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From The American Magazine, May, 1927:

The World's Most Tragic Man is the One Who Never Starts

His zest for solving difficult problems led William Hoskins through an amazing career as chemist, inventor and manufacturer — Some of his results have surprised even himself, as when he set out to make synthetic rubies and wound up with the high-resistance wire used in toasting your bread and ironing your clothes
By Neil M. Clark

On a summer morning in the year 1870, a man and a boy slipped away from shore in a rowboat, their eyes glued earnestly to a small object that rose and fell a few yards ahead of them on the inshore waves of the Ohio River. This object moved steadily, though slowly, away from the bank, across the current, and, as it went, emitted a tiny cloud of white smoke which drifted back over the water.

Presently the man looked at the boy with a gleam of happy satisfaction. “She goes!” he said.

The boy nodded, grinning.

They continued to watch with fascinated interest, dipping their oars occasionally to keep close. These two were John Hoskins, a house painter by trade, and his son William, aged eight. The object in the water was a miniature model of a steamship, which, with lashed rudder, was heading straight across the river, propelled by a tiny steam engine which the man had made with his own hands as a plaything for his boy. Indeed, he had made the whole boat, from keel to rigging, as a boy's plaything. The little boat chugged along valiantly, not once losing headway until it reached the far shore.

In a certain sense, this little summer-morning incident forms one event in a curious and fascinating sequence. Of itself, it was nothing. Taken with what went before and with what came after, it may be reckoned to have had some effect on the everyday lives of nearly every one of us.

William Hoskins, the boy of the boat, is now a man of sixty-five, gray bearded, with twinkling gray-blue eyes revealing a wise and softened humor. He looks back on a career as a consulting and research chemist, covering nearly fifty years, a half-century during which more discoveries and faster strides have been made in the science of chemistry than during all previous centuries in the history of the race.

In this progress he has had a distinguished part. He has performed hundreds of experiments never before undertaken by any man. He has obtained more than one hundred patents. Occasionally, usually as a side issue, he has engaged in manufacturing. His assay furnace, invented when he was little more than a boy, for years remained standard apparatus. The chalk he developed is universally used on billiard cues. To his most important single scientific achievement, the development of the high-resistance wire which is the essential element in all electric heating appliances, we owe the comfort and convenience of electric toasters, heaters, irons, stoves, curling irons, and all such as we know them.

As a consultant, thousands of clients have advised with him on problems as diverse as constructing a race track to insure speedy races, and devising secret ways, through the chemistry of paper, to prevent fraud in the use of street car transfers and bank checks. At sixty-five, Mr. Hoskins looks back on a career crowded with interest and achievement.

But more significant even than his numerous accomplishments, to my notion, is the stimulating philosophy of life and achievement which he has evolved as a result of his experiences: a philosophy that prompts him, at an age when most men are content to spend their time remembering, to work with his eyes turned forward, and with as passionate an absorption as ever in his life, to dream new dreams, plan new conquests, explore fresh fields.

He holds, briefly, that everything matters; that the least beginning may lead to the greatest end.

“Chance,” he says, with conviction, “plays a smaller part in our lives than some of us think. Every day, hour and minute, as I see it, we are building — or neglecting to build. Events that we attribute to luck nearly always are due to some act, thought, or purpose long since forgotten.

“I have known worthy beginnings of the least promising kind, which led on to consequences beyond the wildest hopes and dreams. To me, therefore, there is only one really tragic figure in life, and that is the man who never makes a start.”

This philosophy is illustrated time after time in the career of Mr. Hoskins. Even the incident of the toy steamboat on the Ohio River fits in.

The beginning is a day in England some eighty years ago, when John Hoskins, then a boy himself, was permitted to turn on the steam to start a great Cornish pump installed in an iron mine owned by John's father. This experience filled the boy with enthusiasm for machinery.

Hoskins Family
The Hoskins Family (L-R): John Hoskins (William's father), William, Florence, Ada Mae Mariner (William's wife), and Mary Ann (John's wife)
Click for high-resolution image (6.9 MB TIF)

His father, however, was a mine owner and well-to-do, and John was not trained for a mechanical career. He was given, instead, what was thought to be a first-class schooling in France. It was not until he had passed the period of life when a man learns most easily that the family fortune vanished.

