|Everett H. Bickley with seed sorting machine, about 1942. Everett H. Bickley Papers, NMAH Archives Center|
The National Museum of American History receives hundreds of phone calls and letters every year from people who want to donate objects. Most of these offers turn out to be of little interest. But when curator Steven Lubar received a letter from a woman who owned a prototype of her father’s seed sorting invention, his eyes lit up. This was the kind of object he was looking for.
Even better, he soon learned that Audrey Bickley Beyer possessed a historian’s treasure trove: documentation telling the story behind the inventor and his inventions. In addition to the sorting machine invented by Everett H. Bickley (1888–1972), Beyer had photographs, memoirs, business records, patent drawings, trade literature, and office manuals relating to the seed sorter and her father’s other inventions.
“We’re always interested in artifacts and manuscript collections that tell good invention stories,” says Lubar. He was especially interested because the material related to a key moment in American agricultural history. “This machine tells us about the period when natural products were being turned into commodities. Inventions like this drove the costs of classifying products down, reduced risks for farmers, and even affected futures exchanges.”
The Museum’s Division of the History of Technology recently obtained the machine Bickley used as a prototype and demonstration model, and the Archives Center obtained the accompanying documentation.
Lubar says Beyer was initially puzzled by his request for documentation relating to inventions that were not commercially successful. “Many nonhistorians don’t realize how valuable archival materials like this can be to scholars,” he says.
An excerpt from Bickley’s journal, for example, shows a glimpse into the day-to-day invention process: “It was always my aim to get a research laboratory of my own,” he wrote. “But most of it had to be done in the kitchen under Mrs. Bickley’s nose, or in the cellar where we had more room than in the garage.”
His journal also reveals his frustrations with competitors, his legal battles over patent infringement, and his disputes with the Internal Revenue Service over his record-keeping. “I’ve never seen an invention story so well documented,” says Craig Orr, the archivist who obtained the materials.
Another interesting aspect to this invention story was the role of Bickley’s family in his success. His wife kept the books and maintained the office. His daughter manufactured photoelectric cells in the family home and answered troubleshooting calls on machines around the country.
Bickley designed dozens of inventions: a snow shovel designed to prevent backaches, an exterminating system, a light-measuring device for photography, a timing tool for cooking meat, and a set of instruction cards on the latest 1950s dance steps. But of all his inventions, the sorting machine was the only commercial success.
In 1915, Bickley was working as the chief engineer for the H. J. Heinz Company in Pittsburgh, Pa., where he observed the industry’s standard practice of sorting beans: hiring hundreds of women to remove imperfect beans, stones, and dirt by hand. Bickley decided that the solution to this time-consuming and costly process was to develop a photoelectric sorter that would read the color of the objects passing in front of it and separate the good from the bad. In 1929, after leaving Heinz to found the Bickley Manufacturing Company, he received his first patent for a sorting machine.
Bickley constantly worked to improve the sorter, inventing, patenting, and manufacturing all components himself. Later versions of the sorter were developed to sort different types and colors of beans, as well as rice, peanuts, and coffee beans. In the sorter’s final incarnation, a high-speed stream of beans was fed single-file past the photoelectric cell; each perfect bean triggered a quick puff of compressed air that blew it to the side, while the detritus fell into a waste hopper. Able to sort 83 million beans a day, Bickley’s machine was used in canneries and storage elevators in agricultural areas.
In the summer of 1999, a Lemelson Center intern processed the Bickley materials and prepared a written guide to the collection. Lubar says the Lemelson Center’s presence at the museum has raised awareness among curators of the importance of documenting and preserving inventors’ materials. “These invention stories can tell us a lot about history,” he says.
For details on the content of the collections, see the finding aid for the Everett Bickley collection.
Originally published in Summer 1999.