Albert Bishop, the forgotten genius of Fair Haven

Electricity is a daily part of life. We often don’t really stop to consider it. The most thought people generally give to it is when we’re inconvenienced by losing it. Which thankfully has not been another thing that we’ve had to deal with during our last two months of quarantine! Despite today’s abundancy of commercial electricity, it didn’t happen overnight. It took a series of mostly forgotten successes and failures in the late 1800s to bring this revolutionary technology to the masses. The story of Fair Haven’s Captain Albert Bishop and his work with Thomas Edison is one of them.

Captain Albert Bishop and family lived at 97 Grand Avenue near the corner of Grand and Clinton Avenues. His brother Walter was New Haven’s first successful electrician, responsible for originally wiring the massive Winchester Arms plant, and the majority of stores downtown. Albert worked for many years as a steamship captain on the Starin ferry line that regularly ran between New York City and New Haven.

In addition to serving as a steamship captain, Albert was an accomplished artist and photographer. His paintings accurately depicted steam ships and trains in the days before the rise of inexpensive photography. He was contracted by the country’s major shipping and locomotive companies to document their trains and vessels. These paintings and sketches were presented in calendars and posters that were displayed across America. He was a longtime contributor to Scientific American, with many articles and sketches credited to him that featured his own original inventions, and articles explaining a variety of complex topics for the average reader. These included anything from a layman’s depiction of the Trans-Atlantic telegraph cables to debunking the popular tricks of touring theater magicians, revealing them to be simple science rather than mystical thrillers.

Albert’s drawings and curious mind drew the attention of Thomas Edison. In the 1890s, Edison was deeply involved in a technological race to provide the safest means of delivering electricity to the public for mass consumption. He was desperately in search of a better insulator for conductor wire and the story goes that that need brought him personally to Fair Haven. Edison and Albert worked together in Albert’s studio perfecting the world’s first working wire insulating machine. They used silk and rubber to weave around the wires for safety insulation. This was much better than having exposed current wires hanging precariously above city streets, and the very dangerous use of iron conduit piping that was prevalent at the time. Their work was a game changer and it opened the door to the expanded usage of electricity eventually in all homes and businesses.

Alas, Albert was very technically minded but not too business-savvy. Once they had finished work on the machine prototype, Edison had it dismantled and moved to one of his General Electric Company labs, where he took full credit for its invention and patent. The credit eluded Albert, although that was generally the case with most of his inventions. He really didn’t speak of them often, and until his death in 1931 he was better known as a sea captain and artist.

So the next time you charge your phone or flick on a light, think of Albert Bishop and all the possibilities of change that any backyard tinkerer armed with an endless imagination can bring.

Jason Bischoff-Wurstle
Director of Photo Archives, New Haven Museum

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