“At that time,” William Hoskins told me, “my father came to the United States. Visiting a cousin in Covington, Kentucky, who had become a house painter, my father learned that trade as a means of supporting himself. As it turned out, he followed it till near the end of his life.

“His interests, however, were always mechanical and scientific. He indulged these interests chiefly by making ingenious mechanical toys for me. We played with them together.

“Along the side of our house in Covington, too, my father built on wooden timbers a miniature railway track, forty or fifty feet long. Here my friends and I used to play by the hour with a miniature steam locomotive he made for me, a real engine that burned charcoal, got up steam, and pulled loads. It was not flimsy and unsubstantial, like most store-bought toys, but was an actual model, correct in detail, of a British locomotive. I have it to-day. With fresh packing and plenty of oil, it would still run.

“My Father, too, was forever taking me with him on long tramps over the hills. He was interested in animals, birds, trees, insects, flowers. With a small French microscope he had, we used to examine specimens minutely. He took a keen interest in pointing out to me the structural differences between, say, granite and limestone rock formations; or in lifting boulders and studying the various kinds of bugs underneath. Besides all this, we always had scientific journals in the house, and they were my daily reading matter.

“So, primarily because of my father's passionate interest in such matters, an interest for which he never found much means of expression except in play with me, I grew up absorbed in problems of mechanics and science.

“When I was ten or eleven years old, we moved to Chicago; I suppose because Chicago, rebuilding after the great fire, offered better opportunities in my father's line of work. He and I continued our walks, studies, and reading, and when the invention of the telephone was announced, and details were described in scientific journals, we made in play what I am inclined to believe was the first telephone circuit in the city. In Chicago, too, definite events gradually led on toward the profession I eventually adopted.

“For instance, one day we were walking on the prairie south of the city, about where Jackson Park is now; then it was wild. We carried a little box of bottles in which to preserve specimens; presently we met a man carrying a botanist's collecting kit.

“He introduced himself. He was Professor Bastin, head of the Department of Botany of the old Chicago University. He became interested in my interests, and eventually invited me to his laboratory, where, he promised, he would explain his collections, and show me how to prepare specimens properly for examination under the microscope.

“As it happened, I was not to have the privilege of a college training. Even my years in high school were cut from four to two. Therefore, the contact I had with Professor Bastin, and with others I met through him did much to make up for what I may have missed in formal training.

“A different sort of sequence led to my meeting Mr. Piper. As a house painter and decorator, my father made a careful study of his materials. He used to mix paints of different colors, and made up little books in which he recorded and exhibited the effects he got.

“One exacting customer was a man named Piper, one of the early handwriting experts, who used a brush himself, and also taught handwriting and drawing. Mr. Piper was so well pleased with the way my father handled his painting job that he talked with him and learned something of his special studies and attainments; incidentally, he learned of me.

“Mr. Piper invited us to his house. In the end, it was arranged that he should give me drawing lessons. It was from him that I learned how to draw objects under the microscope. I soon became somewhat expert at this, and as a result, at the age of fourteen, became a member of the Illinois State Microscopical Society. This was a men's organization. I was the only boy in it. Naturally, meeting men doing fascinating things, my enthusiasm for my own studies was quickened.

“Such things as my meeting Piper, and what it led to, are usually thought of as lucky accidents. I think they are something else. It was because my father cultivated a scientific interest in mixing paints and making artistic combinations that Piper took notice of him and, through him, of me. If my father's interest had not led to meeting Piper, I am confident it would have led to something else just as significant.”

Mr. Hoskins traces his choice of career to another sequence of events.

“Two of my uncles,” he said, “were engaged in selling mining supplies in California. They occasionally visited us. Through listening to them talk about mining, I decided I'd like to learn assaying and the chemistry of minerals, and make that my business.

“At that time, chemistry as a practical science was so little understood and valued that only three men in Chicago were attempting to earn their living at it. One of the three was a Mr. Mariner, who earned a somewhat precarious living by making assays, by teaching young fellows like myself, and in divers other ways.

