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Henry Sutton (1855–1912)

by Austin McCallum

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Henry Sutton (1855-1912), inventor, was born on 4 September 1855 at Ballarat, Victoria, son of Richard Henry Sutton and his wife Mary, née Johnson. Richard founded a music firm in a tent on the Ballarat goldfield in 1854. After a short stint as a miner he had found that playing a home-made concertina in his tent at night attracted crowds and he began to make them for his friends. Persuaded by the astute Mary to buy a dray-load of musical instruments in Melbourne, he sold them in a few days. He bought land on Plank Road and built a music warehouse of brick and wood with a plate glass window.

Henry, his three brothers Alfred, Walter and Frederick, and his two sisters, Elizabeth and Emilie, were mainly educated by their mother, and all but Henry in their younger years helped in the business. Shy and modest, Henry studied unaided from the age of 11; interested in science and engineering, he had read all the scientific books in the well-stocked Ballarat Mechanics' Institute before he was 14. Although he had little access to current literature, apart from Engineer and Engineering, his own models and machines were ingenious and his drawings revealed great talent. He won a silver medal and thirty other prizes for drawing at the Ballarat School of Design. Observations at the age of 10 of the flutter of insect wings against smoked glass led to his theory on the flight of birds which he propounded in a paper read to the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain and published in its annual report of 1878. Sutton's experimental ornithopter (c.1870), driven by clockwork, could fly in a circumference of twelve feet (3.7 m) and from left to right and upwards at any desired angle. His experiments with heavier-than-air materials for flight seem to be the first of their kind in Australia.

According to his friend W. B. Withers, Sutton designed an electric continuous current dynamo with a practical ring armature as early as 1870. A similar device had been invented in 1860 by an Italian, Pacinotti, and in 1871 the Belgian Z. T. Gramme showed the French Academy of Sciences his own improved version, the Gramme Dynamo; it used the same principles as Sutton's. When it was found in 1873 that the device was reversible and could be used as an electric motor the rapid development of the electrical industry followed. Less than a year after A. G. Bell had received his patent on 7 March 1876, Sutton had devised and constructed more than twenty different telephones, sixteen of which were patented by others. Bell visited Ballarat to see a complete telephone system installed by Sutton in the family warehouse. Thomas Edison's carbon lamp was announced on 21 December 1879; Sutton had been working independently on similar lines, and on 6 January 1880 the Victorian government astronomer R. L. J. Ellery was aware of his successful experiments. Ellery acknowledged him as one of the best lecturers at the Ballarat School of Mines, where Sutton taught electricity and applied magnetism in 1883-87.

He worked tirelessly with 'daylight sometimes surprising him every morning for a week'; he declared that 'eight hours' work won't lift a man in this world'. Always by invitation, Sutton contributed papers to societies in Australia and abroad on topics including electricity, colour photography and the process of engraving by the aid of photography; his paper on his new electric storage battery received acclaim when it was read before the Royal Society of London in December 1881. He rarely applied for patents, partly because he spurned material gain and wanted to 'benefit fellow workers in science'. According to available records, only two patents were taken out in his name in Victoria: in 1886 for 'Improvement in electric circuits for telephonic purposes' and in 1887 for 'An improved process of converting a photographic image on a gelatine surface into a relief or intaglio printing surface …'. Records in New South Wales include two patents: for explosion engines and 'Intaglio … photo-printing'. His mercury air pump, of which details were published in the English Mechanic and World of Science on 21 July 1882, was recommended for the manufacture of lamp bulbs and was developed by others. A vacuum pump, worked by a water jet, was presented to the Ballarat School of Mines for use in chemistry classes. In some respects his most interesting work was in the field of what has since become television: he claimed in the late 1880s to have designed, but not constructed, an apparatus that would transmit to Ballarat the running of the Melbourne Cup.

Sutton's father had died in 1876 and the prospering business was then run by his mother and brothers, with 19-year-old Alfred as manager; Alfred opened a music store in Elizabeth Street, Melbourne, in 1884 and the firm became Sutton Bros. In 1894 the four brothers formed a private company, Suttons Pty Ltd. Henry now concentrated on business, although he experimented with radio and built a portable set with a range of 500 yards (457 m). Interested in the advent of the motor car, he designed, built and drove two efficient vehicles with carburettors of his own invention. At a meeting of fifty-five motorists held at the Port Phillip Club on 9 December 1903, Sutton moved the resolution that founded the Automobile Club of Victoria.

Aged 25, Sutton had married Elizabeth Ellen Wyatt at Ballarat. Aged 46, he married Annie May Tatti at Malvern; he died of heart failure and chronic nephritis on 28 July 1912. He was buried in Brighton cemetery, survived by his second wife, their two sons, and two of the three sons of the first marriage. He died intestate but left property worth £9984. At the very least Sutton was a gifted innovator and developer over a very wide range; the isolation in which he worked underlines his remarkable talent. He was clearly in the van of several international experimental areas but precise claims to fame remain to be established.

Select Bibliography

  • W. B. Withers, The History of Ballarat, 2nd ed (Ballarat, 1887)
  • G. Sutton, Richard Henry Sutton, Esq., 1830-1876 (Melb, 1954)
  • J. Goode, Smoke, Smell and Clatter (Melb, 1969)
  • R. J. Gibson, Australia and Australians in Civil Aviation, vol 1 (Syd, 1971)
  • Ballarat School of Mines, Annual Report, 1883-84
  • private information.

Citation details

Austin McCallum, 'Sutton, Henry (1855–1912)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

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