Updated 06-I-2018

William Edward Sawyer

This article was written by fellow lamp engineer and collector Edward J. Covington, and originally appeared on his own website of biographical sketches of persons involved in the lamp industry. Following his passing in February 2017, and with kind permission of his family, Ed's words have been preserved here in the hope of maintaining access to his writings for the benefit of subsequent generations.

It would appear that little personal information has been printed regarding one of the early workers in the incandescent lamp field. What is presented below is simply the result of a cursory look for information regarding William Edward Sawyer. Perhaps this limited write-up will interest someone who has more information to come forward to fill in the missing blanks. The first quotation is a copy of the contents of an article that appeared in the Electrical World 2.
"Death of an American Electrician

"Mr. William E. Sawyer, a well known electrician and electric light engineer, died at his residence in this city on the 15th inst. Mr. Sawyer will be remembered as one of the pioneers in the field of electric lighting in America. His career as an electrician was begun under very favorable auspices, and it is a pity that it should have proven but a record of neglected opportunities. Unfortunately for Mr. Sawyer, his nature combined discordant elements of character; his disposition was governed by traits at once uncongenial and incompatible with each other. He was not lacking in the essential qualities of ability and genius. On the contrary, he possessed undoubted talent as an electrician. But his character was not possessed of that fixedness and stability which command success. His erratic and careless habits were perpetually at war with his talents, and led him continually into difficulty.

"He achieved fame and fortune at an early date. It is said that his inventions formed the basis of the first electric light company in America - the United States Electric Light Company - who retained his services on a contract of several years, at a munificent salary. Mr. Sawyer only remained a few weeks, however, and then threw up his contract. It is said that the ,000 which he received for his inventions soon disappeared. He then gave his attention anew to electric lighting, and a new company, the Sawyer-Mann Electric Light Company, was formed to operate his incandescent system. It appears that he was at work on an incandescent system much sooner than Edison or Maxim, and that he was successful in contests with them for priority in the Patent Office.

"A difficulty arose between Mr. Sawyer and a Dr. Steele, who boarded at the same place where he lived, which culminated , on the 5th of May, 1880, in an altercation, in which Mr. Sawyer shot Dr. Steele. Mr. Sawyer was arrested, and when the trial took place in March, 1881, he was convicted and sentenced to four years' imprisonment at hard labor. An appeal was made, and as his health was poor, he was permitted to remain at his home pending the appeal. The Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of the Court of General Sessions, and Mr. Sawyer then sought pardon from the governor. As his health was such that his removal was considered dangerous, he was permitted to remain at his house. The District Attorney consented to delay in moving for sentence in one month, which expired May 16, but before the time had expired he received official notice of the death of Mr. Sawyer.

"In the beginning of 1881 Mr. Sawyer published a book on "Electric Lighting by Incandescence," which, for a time, was the best work on the subject. The Sawyer-Mann Company did not live long, and Mr. Sawyer started one or two other companies, which shared the same fate. He then turned his attention to the electric railroad, and managed to produce a sensation once more. He had lately given considerable attention to perfecting his electric railroad. At the time of his death it is said that he had several applications for patents in course of preparation, to cover distinctive features of his inventions.

"As an electrician, Mr. Sawyer belonged to the practical school rather than to the scientific. His inventions are not so remarkable for originality of conception as for ingenuity of application. In a word, his genius was constructive rather than creative. His inventions were bright innovations of old ideas, rather than departures toward new principles."

A death notice appeared in The New-York Times1. It read:
Death of William E. Sawyer

"Prof. William E. Sawyer, who was under sentence for committing an assault upon Dr. Theophilus Steele, in May, 1880, died of hemorrhage of the bowels, at No. 104 Waverley Place, Tuesday morning. He was convicted in March, 1881, but as his health was poor he was permitted to remain at his home pending an appeal from his sentence. The Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of the Court of General Sessions, and the defendant sought pardon from the Governor. As his health was such that his removal was considered dangerous, District Attorney McKeon permitted him to remain at his house, after satisfying himself from the report of two physicians of his own selection that the convicted man was in a precarious condition. The District Attorney consented to delay in moving for sentence for one month, which expired yesterday, but before the time had expired Mr. McKeon received official notice of the death of Mr. Sawyer."

A few more facts about the life of William Edward Sawyer can be obtained from the 1894 edition of the book Evolution of the Electric Incandescent Lamp, written by Franklin Leonard Pope. On page 6 Pope said:
"At least as early as June, 1877, William Edward Sawyer, a native of New Hampshire, who had been for some years a telegraphic operator in the New England States, and subsequently a reporter and journalist in Washington, D. C., directed his attention to the making of inventions in electric engineering and electric lighting..."
These are not many facts about a man who exerted so much influence on the incandescent lamp industry. Hopefully with the passage of time more information will surface so that justice can be done in a biographical sketch of W. E. Sawyer. The most information presently available can be found in the paper by Wrege and Greenwood3.

