Bruce R. Forman
Philadelphia Instrument Maker
Believing that America was the destination for a young Englishman with ambition, Laurence Charles Francis (1810-ca.1880) landed at New York City in 1883. He identified himself as an “engineer” in the ships’ (sic) records and then made his way to Philadelphia. A bill dated 1834 and signed “Received in full, L.C. Francis for J. Millington” indicates that Francis found employment in the instrument emporium founded by the English immigrant, John Millington.1 Francis became a U.S. citizen on 5 October 1853.2
In 1834 the American Philosophical Society and the Franklin Institute established a Joint Committee of Meteorology, which aimed to collect and correlate weather observations from volunteers throughout the country. This data was published in the Journal of the Franklin Institute, and used by such meteorological pioneers as James P. Espy, to investigate the formation and progression of storms.
On April 1, 1837, the Legislature of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania appropriated $4000 in one session and $3000 in another, to the Joint Committee for the establishment of a state-wide system of weather stations.3 The Joint Committee budgeted $1000 of this money to supply a set of standard instruments to each of the 52 counties in Pennsylvania. Each set included a barometer with attached thermometer, a twelve-inch thermometer graduated to single degrees, an eight-inch thermometer graduated to two degrees, a self-registering thermometer with a metallic scale for registering low temperatures, and a rain gauge with a glass tube. Francis manufactured these instruments at a cost of $16 a set.
Francis’ barometer “No. 1” was the standard against which the others were calibrated to within 0.02 inches of mercury. It was kept at the Franklin Institute, and it was still there in 1901.4 The only Joint Committee instrument known today is a barometer, with thermometer, signed “L. C. Francis, Fecit, Philadelphia, No. 2” The inscription engraved on the register plate – “Furnished to Montgomery County by the Joint Comtee..of Mterlogy of the American Philos: Society and the Franklin Institute of Penn: by Authority of the State of Pennsylvania”—indicates that it was made after the appropriation of 1 April 1837, and before June 1838 when the Joint Committee was reorganized as the Meteorological Committee of the Franklin Institute.5 The barometer is now in the collections of the Historical Society of Montgomery County.
The construction of this barometer suggests that Francis was influenced by English instruments. The case is made of pine, with a mahogany veneer and ebonized trim. The mercury-filled glass tube terminates in a wooden cistern provided with an adjustment screw which allows for the zeroing of the barometer, and for adjusting the mercury so the barometer can be safely inverted during shipping. This configuration was designed to be portable, but it was probably difficult to transport without damage. The Joint Committee must have found it no easy task to distribute, by horse and wagon over unpaved roads, the delicate instruments unbroken to the many observations points.
The order of 52 sets of instruments may have provided the economic impetus for Francis to open his own shop. In 1839, his first year in a city directory, Francis was listed as a chemical instrument maker at 106 South 3rd Street. In 1840-1842 he was at 12 Fetter Lane. In 1843-1854 he was at 13 Dock Street, directly behind the navigational instrument shop of W.H.C. Riggs – which may explain why Francis’ stated occupation, during most of this period, was mathematical instrument maker. This stability was not to last, and Francis moved frequently in subsequent years. He was at S.W. 10th and George, 2d story, in 1855; at 34 S. 8th Street SW corner Chestnut, 2d story in 1857; at 724 Samson in 1865; and at 24 North 9th Street in 1866. In 1976 Israel Sack advertised Francis’ barometer No. 134. As this instrument carries the Dock Street address, it was presumably made between 1853 and 1854. It differs from barometer No. 2 in that the lower portion of the glass tube is behind wood, and thus somewhat protected. The numbering sequence suggests that the Francis shop was producing about one or two barometers a month during this period.6
An unnumbered barometer signed “L. C. FRANCIS PHILA.” Is now located at the historic “Wyck” building in Germantown, Pennsylvania.7 The original purchaser may have been Ann Haines, a graduate of Briar Cliff College who maintained meteorological records for conditions in Germantown. A student of natural history, Haines often attended lectures at the Academy of Natural Sciences and the Franklin Institute.8 Another Francis barometer, now in private hands, has a slender case equipped with an ivory float and ivory decoration. There is no door to access the vernier, which is adjusted with an external key.