“I studied assaying in Mr. Mariner's laboratory. Eventually, he offered me a position and an opportunity to learn more than the chemistry of minerals. He pictured in glowing terms the future he saw for chemistry, and the pleasures and opportunities in following it as a profession. I was convinced, and became his assistant at five dollars a week when he had money, and nothing a week when he had none.

“This was in 1880. The connection led to the finest things in my life; to my wife (I married Mr. Mariner's daughter); to my family; to my profession, in itself one of the greatest joys; and to my business — for upon Mr. Mariner's death in 1893, I became the sole owner.”

Not long after he became Mr. Mariner's assistant, Hoskins made his first invention of any consequence, and obtained his first patent. And here again he traces an interesting connection between apparently unrelated events.

“My father,” he says, “used a blow-torch as a means of burning off old paint before applying new. It generated an intense heat in a small flame I had seen him use it, studied how it worked, used it occasionally in small experiments, and put the knowledge away in some compartment of my brain.

“At Mr. Mariner's, one of our frequent jobs was to make assays for clients. The assay furnaces in the laboratory were big and heavy, being made of brick lined outside with cast iron. Charcoal was the fuel. On summer days when the temperature in the shade was ninety, the interior of our laboratory would often be close to one hundred and thirty, and practically unbearable. It was on such a day that I remembered regretfully my father's small-flame, intensely hot, blow-torch, and suddenly I wondered if it might not be possible to make a smaller, handier, and cooler assay furnace, replacing charcoal with a blow-torch.

“I remember very well how I carried home fifteen pounds of fire clay to experiment with my first furnace. My father helped me, and we worked chiefly nights and Sundays. The furnace, as finally perfected, was standard apparatus for years. I made many of them myself, and sold them as far away as China and Japan; but I doubt if any of my customers ever had any inkling of the conditions under which the manufacturing was done.

“I was newly married, and by that time was earning fifteen dollars a week. We had bought a five-thousand-dollar home with a five-hundred-dollar down payment. It was in the basement of this house that I made my furnaces.

“We had only the crudest equipment. My father, who had picked up some knowledge of cabinet-making and carpentering along with his painting, made the molds in which the fire clay was poured. To make the completed furnace as light as possible, I mixed sawdust with the clay; under proper heat, of course it was burned out, leaving the clay porous. But I had no means of obtaining a heat sufficient to burn this clay properly. The best I could do was to dry and bake it thoroughly in the kitchen oven!

“Primitive as our methods were, however, I made enough money in that basement in odd hours to finish paying for the house.”

AN EXPERIENCE Hoskins had while he was still drawing a meager salary from Mr. Mariner, shows how the whole course of a life may hinge on a single step taken, or not taken — a choice accepted, or rejected; a decision made, or neglected. He was offered what most people would have considered a fine opportunity. “I used to buy supplies for my simple experiments,” he said “from the Western Electric Company. They had a place on Kinzie Street, north of the river. I never had more than a few cents to spend, sometimes as much as a quarter. But the man who waited on trade got to know me after repeated visits, and one day he said: “'Son, how would you like to take a job here?'

“The company in those days was very small, compared to what it is to-day; but even so, it had enormous promise. Moreover, in the store were any number of glittering telegraph instruments, priced far beyond my purse, which my fingers fairly itched to touch. With a job in such a place, I could handle those telegraph instruments to my heart's content! I asked for a few days to think it over.

“During that week-end, I thrashed the thing out. I said nothing to my father, or to anyone else. And on Monday, having come to my conclusion, I told the man I had decided to remain where I was. “Judging from most of the facts, my decision was bad. The Western Electric Company undoubtedly had a great future. A chance to start with such an organization on any terms was a splendid opportunity. On the other hand, the chances with Mr. Mariner seemed very precarious, and his was a one-man concern with very slight financial backing. Besides, Mr. Mariner was engaged in a profession that had hardly begun to establish itself.