John McVey kindly pointed out that the patent granted on Mar 31 1874 was not 149,887 as previously given, but rather 149,252. I am most grateful to Mr. McVey for pointing out and correcting this error.

Patents from 1874-1885
  1. 149,252 - Mar 31 1874 - Telegraph apparatus for cable use
  2. 158,442 - Jan 25 1875 - Automatic or chemical telegraphy
  3. 159,460 - Feb 02 1875 - Automatic and autographic telegraph and circuit
  4. 165,620 - Jul 13 1875 - Automatic electric telegraph
  5. 166,305 - Aug 03 1875 - Telegraphic circuit
  6. 171,050 - Dec 14 1875 - Copying telegraph
  7. 171,051 - Dec 14 1875 - Automatic telegraph
  8. 173,561 - Feb 15 1876 - Electro-magnetic engine
  9. 182,486 - Sep 19 1876 - Electrical circuit for chemical telegraphs
  10. 184,302 - Nov 14 1876 - Autographic telegraph - (with J. G. Smith)
  11. 191,781 - Jun 12 1877 - Electro-magnetic engine
  12. 194,111 - Aug 14 1877 - Electric engineering and lighting apparatus and system
  13. 194,500 - Aug 21 1877 - Electric candle
  14. 194,563 - Aug 28 1877 - Electric lighting apparatus
  15. 195,174 - Sep 11 1877 - Electro-magnetic-engine commutator
  16. 195,235 - Sep 18 1877 - Regulator for automatic telegraphs
  17. 195,236 - Sep 18 1877 - Autographic telegraph transmitter
  18. 195,237 - Sep 18 1877 - Autographic telegraph transfer process
  19. 195,238 - Sep 18 1877 - Copying telegraph message process
  20. 196,832 - Nov 06 1877 - Autographic telegraph instrument
  21. 196,833 - Nov 06 1877 - Device for effecting the static discharge in autographic telegraphy
  22. 196,834 - Nov 06 1877 - Electric engineering and lighting system
  23. 205,144 - Jun 18 1878 - Electric lamp - (with Albon Man)
  24. 205,303 - Jun 25 1878 - Electric lighting system - (with Albon Man)
  25. 205,305 - Jun 25 1878 - Regulator for electric lights - (with Albon Man)
  26. 210,151 - Nov 19 1878 - Electric meter
  27. 210,152 - Nov 19 1878 - Switch for electric lights - (with Albon Man)
  28. 210,809 - Dec 10 1878 - Electric lamp - (with Albon Man)
  29. 211,262 - Jan 07 1879 - Carbon for electric lights - (with A. Man)
  30. 219,771 - Sep 16 1879 - Electric lamp
  31. 229,335 - Jun 29 1880 - Carbon for electric lights
  32. 229,476 - Jun 29 1880 - Electric switch
  33. 229,658 - Jul 06 1880 - Electrical safety device for elevators
  34. 231,743 - Aug 31 1880 - Electrical safety device for elevators
  35. 229,335 - Jun 29 1880 - Carbon for electric lights - (with A. Man)
  36. 229,476 - Jun 29 1880 - Electric switch - (with A. Man)
  37. 235,460 - Dec 14 1880 - Electric-lighting switch - (with W. Sawyer)
  38. 236,460 - Jan 11 1881 - Automatic regulator for electric currents - (with W. Sawyer)
  39. 237,632 - Feb 08 1881 - Dynamo-electric machine
  40. 241,242 - May 10 1881 - Armature for dynamo-electric machines - (with E. R. Knowles)
  41. 241,430 - May 10 1881 - Electric lamp - (with R. Street)
  42. 245,976 - Aug 23 1881 - Electric regulator - (with R. Street)
  43. 254,056 - Feb 21 1882 - Dynamo-electric machine
  44. 265,448 - Oct 03 1882 - Safety attachment for elevators
  45. 10,134 (reissue - Jun 6 1882) - Electric lighting system - (with A. Man)
  46. 317,676 - May 12 1885 - Electric light - (with A. Man)

  1. "Death of William E. Sawyer", New York Times, May 17 1883, p.3 col.1.
  2. "Death of an American Electrician", Electrical World, Vol.1, May 19 1883, p.309.
  3. "William E. Sawyer and the Rise and Fall of America's First Incandescent Electric Light Company, 1878-1881", Charles D. Wrege & Ronald G. Greenwood, Business and Economic History, 2nd Series, Vol.13, pp.31-48, Paper presented at the 30th Annual Meeting of the Business History Conference, March 8-10 1984.