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Henry Sutton
Inventor
3 September 1856 - 28 July 1912

This series of short articles were published as part of White Hat's Seven Inventors of Victoria series in White Hat Melbourne Newsletters Nos 312 to 315

Part 1

“Who would have thought it? He’s come all the way from America just to see our Henry’s inventions. We’ve come a long way since those cold nights in the tent.”

Henry’s mother Mary had done it tough. Living in a tent on the Ballarat goldfields was hard going. At least her husband Richard could cheer things up with a tune on the squeezebox. Before long a small crowd would gather outside the tent and someone would light a fire. Richard was an entertainer and an entrepreneur. It wasn’t long before he was making concertinas to sell to other miners. Mary squirreled away the money and Richard assumed that was so that could one day buy a shack and heaven knows, she deserved better than a tent in the Ballarat winter. When there was enough money, Mary bundled it up and persuaded him to head off to Melbourne and buy – not a shack – but a cart load of musical instruments to bring back and sell on the goldfields.

Mary was a strong woman. She was to bring up four boys and two boys in a rambunctious new settlement and provide most of the education herself. Except for Henry. From the age of 11 he was basically self-taught. He never used that description. “I was educated by my mother. She taught me my numbers and how to read. If you can read then you can find out anything you want to know.” Henry was born in 1856. The Eureka uprising had blown over and the shortage of skilled labour in Melbourne due to most able-bodied men being on the goldfields meant that the skilled tradesmen and contractors were negotiating the Eight Hour Day. This was later to flow on to unskilled employees and Melbourne was starting to be described as the working man’s paradise. Things weren’t paradise on the goldfields, though. The easy gold had gone and those who stayed on needed to form themselves into alliances and small businesses to do the tough dangerous work of getting at the deeper gold.

But we should return to Mary farewelling Richard on his way to Melbourne. Many a goldfield wife had waved farewell to their husband disappearing down the road to Melbourne or Geelong carrying what wealth they had to buy provisions never to see him again. Would Richard return?

Part 2

“Dad’s coming! Dad’s coming!”

Sure enough in the distance was Richard with a dray load of instruments. Later that night Mary went through the receipts.

“Richard, you spent every last penny on instruments and transport. You couldn’t have had any money for food or lodgings.”
“I wasn’t going to pay city prices for those things. I made do, and besides I persuaded old Ikey to throw in a good German fiddle if I took a whole box of flutes. I reckon we can make ten percent on these Mary.”
“Richard, ten percent barely covers the transport. You go to bed and I’ll do the figures.”

The next day Richard was on the back of the dray doing what he did best.

“Listen to the tone of that, gentlemen. It’s the very same fiddle that has been played in the courts of Lithuania and charmed the beautiful Princess Eugenia. And listen to this flute. Don’t worry if you can’t play – we’ll provide lessons for a small fee. Sorry boys, Mary says no credit. I’d like to, but you know what the womenfolk are like. And if you want to meet the womenfolk we can recommend a flute – much classier than a tin whistle. You know the alluvial gold has run out. You’re going to need some other ways of earning money. Learn an instrument and get work in a pit orchestra. If Lola Montez returns to Ballarat, the orchestra pit has the best view in the house.”

From that day Richard did the purchasing and sales and Mary did the books.

The instruments sold out within a few days so it was back to Melbourne for more. Before long a warehouse was built and later an impressive music store in Sturt Street Ballarat. The sons all entered the business. Except for Henry.

“Where are you going to Henry?”
”I’m going down to the Mechanics. They should have that new magazine in today.”

Part 3

The Mechanics’ Institute was a movement which started in Scotland and Britain. Its purpose was to provide a place where the working classes could pull themselves up by their own boot strings. They usually contained a library and a place for public lectures and ‘improving’ performances. Working men could attend in the evening and learn a whole range of things for free or for a small charge. Funding often came from employers who could see the advantage of keeping their men out of the pubs in the evening at the same time as they were upskilling and multiskilling. The movement spread to Australia and in the 19th century Victoria most medium towns had a Mechanics Institute. In fact Victoria in effect became the Mechanics Institute Capital of the world.

During the day, the library of the Ballarat Mechanics’ Institute was pretty quiet because most working men were, well, working. But have a look in the corner over there. That’s 14 year old Herbert from the music store. He’s already read through each one of the many books on science in the library. However, much of their information is old and out of date. So he is always here when the engineering magazines come in. They arrive a few months after they are published so they allow young Henry to be up to date with what happened on the other side of the world six months ago. There was fascinating stuff happening in Europe and America.

Back in Ballarat, Henry was a shy kid who didn’t have his father’s flair. But he could understand ‘stuff’ and figure out a solution to most problems. And there were plenty of problems in the fledgling city.

“How do I know if anyone’s tampered with the gate where I keep my prize bull?”
“How can I create a vacuum to preserve this food?”
“This Edison lamp is an improvement on gaslight but can’t it be made brighter?”

In most cases people asking these questions would be advised to go down and see the kid at the Mechanics – he might have a solution. Quite often he did and the grateful farmer or businessman would see that he was paid for it.

Part 4

By the age of 10 he had built a mechanical flying machine based on his observation of insects. Magazines from Europe took a long time to arrive in Ballarat and often Henry found that famous inventors and scientists in Europe and America had created things similar to those he was developing in his ‘vacuum’ of colonial Victoria. These included a form of electric dynamo and electric motor. His father, who had started by selling musical instruments from the back of a dray on the goldfields now had a major warehouse and music store in Ballarat. A short time after Alexander Graham Bell had invented the telephone; Henry had created a number of variants and had installed a complete system in his father’s warehouse. This feat so impressed Bell that he made a trip to Ballarat to see and examine the instruments in action. Young Henry was starting to attract international attention.

He often worked through to dawn. Even though the Eight Hours Movement had achieved important improvements in working conditions in Melbourne, Henry declared “'eight hours' work won't lift a man in this world”. But Henry was working at what he loved and that way the hours flow past easily. He later turned out to be an inspired teacher at the local School of Mines but always continued with his inventing. He also designed a device for transferring moving images over telegraph wires – an important precursor to television.

After his father died, Henry went into partnership with his brothers to set up a successful music store in Melbourne. The building still stands in Elizabeth Street even though it no longer functions as music store. As a person interested in new technology, it is not surprising that Henry, at a meeting in the Port Phillip Club, moved a motion to form a club that was later to become known as the RACV.

Henry died in 1912 having patented very few of his inventions. He preferred them to make their way in the world for the public good and he was quietly proud that he had always had enough acumen to support himself and his family in a comfortable manner.

References and resources

In-line References and Citations: White Hat uses in-line references, sources and notes. Wherever you see a small white hat This is where notes and references will appear., rest the pointer over it for a second and a note or reference will appear.

Austin McCallum, 'Sutton, Henry (1856 - 1912)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, Melbourne University Press, 1976, pp 226-227.

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