“To-day, on my way to and from the city, I pass the great Hawthorne works of the Western Electric. I often reflect about that boyish choice. If it had been different, it is conceivable that I might now be president of that great company; it is also conceivable that I might be janitor. Nobody knows.”

“But I do know this: If I had accepted, my life would have been wholly different. I would have entered a different profession. I would not have met and married the woman I did marry. My children would have been different. And I might or might not have had the bully lot __of fun___ I've had in the profession of my choosing. “It is a serious thing to give advice to a youngster at the outset of his career.” The sequence of events that led to development by Mr. Hoskins of the heat resistance wire which became, and still is the essential part of all electrical heating appliances, goes back to the day when he was a boy in his early teens. In a science journal he read an account of an _alleged_ way to make diamonds.

“Making precious stones,” he pointed out, “has been a favorite dream for centuries. I performed the experiment described in the journal, using, I remember, some of my mother's jelly glasses to store certain materials which had to sit in a dark place for two years. Fortunately, I avoided blowing up the house and family, but I did not make any diamonds. However, the idea stuck.

“Later, it came back as a desire to make rubies. Chemically, rubies and alumina are identical, the difference being that the ruby has been crystallized under extremely high heats.

“One day I read of the discovery of thermit, a material used in a process of producing extremely high heats; it is produced by chemical reactions brought about by introducing heat into a mixture of granulated aluminum and oxide. Here, I thought was a good way to get a temperature high enough to melt raw alumina and make rubies!

“I gathered magnetic oxide of __iron__ laboriously from the sand of Lake Michigan, succeeded in producing the necessary granulated aluminum, and prepared about two hundred pounds of thermit, the largest charge, I believe ever set off in this country up to that time. For my experiment I rented a blacksmith shop in an outlying district; above my workroom were living quarters occupied by a negro family.

“I put the thermit charge in a large crucible. Inside it, in a smaller crucible was the raw alumina which I hoped to crystallize into a ruby.

“I set off the charge. In an amazingly short time, a terrific heat was generated. Things happened in a hurry. The negro family evacuated. The fire department came on the run. And I got no rubies!

“The experiment was a failure; but it was not useless. Few things are. In due time there came a way to use the experiment.

“A man named Marsh hunted me down. He was trying to build a thermopile, an electrical device in which a current is generated by applying heat at the junction point of different kinds of metals forming into a bar. Marsh was using an alloy of nickel and chromium as one of his methods and a copper alloy for the other. He knew of no way to produce high enough heat to melt his nickel and chromium properly and get a pure, carbon-free alloy. He had heard of my blow-torch assay furnace, and thought something like that might do the trick. I knew he needed still higher heats, and here my experience with thermit came into play.

“The story of the experiments begun then is long and laborious. The job took us seven full years, and first or last we encountered every conceivable obstacle. A sample was the fact that the electric light company in Chicago would not permit us to use the quantities of electricity we needed for certain phases of the work. We had to go to Evanston, a suburb, and set up a special shop; but even there we were permitted to use the current only after ten at night and before four in the morning.

“We made hundreds of tests with different alloys, to discover which were best. Furthermore, we did it without any very clear idea of just what we were going to do with this perfect alloy when we got it; that is, if we ever succeeded in getting it. “We at length made a thermopile that satisfied us. We hitched it up with a series of lights, ran a quarter-horse-power motor with it, and threatened to use it to run an automobile — until somebody pointed out that, while we could probably make such an automobile run, no woman would ride on the seat with a blow-torch popping in the rear. We also thought of making a motor boat.

“All these ideas came to nothing of practical consequence until we discovered that our alloy offered extremely high resistance to an electric current. It occurred to me that we might draw it into wire, and sell it to powder manufacturers to replace dynamite discharges.

“We then had to learn how to draw this extremely hard material into wire. After many trials we succeeded in that, and before we were through we were able to draw off a wire one five-thousandth of an inch in diameter.

“It was an easy step to think of the possible use of the wire in electric heating appliances — and that is where its great use has been. Until the patents expired a few years ago, a royalty was paid to the Hoskins Manufacturing Company on the heating element in every toaster, iron, or other device of the sort.

