spark_gap: (scared)
S. M. I. Adamas ([personal profile] spark_gap) wrote2013-06-27 01:11 pm


Sanford Merrick Ingram Adamas was born into wealth on October 22nd, 1863, growing up in a prominent cotton mill-owning family on the outskirts of Lowell, Massachusetts. As the older of two sons—his brother Reginald being two years younger than him—he spent his youth beneath the expectation that he would someday take over the family business and inherit a substantial fortune.

He was educated privately at home during his childhood, with a heavy emphasis on mathematics and finance. His father frequently took him out to the mills in order to familiarize him with his future prospects, and it was there that Sanford acquired his interest in engineering, awed by the intricacy and power of the machines. He dismantled many things around the house in pursuit of this interest—watches, mechanical toys, even a gas sconce on one notable occasion—often to his parents’ chagrin. At the age of twelve, he was sent away to Philips Academy, where he nurtured an interest in physics. He also became involved in one of the secret societies at the school and participated in a number of elaborate pranks, none of which could be definitively traced back to him.

His fixation with electricity truly took off during his second year at Yale, where, among other things, he witnessed a demonstration of the recently-discovered piezoelectric effect. As Sanford was close with the professor that performed it, he was able to aid in that professor’s research on the subject, as well as to get lab time to himself. He became convinced that while piezoelectric crystals did not generate enough current to be directly used for large-scale electricity generation, they could be used as an indirect energy source. He experimented with heating a variety of different materials electrically, and found that leustel, a cheap and volatile silvery liquid that was commonly used for printing applications, could be heated to a high-pressure gas relatively easily when in contact with a resistive coil. With this knowledge, he proceeded to concoct a plan for an engine that would run on electrically heated leustel, operating at a far greater efficiency than steam or the gasoline engines available. He presented this scheme to his professor, expecting to be praised for it, only to be told that the scheme was impractical and unrealistic and that he shouldn’t pursue it any further.

Undeterred, Sanford continued to run experiments and refine his calculations. He began to learn drafting so that he could depict his designs, swapping out some of his accounting and management courses for more engineering-related ones. This raised the alarm of his father, who insisted that his first priority had to be his future ownership of the mills. Sanford disregarded his concerns, increasingly realizing that the idea was intolerable to him.

In his senior year, he patented a prototype of his engine and commissioned a working scale model of it, presenting it to a few of the physics faculty. They were impressed by it, but still held reservations as to whether it would be viable industrially. One of them did, however, give him the name of a local gas lighting company that was replacing their pumps, suggesting that the management might be interested in testing an alternative source of power.

This company, Fulmore Gas, ended up being Sanford’s first investor. The eponymous Mr. Fulmore, wanting to remain competitive with other local utilities, looked upon Sanford’s projected savings in fuel costs as exactly what he needed and had his chief engineer work with Sanford on creating a specialized version of the leustel engine. Within a few months, three of Sanford’s engines were installed at two separate pumping stations, and Mr. Fulmore stated that he would be happy to give Sanford some funding for further production of the engine, provided he got a cut of the profits in return.

This did not go over well at all with Sanford’s parents. His father, seeing the whole thing as an overly risky venture, demanded that Sanford cease pursuing the project personally and be satisfied with the royalties he was getting. He and Sanford got into a terrible argument, which ended in Sanford declaring that he’d graduate as an engineer and follow his engine wherever it took him. His father struck him out of his will, bequeathing the mills and his share of the fortune to Reginald, and told him that he would no longer be welcome in the family home.

Sanford graduated with a dual major in engineering and physics. The only member of his family to attend his graduation was his cousin Constance, who had considered his actions rash but had always felt the need to support him. Though she and Sanford had a somewhat romantic relationship, under familial pressure, she married Reginald not long afterward.

After the initial success with Fulmore, Sanford was able to land contracts with a number of other companies. He also continued his schooling, earning a master’s in engineering at MIT. His high point came when he secured permission from the Boston and Maine Railroad to install one of his engines on a small passenger train. Captivated by the idea of a train essentially running on electricity, a large crowd turned out to see it, prompting the railroad to charge admission for the privilege. Sanford gave a short speech to raucous applause but did not ride the train, having a previous appointment scheduled with Thomson-Houston with hopes of having his engine installed to drive dynamos.

On July 9th, 1889, at approximately 7:30 in the evening, an improperly designed joint in Sanford’s engine blew apart, dislodging one of the right wheels and significantly damaging the braking system on that side. The engineer attempted to apply the brakes, causing the train to jump the tracks and tip sideways. Falling luggage shattered some of the gas lighting fixtures in the first car, starting a fire that lasted for twenty minutes before a rainstorm helped the local fire department quench the blaze. By this time, six people were dead and eighteen injured.

Following an inquest, Sanford was not charged with negligence, but his reputation was shattered. Mr. Fulmore revoked all funding and public outcry lead to many of his engines being removed from service by their owners. As Sanford had taken out multiple loans in order to finance his endeavors, he soon found himself financially devastated and sold a good portion of his possessions to try and pay off his debts. This proved to not be enough, and he sought aid from Reginald, who only agreed to pay the remainder at Constance’s insistence and with the assurance that Sanford would get well out of town.

Adopting the pseudonym Preston Ashcroft, Sanford sold his townhouse in Lowell and went traveling, taking blue-collar jobs along the way to support himself and searching for an investor willing to allow him the opportunity to redeem himself.