larger vessels.

In October 1885 Jones next gave a lecture, "being both amusing and instructive", illustrating the many uses electricity could be put to including "firing off torpedoes, giving alarms, and surgical operations". Future lectures over the following years, including in Oamaru and Balclutha, would generally continue to illustrate the everyday and many practical uses of electricity including "Electric light, Telegraph, Telephone, Burglar Alarms, Fire Alarms, Electroplating, Electric Transmission of Power, Railways, &c." It would be in 1887 that Jones was appointed as an Associate Member of the Institute of Engineers [A.M.I.E.].

Jones would also himself utilize electricity in a practical manner in order to give regular and very popular limelight magic lantern slide shows on foreign travel, "with a mixture of comic slides", by means of the "Ozy-Hydrogen Light". I note many of his lectures supported inter-denominational Christian Church fundraising including providing his lighting expertise to the Jewish Congregation.

Many years after Jones' death, a grandson produced a letter the former had written to the well known German Physicist, Dr Heinrich Hertz [1857-1894] on the subject of the magnetic field of the Earth and the reply he had received. That such an eminent person as Dr Hertz, who proved the existence of electro-magnetic waves, took the time to reply says something for Jones' technical abilities.

In March 1896, the entrepreneurial Mr Jones, having been appointed a full Member of the Institute of Electrical Engineers [M.I.E.E.] in 1893, obviously felt sufficiently confident in his abilities that he wrote to the Lawrence Borough Council offering to give an estimate of the cost of electrical lighting for the township. His offer would be allowed to "lie on the table" while other options were explored but electricity would eventually win the day.

The Turnbull and Jones history states that Jones, ever the innovator, had studied X-ray and electrical medical treatment and worked with Dunedin hospital on its introduction. This no doubt led to Mr Jones leaving for Wellington in July 1897 where he took part in the vice-regal entertainments during the reception for the Governor and Lady Ranfurly. Here he assisted Mr R.T. Turnbull of Wellington [a brother of the well known Alexander H. Turnbull] in demonstrating Roentgen Rays [X-Rays] using a fluorescent screen nine square feet in size. Lord and Lady Ranfurly had their hands radiographed and "each had the pleasure of looking through the body of the patient little boy, a son of Mr J.K. Logan, Inspector of Telegraphs... The boy's heart and ribs could be easily discerned...". [I dread to think of the radiation the poor boy was subjected to].

Jones' electrical skills would next be utilized as chairman of the Lighting Committee for the 1898 Otago Jubilee Industrial Exhibition. The same year he would also provide a report on the requirements of the new classes for teaching practical electrical engineering at the Dunedin [later King Edward] Technical School.

But after having been in the employment of the Union Steam Ship Company for the previous 14 years, Jones would in April 1899 enter into an electrical engineering and contracting partnership with "a kindred spirit", the afore-mentioned Mr Robert T. Turnbull of Wellington [1865-1925], the business being named "Turnbull and Jones". Turnbull, who held 14,000 shares, would be in charge of the Wellington branch while Jones, who held just 1,000 shares, would be in charge of the South Island branches in Dunedin and Christchurch,

Their business would initially specialize in the supply of and installation of electric lighting, electric traction, electric power transmission plants, as well as being agents for "Crompton" dynamos, arc lamps, "Henley's" Telegraph cables and wires, and "Ediswan" electric lamps. Early orders to install electrical equipment for the New Zealand Refrigeration Company at Burnside and to design and supply hydraulic generating equipment and electrically driven power plant for the "Fourteen Mile Beach Gold Mining Company" dredge working in the Molyneux Gorge and the "Earnsclough No 3 Dredge Co" dredge working in the Frasers River / Clutha River area amply demonstrates the early commercial success the company enjoyed. Electricity driven gold dredging and mining equipment was then considered "a novelty" but "both of these dredges operated successfully for many years, and were the first three phase power plants in New Zealand." [R.T. Turnbull reminiscences, 1921]

The business would later encompass hydro-electric town plants, motor and generator installations, electric lifts, lighting and power installations, fire alarms, telephones, bells, wireless apparatus, magnetos, and electro-medical and X-ray apparatus, electrical repairs and the manufacture of parts in well equipped workshops.

Advertisement for a Lecture on "Electricity
in War and Peace
" and Featuring "Electra,
The Wonderful Electric Lady
[Source : Otago Daily Times, 16 Mar 1900]

In between his busy work schedule Mr Jones still found time for lecturing. It would be in March 1900 that Jones would lecture on "Electricity in Peace and War", in aid of the Fourth Contingent Fund [Second Boer War] Patriotic Fund. The lecture included "different sorts of magnets, bells for use in private homes and offices, a miniature cannon, electric lights, a watchman's clock,.. hospital clock, marine fire alarm, Roentgen ray apparatus, telephones, etc.". But the star of the show would undoubtedly be "one of the most ingenious and life-like figures it is possible to imagine" in the form of the 5 foot 4 inch high automaton, "Electra, the Wonderful Electric Lady", being the invention of Mr J. Jenkins of Rattray street.

