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What do you know about the Mobilian who worked with Thomas Edison?

Miller Reese Hutchison (right) with Thomas Edison, 1914. Photos courtesy Library of Congress

Miller Reese Hutchison was born at his parents’ summer home in Montrose in August 1876. By the time of his 1944 death in Manhattan, he was considered one of this country’s greatest inventors and scientists. While attending University Military School, he developed an interest in Thomas Edison, reading everything he could find on the inventor. At the age of 12, he told his father that one day he would be Edison’s engineer.

Miller Reese Hutchison was born in Montrose, raised in Mobile and became one of the world’s most successful inventors and scientists with some 1,000 patents to his credit.

Hutchison eventually ended up at Auburn where he was awarded one of the university’s first degrees in electrical engineering. While still a student there, he received his first patent for a lightning arrester for telegraph wires.

World’s First Hearing Aid

Also during his time at Auburn, Hutchison became interested in helping a childhood friend named Lyman Gould who had lost his hearing from scarlet fever. Upon his return to Mobile, Hutchison took classes at the Medical College of Alabama, studying the anatomy of the ear. What resulted was the first electric hearing aid, which he patented. In front of a crowd gathered at the YMCA on Government Street, Gould tried it out and could hear a speech being given as well as music from the piano.

Hutchison’s original Akouphone was a tabletop model, which cost a steep $400, or about $12,500 today. In 1900, he began a national and then international tour exhibiting the device. While in England, he received a summons to the royal yacht to demonstrate it to Alexandra, the future queen. Suffering from a hereditary loss of her hearing, she had become something of a recluse. The Akouphone restored her hearing to 90 percent, and she was so pleased that Hutchison found himself in the royal box at the 1902 coronation ceremonies.

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By that time, Hutchison had moved to New York and married a Minnesota native. He continued to work on his hearing aid, and with the use of a battery, was able to produce a much more portable and affordable device in 1903. The $60 model sold very well and made Hutchison a wealthy man.

A Deafening Horn

During the early 1900s, New York City’s traffic was rapidly increasing along with vehicular accidents and pedestrian fatalities.

Hutchison believed that the horns used were too “melodic.” In response to this, his 1906 Klaxon horn was designed to produce a roar, “the like of which has never been heard by man or beast.” Its distinctive “ah-ooo-gah” could be aimed at pedestrians, probably saving countless lives. Early versions could be manually operated by hand crank or hooked to a battery and sounded by the press of a button.

By 1908, Hutchison had designed and built a limousine featuring rechargeable batteries and an intercom to the chauffeur. And more than a century before such devices would become commonplace, the car featured audible and visual back-up warning devices.

Edison Laboratory

The following year, his prediction came true, and Hutchison went to work for Edison in New Jersey. By his mid-30s, he had been named chief engineer at the Edison Laboratory. He continued his work on new and stronger storage batteries, promoting their successful use in naval submarines. He also patented the first electrical tachometer to accurately read a ship’s speed.

The two men became close friends, and Hutchison became Edison’s personal representative on many business ventures. In addition to being a brilliant engineer, “Hutch” was known for his outgoing personality, which made him an excellent salesman.

A Career Change

At the start of 1917, Hutchison left Edison to go out on his own. He took with him the rights for the storage battery he had invented while in New Jersey as well as the rights to all military and naval sales. City directories indicate that Hutchison chose the new Woolworth Building in Manhattan for his offices, placing them on the 51st floor of what would be the world’s tallest building until 1930.

After World War I, he founded Hutchison’s Office Specialties Co. to promote office machines from a 5th Avenue storefront. One of his most successful inventions was the Spool-O-Wire that could bind up to 40 sheets of paper at a time. His other inventions ranged from a rivet gun to a gasoline additive that reduced carbon monoxide emissions. To honor his accomplishments, he was elected into the Alabama Hall of Fame in 1936.

In 1931, Edison died at the age of 84 having 1,093 patents to his credit. More than 40,000 passed by his glass-covered casket to pay their respects. He is buried at the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange, New Jersey.

Sixty-seven-year-old Hutchison died on February 16, 1944, with 1,000 patents to his name. The New York Times mentioned in a brief announcement that a service was held in a Lexington Avenue funeral home. His burial site is unknown.

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