The Hoskins Toastove

“So, to return to my philosophy of sequences, the development of this very widely useful material can be traced to a more or less wild desire to manufacture diamonds out of base materials!

“Thus, things happen, when a start is made, the most important results often proceeding from matters that seem of least consequence.

“A friend of mine once, on a visit to Europe, gathered a little volcanic ash in the vicinity of Mt. Ætna and gave it to me. I analyzed it under the microscope, was interested, put the sample away, and, as far as I knew, the matter was ended. Many years later I similarly examined specimens of the silicate rocks of southern Illinois, and was interested to note resemblances to the volcanic ash. But I thought no more about it.

“One day William A. Spinks came to see me. He was the professional billiard champion of California, and had just returned from exhibition games in Europe.

“'That,' he remarked, handing me a small lump of material, 'is the best chalk for billiard cues I have ever seen. I got it in France. I wish you'd analyze it, tell me how it's made and show me a way to reproduce it.'

“I had never played a game of billiards in my life, and I knew nothing about the chalk used on cues.

“'You say you got this in France?' I asked.


“'That may be,' I said; 'but the materials it is made of came from __Italy_.'

“I had recognized my old friend, the volcanic ash. That turned my thoughts to the Illinois silicates I had examined more recently. I asked Spinks to tell me what would constitute an ideal billiard cue chalk. As a result, I prepared billiard chalk from Illinois materials, which he liked even better than his European chalk. We secured patents and formed a company. Later, Spinks drew out. I was president of the William A. Spinks Company, which manufactures the chalk and other billiard supplies, though I handed the management largely to one of my cousins. This business, you might say, traces directly to a bit of volcanic ash sent me as a curiosity.

“I have often seen this law of sequence work out in other people's lives. I am a commuter, and on the train I would meet occasionally a young man who I knew slightly as a chemist; he had a brother who also was a chemist. At times we sat in the same seat and talked. One day the conversation turned to his private affairs, and he said things were not going any too well.

“'What's wrong?' I asked.

“He explained that he was doing _merely_ routine work; that he didn't see a chance for bettering himself; that he wasn't earning much. All in all, he was pretty blue.

“'What you ought to do, it seems to me,' I said, 'is start something on _the side_ that you could handle without interfering with your employer's interests. In time it might develop into something worthwhile.'

“He shrugged his shoulders: 'I have not the capital.'

“'It might not take much. Let's see. Isn't there a vacant room at your house that nobody uses?'

William Hoskins
William Hoskins
Click for high-resolution image (3.5 MB TIF)


“'A basement?'


“'A garage, then, or a barn?'

“He said there was a barn.

“'Why!' I exclaimed, 'you've got capital — first-rate factory space!'

“'But,' he objected, 'what can I do in a barn?'

“'I don't know, exactly,' I said; 'but here's an idea for a starter: The water up and down this railroad is very hard as you know. You're a chemist. Why not get up a good water softener, and start a little business?'

“He insisted he thought it would take a lot of capital, but said he'd think it over.

“I did not see him again for several months but when we did meet he wore a cheerful grin.

“'We broke even last month,' he announced.

“'On what?'

“'Water softener!'

“Then I remembered.

“He and his brother, he explained, had taken my hint, were making the water softener in their spare time, and were finding a modest sale for it.

“'But,' he confessed, 'we're having the dickens of a time with our labels; we can't make them stick on tin cans.'

“'You're not the first,' I answered him, 'to have that trouble. Why, in the name of common sense, being a chemist, don't you get up some good paste that will make labels stick?'

“To cut the story short, he and his brother did develop such a paste. To-day, after several years, they own the largest concern of its kind in the Mid-West, making all kinds of pastes; they no longer have anything to do with water softeners. Their experience illustrates perfectly my idea of sequences. They made a start; and they ended up at a place they never thought of reaching.

“Whenever anything is wasted or unused, there is always opportunity. For example, in the near future it is probable that somebody will introduce radical innovations in methods of illuminating homes and other interiors. Present methods are frightfully wasteful. The ordinary indirect lighting fixture, for instance, is only about three per cent efficient. By that, I mean that something like ninety-seven per cent of the current passes through the bulb and gets away without doing a stroke of lighting work. And of the light produced, perhaps one half is absorbed by walls and furnishings. Therefore, a man trying to read gets on the pages of his book only about one and one-half per cent of the electricity he pays for.

