Robert Armstrong Smith
He did much of his creative work from a basement laboratory in his house on Beveridge Road.. Early in his career he obtained patents for better machinery couplings and bushings for his business known as Smith & Serrell. He also held patents on a better snow shovel and a coin holder.
But the most interesting stories come from his work in polarized light. He was an associate of Lewis Warrington Chubb of Westinghouse. They were working on polarizing the lights from headlamps in a car. Polarization, as you probably know from figuring out how your sunglasses work, is the process of taking light waves which are in a random pattern and changing them into a more concentrated stream.
Patent for light polarizer
Before the work of Chubb and Smith and of Edwin Land, headlights were dangerous because they were not polarized. Chubb and Smith were working on mechanical means of polarizing light which polarized it at is source. Edwin Land had dropped out of Harvard and was working on a chemical solution that polarized the light using a film on a windshield, or on the headlight lens. They were engaged in a patent battle that resulted ultimately in Chubb and Smith selling their patents to Polaroid Corporation for stock in that company and a job for Chubb.
In 1933, in the midst of the patent negotiations, Land came to Mahwah and they did some testing. Here, thanks to Audrey Artusio, the current owner of the Smith house, Margaret Smith Pryde (1910-2008), Robert’s daughter, Mary Ellen Pryde Abrams, and Tara Van Brederode, Robert’s granddaughters, is a description of that test by Robert’s daughter Molly:
Dr. Edwin Land …..came to Mahwah in 1933 to witness a test run. Our cars were equipped with polarized headlights and windshields.
I was to be the guinea pig. It was a dark, rainy night. Dad gave me instructions. “I don’t want to know where you’re standing,” he said. “That yellow slicker is too light. Go borrow your mother’s black raincoat.”
I did as he said and then stationed myself on the road. Dad and Lew [Lewis Chubb] got in the car at one end of the road and Dr. Land rode with Mother in the second car which began at the other end of the road. Both drivers were supposed to see me. I was scared.
Smith’s home on Beveridge Place
Dad had said, “Don’t move, no matter what. I’ll honk the horn when I see you.”
I was beginning to panic. “But what if you don’t see me?
He calmly replied, “I will.”
I stood, mesmerized, as the headlights of the approaching cars moved closer. I felt rooted to the ground. I muttered to myself, “Please dear God let them see me in time.” My fists were clenched in the pockets of the raincoat. I heard the swish of tires on the wet road as the cars came closer and I closed my eyes.
No sound was ever sweeter than the “beep, beep” of the Essex horn and the answering beep of the Hupmobile.
Smith did not live to see Edwin Land’s most famous use of Polaroid light, the Polaroid Camera.
All images from the Mahwah Museum
For a 2015 gallery talk I profiled the following inventors. Click on the links for a short history of each:
A little bit about methodology. All of these inventors hold U.S. Patents on their inventions. I knew from my past research and work in our archives about some of them, so I was able to use Google Scholar (a website that I love) to locate their patents. Put their name, Mahwah and the word patent into the search and up pops reference to their patents and you can download a copy. Edward Gorcyca was unknown to me but his name came up in a search of Brakeshoe Patents Mahwah. Another longtime resident of Cragmere, Rosser Wilson, also came up with a lot of patents at Brakeshoe. Audrey Artusio and Mary Ellen Pryde were very helpful with Robert Armstrong Smith and John Edwards loaned me valuable material about his uncle, Charles Ellis. We have displayed some of his original patents, American and foreign at the gallery talk.
A little background about the patent system. Patents are authorized by Article I, Section 8, clause 8 of the United States Constitution which grants Congress the power to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” So under the system that Congress has established, an inventor submits an application to the U.S. Patent Office, an application. This application describes the invention, includes drawings when needed, and sets up the claims that the inventor is making. The claims portion is very important because the inventor gets exclusive rights only in the things he has actually claimed. Once the application has been filed, it is examined by the patent office before the actual patent is issued. The examiner has to determine whether the invention is “novel” and “nonobvious.” To determine whether an invention is “novel” a search is made of all previous patents to see that the new invention does not the same claims that were made before by someone else. The examiner also looks at whether the claims are so obvious that they are already in the public domain. Once the patent office determines to issue a patent it is good for 17 years. But it is subject to challenge by other inventors who can claim infringement of their existing patents. Just because someone has a patent on something doesn’t mean the product is ever made or becomes commercially viable. The filed patents are used by other inventors to improve upon the prior art.
All of the inventors that we will discuss today owned patents. The usual practice is that a patentee is an individual that gets the patent in his own name and then assigns it to the employer for whom he was working when the inventive work was done.
Patent for light polarizer
One of Gorcyca’s patents.
Theodore Havermeyer’s Sugar Mold Carriage patent
Henry O. Havemeyer’s License plate design
Henry O. Havemeyer Jr.’s patent design
If you know of additional information about any of these inventors, or know of other inventors from Mahwah, please comment below.
This article, by Charles Anderson, was first published in “The Old Station Timetable”
in December 1979.
Masonicus, like most of Mahwah back in those days, was an area of farms, pastures and orchards. There were wood lots, but open fields allowed views east to the Palisades and north to the Ramapo ridges. Strawberries were the cash crop that paid taxes like the $8 that Ed Smith paid, whose strawberry acreage is now covered by the IBM building. He brought wagon loads of the berries to the railroad siding at Tallmans to be shipped to market in New York.
Carlough’s dairy farm raised acres of hay and corn. One of his pastures was taken by the Mahwah Water Works. No orchards required extensive spraying, if any at all, and still produced perfect fruit. His pond, Carlough’s Pond, where local boys could swim in the few hours theyhad from farm chores, has become Silver Creek, a name that is neither historical nor descriptive.
Pelz’s cider mill is gone too. The family that provided apples and cider to generations at last had to bow to change, although the family is still part of Mahwah’s people.
There was a one-room school in Masonicus, where the old fire house was, down in the hollow by the brook; thirty pupils to one teacher; grades one to eight. Miss Reed is remembered as one of the dedicated breed.
No great sprawling shopping centers then. One by one the peddlers came, welcome visitors and purveyors of the needs that could not be provided by the home farm. The meat man, the baker, the dry goods van, and the tea and coffee wagon all traveled the dirt roads from crossroad to crossroad. The roads had no fancy names, but each corner was identified by the nearest inhabitant.
Fred Grant cut ice on Carlough’s Pond and kept the ice boxes filled. Jimmy Hopper was a well-patronized blacksmith and so was Shuart’s forge, where wheels were made and much of the other iron hardware so much needed.
In 1902 and until Mahwah was formed, taxes were paid to Ho-Ho-Kus Township at an office kept by James Shuart and later John Ackerman.
Thanks to Mr. Everett Shuart of Airmont Avenue who also showed me his family tree where the first Shuart back in the 1700’s spelled his name, Adolphus Sjoert.