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 Limehouse, London, on 22 July 1856, the son of Thomas Martin and Catherine (Commerford).

His mother, Catherine Commerford, was born in 1825 in Ramsgate, Kent, the daughter of Nicholas William Comerford (1786-1858) and Mary (née Muddle) of Thanet, Kent. Nicholas and Mary Commerford married 25 September 1815 in Saint Lawrence, Thanet, and they were the parents of:

1, Robert Smith Commerford (1817–1880), born 1817, Ramsgate.
2, Mary E (1820– ), born 1820, Ramsgate.
3, Ann (1821– ), born 1821, Ramsgate.
4, Catherine (1825–1882), born 1825, Ramsgate, the mother of Thomas Commerford Martin.
5, Martin Commerford (1827– ), born 1827, Ramsgate.
6, Nicholas William Commerford, (1828–1893), born 23 November 1828, Ramsgate. He was born 23 November 1828 in Ramsgate. He married Susanna … and lived in Islington and West Ham. Nicholas Commerford died January 1893, aged 64. They were the parents of one son and one daughter:
• 1a, Nicholas W Commerford (1859–1923), borrn 1859 Islington.
• 2a, Susannah (1862– ), born 1862 Highbury.
7, Henry Commerford (1832–1912), born ca 1832, Ramsgate. He married Sarah Baker (1830- ) in April 1860 in Thanet, Kent. He died in January 1912 in Thanet, Kent, aged 80. Henry and Sarah Comerford were the parents of four children:

• 1a, Henry G Commerford (1861– ), born Ramsgate.
• 2a, Sarah Ann (1861– ), born Ramsgate.
• 3a, Nicholas W Commerford (1863– ), born Ramsgate.
• 4a, Charles M Commerford (1868– ), born Ramsgate.
8, Charlotte Commerford (1833– ), born 18 August 1833, Ramsgate.

Nicholas William Comerford died 15 February 1858 in Ramsgate. His second daughter:

Catherine Commerford (1825-1882) married Thomas Martin (born ca 1828) in Thanet, Kent, in 1853. She died on 1 August 1882 in Gravesend, Kent, at the age of 57. Thomas Martin and Catherine (Commerford) were the parents of three sons and three daughters:

1, Catherine (Kate) Comerford Martin (1854-1897), died in hospital in Maidstone.
2, Thomas Commerford Martin (1856-1924).
3, Frederick W Martin (1859-1931), married Edith Gould (1860-1948) in 1885. They were the parents of:
• 1a, Leslie Commerford Martin (ca 1888- ).
• 2a, Edith Joyce Martin (ca 1893- ).
• 3a, Edward Cecil Martin (ca 1895- ).
4, George Ernest Martin (1861-1922), of whom later.
5, Ellen Maud Martin (1863-1913), born Gravesend.
6, Emma Martin (1864-1867), born Gravesend, died in infancy.
7, Emma Martin (1867- ), born Gravesend.

After the death of Catherine (Commerford) in 1882, Thomas Martin married his second wife, Jeannette Wilson Smiles (1845–1926) on 9 August 1883, in Brockley, Kent, and they were the parents of four more sons:

7, Margaret Smiles Martin (1884–1960), born Gravesend.
8, Mark Martin (1885–1937), born 28 August 1885, Gravesend.
9, Douglas Sutherland Martin (1887–1914), born April 1887, Gravesend. He enlisted during World War and died aged 27 on 22 November 1914 in Boulogne, Pas-de-Calais, France, where he is buried.
10, Alan Smiles Martin (1889- ), born April 1889, Gravesend, Kent.

Thomas Martin’s pioneering work with the submarine cable industry gave his second son Thomas Commerford Martin 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 of 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 (1864-1909), in Kingston, Jamaica. She was the daughter of John Gould of Gravesend, and she died in 1909. In 1910, he married his second wife, Carmelita Beckwith (1869-1947). Carmelita was the co-author with Adele Marie Shaw of The Lady Of The Dynamos (1909). Thomas Commerford Martin was the father of three sons:

1, Arundel Commerford Martin (1883-1889).
2, Kingsley Gould Martin (1886–1951).
3, Commerford Beckwith Martin (1911-1988). He was 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:
• 1a, Frederick Reynolds Martin (1937-1988).
• 2a, Thomas Commerford Martin.

Meanwhile, the Commerford family name was continued in the family of Thomas Commerford Martin’s brother, George Ernest Martin (1861-1922), among his children and grandchildren.