Mr Jenkins who, "...has spent years perfecting his figure" and "a very large sum of money in adapting the necessary appliances to giving it the natural movements which enable it to represent a graceful young lady", was "persuaded" by Mr Jones to place his "animated lady" at his disposal for the event. Unfortunately, no photographs of "Electra" are known or her eventual fate but she is well described.

"The movements of the figure were watched with deep interest by those present. She glided on to the stage, carrying in one hand a bouquet of flowers, bowed to the audience, turned her head, moved this way and that, went over to Mr Barth at the piano and shook hands, and did other evolutions. The audience were thoroughly pleased with her demonstration."

A reporter, who had a preview of "Electra", additionally writes that "The automaton... is beautifully dressed in the latest fashion; her face is perfectly natural, as are also the movements she makes." She "...bows, turns round her head, moved her eyes, and moves with facility either forward, backward, or sideways. So natural is all this performed that if it took place on a public stage a great majority of the audience would only with difficulty be persuaded that the figure was not a real live lady."

Robert Clay Jones, circa 1921
[Source : Turnbull & Jones]

Thereafter, his business appears to have occupied much of Jones' time with frequent mention of his name in the daily Express Passenger List. But although very interesting, his latter work in the electrical field is primarily connected with his business activities rather than in a personal capacity so I will not provide a full resumé of this part of his career. This is however adequately detailed in the history of the firm published in 1988. But unfortunately, while "Jones was clever and hardworking [he had] little of the commercial sophistication of the Turnbull's."

This commercial failing became obvious in 1915 when an Assistant Manager had to be appointed to Dunedin to assist in returning the branch to profitability, The amounts Jones charged for large commercial deals had often been insufficient to cover commissioning and call back costs thus the business sustained a number of losses. While having been on a salary of £500 p.a. since 1902 the Company Board now made it obvious what they thought of his management abilities and reduced this to £350 p.a. While Jones was now on the "bottom rung and probably rather unhappy about it" he would at least remain a Director of the Company and continue in the employment of the company. In light of further revelations Jones probably had no choice but to remain working on until his death.

But by 1922 we find that Mr Jones was now President of the Otago Radio Association, a post he would hold until his death. In embracing and promoting this new technology to amateurs Mr Jones remarked (sensibly, and perhaps with some foresight), "that parents would have difficulty in getting boys to bed if they possessed wireless sets, but surely that was better for them than walking the streets at night". The early story of this Association would easily make an interesting blog in its own right.

But sadly, money again came to the fore with Jones evidently being a very poor manager of his own finances. His reduction of salary had only made this worse then leading to numerous pleas to the board for "better consideration". These would fall on death ears, the board long since having made known what they thought of his management skills.

After his death in 1928 Jones' finances "were found to be in a deplorable condition." His son, Longton, by now a senior manager in the firm, wrote to the board suggesting that, taking into consideration his Father's long association with Turnbull and Jones, that they could do something for Mrs Jones. The less than sympathetic board replied that "The Company had already assisted Mr R.C. Jones over a number of years, and the fact that the Dunedin office was not on a paying footing, it was impossible to make any grant to Mrs Jones further than a month's salary and the cancellation of the amount owing by the late Mr R.C. Jones... [around £45.0.0]".

Still, the partnership of Turnbull and Jones had endured from 1899 until Turnbull's death in a motor accident in July 1925 and Jones' death in August 1928. Both built the foundations of a very successful business which remained active until being taken over by Cory-Wright & Salmon Ltd. in 1984.

White Marble Gravestone of Mr Robert Clay Jones,
Anderson's Bay Cemetery, Dunedin
[Source : Dunedin City Council]

Robert Clay Jones A.M.I.E., M.I.E.E. and a Director of "Turnbull & Jones", died in Dunedin on the 4th August 1928 aged 75 years and is buried in the Anderson's Bay Cemetery. He was survived by his second wife and two sons by his first marriage. At their annual social the local staff of "Turnbull & Jones" observed a two minute silence out of respect to their late founder. The last word comes from the 1988 history of the firm; "It seems he always struggled financially, which showed where his true interests lay - work for the interest of it rather than the rewards."

Copyright : This blog may not be reproduced without my specific written permission. Excerpts may however be quoted for non-commercial use provided this site is acknowledged.

Sources :

- Papers Past
- "Turnbull & Jones, 1899 - 1984 : First in the Industry", by Les Boyle 1988
- Dunedin City Council
- McNab Room, Dunedin Public Library
- Archives New Zealand

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