04 August 2020

Thomas Commerford Martin
(1856-1924): editor and
pioneering electrical engineer

Thomas Commerford Martin (1856-1924) … theology student before turning to a career in journalism and electrical innovations

Patrick Comerford

Thomas Commerford Martin (1856-1924) was an English-born American electrical engineer and editor who lived for most of his life in New York. His work is closely linked with Thomas Edison.

Martin was born in London on 22 July 1856, the son of Thomas Martin and Catherine (Commerford). His father’s pioneering work with the submarine cable industry gave him a unique experience as a boy when he was allowed to spend much of his time on the cable-laying steamship SS Great Eastern. It was then he made his early acquaintance with Professor William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin.

Thomas went to school in Gravesend before studying theology at the Countess of Huntingdon Theological College in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, perhaps hoping to be ordained a Congregationalist minister (Cheshunt College and Westminster College, Cambridge, joined together in 1967).

However, at the age 21, Thomas Commerford Martin left England and moved to the US in 1877. In New York, he entered Thomas Edison’s laboratory at Menlo Park in 1877, and he remained there until 1879. Some of the experimental work on which he was engaged involved the early phonograph, the electric pen, printing and embossing telegraphs, and the carbon telephone transmitter. He was associated with Thomas A. Edison in several inventions of the day, and wrote many articles about them in the New York newspapers, notably on the telephone, microphone, and phonograph.

Due to ill health, however, he resigned in 1879, and went to the West Indies, where he worked as a journalist, worked for the Government of Jamaica, and was editor of the Daily Gleaner from 1880 until the end of 1882. There he married his first wife Elizabeth Gould in Kingston.

They returned to New York at the end of 1882, and edited The Operator. He then became the editor of the Electrical World in 1883, and produced first issue almost single-handedly. He remained as its editor for 26 years until 1909. During that time, he was a founding member of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE), and at the age of 30 was elected its president in 1887-1888.

He represented US institutes and societies at the Kelvin Jubilee at Glasgow University in 1896.

Martin was also instrumental in Dr Schuyler Skaats Wheeler buying the Latimer Clark Library for the AIEE, and securing a gift of $1.5 million from Andrew Carnegie for the Engineering Societies’ Building and Engineers’ Club. As president, he opened the new building with Carnegie in 1907. He was president of the Engineers’ Club of New York in 1907-1908.

From 1909, he was the executive secretary of the National Electric Light Association, which he had helped to found in 1885.

He also became secretary of the New York Electrical Society in 1923, of which he had been a charter member, and in 1900, its president.

Thomas Commerford Martin was the author of numerous electrical books, and he contributed frequently to the leading encyclopaedias and magazines, including the Encyclopaedia Brittanica. As special electrical expert for the US Census Office in 1900-1915, his reports on the vast range of electrical industries and utilities were of tremendous importance.

During World War I, he chaired the Marconi Fund for Italian War Relief and was secretary of the Florence Nightingale Hospital for training nurses in France.

His publications included: The Electric Motor and Its Applications (1887), Inventions, Researches, and Writings of Nikola Tesla (1893) and Edison: His Life and Inventions (1910).

Martin lectured at the Royal Institution of Engineers, London, the Paris Société Internationale des Electriciens, the University of Nebraska, and Columbia University. He was decorated by the French Government as Officer de l' Instruction Publique in 1907. He was one of the founders of the American Museum of Safety and of the Illuminating Engineering Society. He was a member of several other engineering and scientific societies.

Thomas Commerford Martin died on 17 May 1924 at the House of Mercy Hospital in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

He married his first wife, Elizabeth Gould, in Kingston, Jamaica. She died in 1909, and in 1910 he married his second wife, Carmelita Beckwith (1869-1947). He was the father of two sons:

1, Arundel Commerford Martin (1883-1889).

2, Commerford Beckwith Martin (born 1 October 1911, New York; died 19 January 1988, St Louis, Missouri); he married Miriam Stearly Carr (1913-1987), and they were the parents of two sons: Frederick Reynolds Martin (1937-1988) and Thomas Commerford Martin.

Thomas Commerford Martin (1856-1924) … the Commerford name continues among his grandchildren

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