This place in history: Samuel Morey

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Mike Hoey asked, “We’re floating on a dock at the public boat launch on Lake Morey (in Fairlee), so what brings us here today?”

“We’re going to talk about Lake Morey’s namesake,” replied Vermont Historical Society executive director Steve Perkins. “So Samuel Morey was a pretty famous inventor. He was born in Connecticut, raised in Orford, New Hampshire — which is just across the Connecticut River, sort of pointing this way — but eventually lived in Fairlee.

“As I said, he was an inventor, and particularly interested in locomotion. We’re before trains, we’re before automobiles, so now we’re talking about boats. How do we move boats? Now, his real invention said, ‘how can we take steam and turn it into a spinning engine so that a water wheel spins and moves a boat?’

Hoey asked, “Did he do any of his pioneering steam work here on what would still have been Fairlee Pond at the time?”

“He developed this engine, and he patented it in 1793,” Perkins replied. “He built a boat as a proof of concept and supposedly rode it on the Connecticut River, and legend has it that he experienced it here on this pond. I think you’ve probably heard of Robert Fulton ?

“I indeed have it,” Hoey said.

“Yes, when you think of the steamboat and who invented the steamboat and it says ‘Robert Fulton’ – our argument here from Vermont is that in fact Samuel Morey was the first to have one proof of concept,” Perkins continued. “Actually, this boat that he experimented with here, he brought it back to use as a ferry between Trenton and Philadelphia.

“His backers went bankrupt, but one of the people who saw his boat and understood that boat was a man named (Robert) Livingston, who ended up being Fulton’s backer. And so, even back when Fulton was driving his boat years later down the Hudson River, proving he had a steamer, Morey was like, ‘wait a minute. I’ve done this before. These guys took my idea.

“People in New Jersey and Philadelphia even saw it as a business venture,” Hoey added.

“Exactly – but unfortunately Robert Fulton gets all the credit,” Perkins said. “His steamer was operating commercially; Morey didn’t.

“And I understand that all of you at the Vermont Historical Society have a very interesting scale model representing a by-product of some of his work,” Hoey pointed out.

“Absolutely, Mike; we have his own model that he created,” Perkins said. “The steam engine itself is above my hand; it’s this little thing here. It’s just a boiler that makes it work. This came straight from Samuel Morey’s workshop, and one of his descendants donated it to the Vermont Historical Society in 1900. It was actually affixed to a tea kettle that showed how it worked; it is a working model. The Historical Society put it on top of this device here in the early 20th century – and used it. In fact, they made it work.

“Although the device is not on public display at this time, it has been in the past and it is possible that it will be on display again in the future at some point,” Hoey said.

“Oh, absolutely, Mike,” Perkins noted. We have 30,000 objects in our museum collection alone. You can see it on our website.”

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