“There are plenty of other opportunities. Look at this.”

FROM a drawer of his desk Mr. Hoskins took a card on which were fastened several bottles containing what appeared in daylight to be simple white powders. These, he explained, were refined phosphors, finely-ground phosphorescent earths. Mr. Hoskins has made more thorough studies of phosphors, probably than anybody else in this country.

“Watch the earth in this bottle as I turn it in the sunlight,” he said. “First it looks perfectly white. I turn it so the earth shifts to a new position, and along the new surface the color is —”


“Yes. And as I hold it still, it turns white again. That is the nature of this material. Now come into this other room.”

He opened a closet door. Holding the bottles in the obscurity of the interior each one glowed distinctly, with a light of its own — purple, yellow, white — like the luminous dial of a watch in the dark.

“The point about these materials,” Mr. Hoskins resumed, “is that they are not radio-active, but phosphorescent. The light given off in darkness is due to an entirely different force than radio-activity. I can use these materials as one constituent of a paint, which I put on the walls of my bathroom, and at night, no matter how dark it may be in other rooms not similarly painted, I can see my way perfectly well without the electricity. The light is not sufficient for reading; but it saves your shins!

“We need to know more. Investigations must be carried further. Some way should be found to produce these phosphors very cheaply. With them, or with something similar, it may be that in future we can have our rooms always lit with a cheerful twilight or sunny glow, on even the darkest night. Such a paint would at least dishearten burglars; it might do much more.

“In pursuing this idea, who knows what else it may lead us to? Let's dream a little: Suppose these phosphors are produced cheaply enough to mix them with cement. Suppose our concrete highways in the future are constructed of that cement. Then, it is conceivable that on the darkest nights every highway may be self-lighted, and automobiles may run without headlights night or day.

“It's a dream, yes! But impossible? No! Who would have said, ten years ago, that we would have such a thing as radio in universal use to-day? The most 'practical' scientific man always must be something of a poet, a dreamer. I call my laboratory a 'rainbow factory.' It is just that. Men who care and dare to live, following the trail along such frontiers of thought, can have the most satisfying, thrilling adventures of which I have any knowledge.

“HOW, you may ask, does this philosophy apply to the ordinary man; to a clerk, we'll say, in a big department store? Let's say he is selling ribbons. All right, I'll tell you how it applies to him.

“This ribbon clerk is one kind of man, we'll say. He doesn't care two hoots about ribbons, hates them, hands them out mechanically to customers, does as little as possible for as much pay as he can get, in order that he may have money to spend in leisure, which he wastes futilely. He makes no starts to become interested in ribbons or anything else. He will end his life a ribbon clerk, or something less, as surely as the sun goes down.

“But suppose he is another kind of clerk. He is interested in ribbons, either because he likes them or because he sees in them a means to some end in which he is interested. He studies how ribbons are made; where they come from; the kinds of materials that make the best ribbons. I don't know what will happen in the life of that young man because of that interest; but I know, as surely as two plus two is four, that some thing fine will happen. It may be he thinks of a new way to make ribbons, sets up a business, makes a fortune. It may be something wholly different.

“There are sequences in finance and commerce, just as in science and production. The sequence for him may be advancement to a position as buyer, to managership of a division, to general managership, to presidency — all tracing back inevitably to an interest in something beyond the day's routine.

“The truth is, no one of us can foretell how things will be done ten years hence.

“No! Not all the chances have vanished — not all the ideas have been thought of — not all the opportunities have been seized — not all the great businesses have been built — not all the fortunes have been founded.

“I think we have gone only a little way. The future is so full of things to be done, of trails to be broken, that I, though I have lived sixty-five years, wish I could look forward to sixty-five more for 'rainbow chasing'!”

This article appeared in Volume 3, Number 3 of hotwire, the newsletter of the Toaster Museum Foundation.


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