Francis decorated these last two barometers with a very unusual ripple molding that was probably made by Jonathan Clark Brown of Bristol, Connecticut. The most prevalent use of ripple molding was on shelf clocks made (by) Brown or by his associates. This molding is also found on barometers made in the 1860s by A.S. & J. A. West of Rochester, by Peter Penelli of New York, and by Alex Marsh of Worcester. In 1853 a fire destroyed Brown’s factory and his wood working machinery.9
In addition to barometers, Francis made a wide variety of philosophical instruments. In 1849 he advertised as:
“Manufacturer of air pumps, electrical machines, magnetic, electro-0magnetic and galvanic apparatus, marine and portable barometers, &c. Models of machines and experimental apparatus made to order, or drawings in the most accurate manner.”10
In 1840, Alexander Dallas Bache established a Magnetic and Meteorological Observatory at Girard College. While Bache imported most of the instruments for this observatory from Europe, he acquired some in Philadelphia. Isaiah Lukens made a large transit instrument. Joseph Saxton made a reflecting force magnetometer which was equipped with a thermometer and vernier scale made by Francis.11
Like many Philadelphia mechanics, Francis was involved with the Franklin Institute—in 1853 and again in 1855 he was elected a member of their Meteorological Committee 12—and their annual fairs enabled him to bring his instruments to public attention. Francis’ mechanical powers and air pump won a Second Premium in 1846. His model of a hydrostatic press, magneto-electric machine, and steam engine model won a First Premium in 1848, the judges commenting on their “excellence, skill and workmanship.” In 1849 the judges spoke “favorably” of Francis’ Marcet’s digester—a device for showing the temperature and elastic force of high pressure steam. 13
The 1850 Census of Manufactures identified Francis as an electrical instrument maker who had invested $2000 in his business. He spent $150 for 500 pounds of brass castings, and $500 for other material each year. He employed two “hands” at a monthly labor cost of $50. Using only hand-powered tools, he produced 300 assorted instruments annually at a value of $3000.14
In 1853, James W. Queen opened a shop which was soon to become the most important purveyor of scientific apparatus in the U.S. in the second half of the 19th century. Most of Queen’s original philosophical inventory was made by Francis “whose character as a workman is so well known that it is not necessary for me to say more than whatever he does, is well done.”15 Francis is not, however, mentioned in Queens much expanded Catalogue of 1859, which may indicate that his small shop could not compete with the larger instrument manufactories in Europe.
In 1868, now approaching 58 years of age, Francis went into partnership with Charles T. Milligan, whom he had brought up in the trade. Francis & Milligan offered to supply demonstration apparatus for motion and mechanics, hydrostatics and hydraulic, heat, electricity, pneumatics, magnetism and electro-magnetism, and chemistry, as well as stereopticons of all kinds. According to advertisements, the care they took in construction of their instruments made “less liable those troubles too common in the Lecture Room.”16 In 1873, again in business on his own, Francis advertised “Apparatus made to illustrate Ganot’s Physics, Prof. Everett’s Translation of Deschanel’s Natural Philosophy, Tyndall’s Lectures on Sound, Motion, etc.”17
According to the Federal Census, Francis was still alive in 1880. He had two sons, Laurence (b. 1835) and Richard T. (b. ca. 1846), both of whom worked as mathematical instrument makers in Philadelphia.
Many of the delicate barometers and other glass instruments made by Francis have probably been lost to posterity, but the remaining few give evidence that he was a gifted mechanic. His contribution to the science of meteorology, through the supply of instruments, made it possible to establish a state-wide system of weather stations in Pennsylvania. The data collected by this network was used by meteorological pioneers to formulate the basic theories of weather forecasting in America.
* Permission to reprint, courtesy of: Rittenhouse – Journal of the American Scientific Instrument Enterprise. Vol. 6, No. 2
- Bill in Smithsonian Institution Collection of Business Americana, Archives Center, NMAH.
- Laurence C/. Francis, Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, 5 October 1853, City of Philadelphia Archives.
- Proceedings, American Philosophical Society 11, 85 (1870): 517. James Rodger Fleming, Meteorology in America, 1800-1870 (Baltimore, 1990), p. 60.
- Fleming, p.60. Unidentified newspaper article (probably the Philadelphia Press) (30 May 1901), in Scrap Book, A-8/19, p.43, in Historical Society of Montgomery County.
- Fleming, p.61.
- Israel Sack, Inc., Brochure 20 (October 1876), p.77. See also Decorative Arts Photographic Collection, No. 78.36, Winterthur Museum Library.
- Decorative Arts Photograph Collection, No. 78.1201, Winterthur Museum Library.
- Correspondence with John M. Groff, Executive Director, The wyck Association, 6 August 1991.
- Carlye Lynch, “Ripple Molding. Reinventing a 19th Century Mechanical Marvel.” Bulletin of the National Association of Watch and clock Collectors 217 (April 1991): 146-147. for other barometers with ripple molding see Richard Bourne & Co., The Rare Clock Collection of Anthony J. Sposato (1986).
- Philadelphia Business Directory (1849)
- Alexander D. Bache, Observations at the Magnetic and Meteorological Observatory at Girard College Philadelphia 1840-1845 (Washington, D.C., 1847), pp. vii-viii.
- Journal of the Franklin Institute 24 (1853): 209, and 29 (1855): 213.
- “Report of the Committee on Exhibitions.” Journal, Franklin Institute 42 (1846): 417, and 46 (1848): 428. “Report of the Nineteenth Exhibition of American Manufactures,” p. 19, bound with Journal, Franklin Institute 48 (1849).
- 1850 Pennsylvania Manufactures Census, Dock Ward, City of Philadelphia, p. 675.
- James W. Queen, Catalogue of Mathematical, Optical & Philosophical Instruments (Philadelphia, n.d.), introduction.
- Francis & Milligan Philosophical Instruments (28 March 1868). Francis & Milligan, Price List of Philosophical Apparatus (n.d.). Both in Division of Physical Sciences, NMAH. Francis & Milligan advertisement in Journal, Franklin Institute 92 (December 1870 and August 1871). See also credit reports on Francis & Milligan and on Milligan in R. g. Dun papers, baker Library, Harvard Business School.
- Advertisement in American Journal of Science 5 (1873).