George Ernest Martin (1861-1922) was born in Gravesend, Kent, in 1861. A coffee and tea salesman, lived at Wotton St Mary, Gloucestershire. He married Mary Louisa Eltenton (1861-1938) in 1889. He died 26 October 1922 in Gloucestershire. They were the parents of:

1, Mary (Molly) Commerford Martin (1889-1970), born Harringay, married Richard Howells Watkins (1895-1980) in 1925.
2, George Lister Martin (1890-1916), born Harringay, died on the Somme during World War I, 21 July 1916.
3, Jean Martin (1892- ), born Hornsey.
4, Mabel Eltenton Martin (1898-1954), born Hornsey.
5, Thomas Basil Commerford Martin (1901-1970), of whom next.

Thomas Basil Commerford Martin (1901-1970), born Stroud Green, London, 19 September 1901. He married Helen J Bragg (1905- ), July 1930, in West Bromwich, Staffordshire. He died 16 March 1970, Glamorgan, aged 68. They were the parents of two children, including a son:

Jim Commerford Martin (1934-2012), born Birmingham 11 May 1934, married in Cardiff 1958, he lived in Stratford Upon Avon, and died on 10 September 2012.

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

Last updated: 31 July 2022; 1 August 2022; 3 August 2022

Have atomic
bombs taught
world nothing?


Rite & Reason

Seventy-five years
after Hiroshima and
Nagasaki, humanity faces
nuclear threat,
climate change and
cyber warfare

Over the next week, two anniversaries recall cataclysmic events in the closing days of the second World War: the atomic bombings of Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945, and Nagasaki on August 9th, 1945.

There was added poignancy in Nagasaki as the city was home to one of the oldest and largest Christian communities in East Asia, and the cathedral was 500m from ground zero.

Compared with Hiroshima, Nagasaki is often forgotten and was not the first choice for the second atomic bomb. The Japanese city of Kokura was the initial target for the crew of the B29 bomber Bockscar.

But low visibility forced them to abandon that mission.They were flying low when they found a clear patch of sky unexpectedly. Below them lay the city of Nagasaki. They decided they had found the target for the world’s most powerful weapon, a 4.5-ton plutonium bomb called “Fat Man” – the Hiroshima bomb was known as “Little Boy”.

The bomb that day killed tens of thousands of people and wiped out the city in an instant. Urakami Cathedral, or the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, had been at the heart of a vibrant Catholic community dating back to Nagasaki’s early days as a trading port and the arrival of St Francis Xavier and other Christian missionaries in the 16th century.

Generations of Christians in Nagasaki had suffered persecution for centuries. They had been tortured, banished and executed and forced to practise their faith in secrecy until the ban on Christianity was lifted in 1873. The cathedral in Nagasaki was built between 1895 and 1925.

Cross in rubble

The bomb fell on Nagasaki just 20 years after Urakami Cathedral had been completed. It has since been rebuilt and a small piece of that history was returned last year: a cross, mostly forgotten, had been taken from the rubble by Walter Hooke, a former US marine who later gave it to Wilmington College, a Quaker-run liberal arts institution in Ohio.

Hooke’s son, Christopher, recalled recently that Bishop Aijiro Yamaguchi of Nagasaki gave his father the cross, perhaps in the hope that it might change Americans’ perceptions of the bomb.

“One of the things that always really bothered my father was that a Christian country bombed a cathedral that was a centre of Christianity in Asia,” Christopher Hooke said last year. “There was absolutely no strategic value in the bombing of Nagasaki. I think that was the point.”

The Nagasaki cross remained in Wilmington until last year when Dr Tanya Maus, director of the Peace Resource Centre at Wilmington, presented it to Archbishop Mitsuaki Takami of Nagasaki – he had been exposed to radiation while his mother was pregnant in Nagasaki.

‘Human depravity’

“For me, the cross represents human depravity. The utter stripping away of values ... that keep human beings from killing each other and destroying each other,” Dr Maus told the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

“Atomic bomb victims will die, but the cross will remain as a living witness to what happened in Nagasaki,” Archbishop Takami said when he received the cross from Dr Maus. “The cross is an embodiment of the brutality of war,” Dr Maus. “The cross is a cry to the US government and governments of other countries that possess nuclear weapons to stop the use of nuclear weapons.”

“The bomb that day killed ten of thousands of people and wiped out the city in an instant

As we come to the close of this year’s anniversaries, I find myself wondering what we have learned in the past 75 years. Earlier this year, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists said the hands on the Doomsday Clock are now at 100 seconds to midnight, “closer to apocalypse than ever before”.

They say, “humanity continues to face two simultaneous existential dangers – nuclear war and climate change – that are compounded by a threat multiplier, cyber- enabled information warfare”.

And they warn, “Civilisation-ending nuclear war – whether started by design, blunder or simple miscommunication – is a genuine possibility.” The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has warned that: “The world is sleepwalking its way through a newly unstable nuclear landscape.”

Canon Patrick Comerford is a priest in the Church of Ireland Diocese of Limerick and president of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND)

This ‘Rite and Reason’ column was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on 4 August 2020 (p 14)