A poster announcing the demonstration of “Antipodean Shoes,” which allowed acrobat Richard Sands to walk across a polished ceiling like a fly, referred to the inventor as “Professor Hunt.” Merely to give his name as “Walter Hunt” would not do; people who read such posters expected more. The title of professor seemed modest enough, at a time when traveling actors often styled themselves lords or earls, claiming ties with the English peerage.
Hunt did not use the title himself, and in a formal sense it was not accurate– he was never employed by a college or university. But in a broad sense it was apt, in suggesting the way Hunt regarded himself and the way he was seen by others. He was an intellectual, a man of ideas, and although his practical skill was exceptional, the quality of his mind impressed people far more. He read widely, and closely observed the world around him. His inventions grew out of a passionate curiosity about materials, motion, and mechanical systems, and they were abandoned as soon as it was satisfied. “He was,” as a friend once said, “a man very anxious to know the why and wherefore of everything.”
The few existing accounts of Hunt’s life are little more than lists of his inventions, which were numerous. He invented a stove, a saw, a safety pin; he invented a machine for making nails, an unspillable inkwell, a fountain pen; he invented a breech-loading rifle, a bottle-stopper, articles of clothing–the list goes on and on. He also invented a sewing machine, the first to incorporate the basic principles of the modern type, and he built it a full ten years before anyone else made a comparable one. It was an extraordinary technical achievement, that one would expect to bring riches and glory. But he earned nothing from it. How was this possible?
AN INWARD LIGHT
The habit of independent thought, an essential trait of inventors, was a legacy to Hunt from his Quaker parents. Quaker doctrine encourages individualism by giving final authority in spiritual matters not to an established church or even Scripture, but to the Inward Light which speaks directly to the conscience of each individual. Scripture provides a guide, but is not the final word. Thus no man, according to the doctrine, can dictate to another on questions of conscience. And if every man is his own expert in religion, why not in other matters as well? In general, Quakers were regarded as individualists; Hunt’s parents, however, were nonconformists even among Quakers. They believed that even the minimal authority given to Scripture in basic Quaker doctrine was too much, and they were among the early followers of Elias Hicks, a Quaker preacher who took a radical stand for the sufficiency of Inward Light.
The special quality of Hunt’s independence is best understood in relation to his Quaker background, because it seems to be something he received almost automatically rather than something he struggled for himself. “He forms and maintains his own opinions… regardless of others,” said one acquaintance, “and he is not easily influenced.” Although the same might be said of many people, the difference, in Hunt’s case, is that his independence had little of the underlying hostility that motivates many opinionated people. For most, nonconformity is a struggle against their own uncertainties and the real or imagined antagonism of others. Hunt, on the other hand, serenely went his own way, guided by his Inward Light. Generations of independent thinkers had handed down to him the calm assumption that his own opinion, in the last analysis, was the only one that mattered.
Walter Hunt was born on July 29, 1796, in Martinsburg, New York, a small town in the western foothills of the Adirondacks. The formal education available in Martinsburg (which even today appears only on large scale maps of the state) must have been limited, but Quaker communities were known for the excellence of their schools, and the assured style of the few surviving letters by Hunt suggests solid grounding in the three R’s. Formal schooling, however, was only a small part of his education. Even as a boy, Hunt was notably studious, and he seems to have read everything that came to hand. “Gifted with the most marvelous originality of mind,” reported one admirer, “he improved his natural powers by very extensive reading and study in many branches of science.” The Bible he knew intimately; books on theology were plentiful, so he read those too; he also read philosophy, chemistry, and physics. Such works as the Edinburgh Encyclopedia and Ure’s Dictionary of Arts and Manufactures, which explained the operations of all kinds of mechanical devices, he knew so thoroughly that, years after reading them, he could recall detailed technical descriptions from them.
Hunt’s vigorous intelligence could have made him a preacher or a lawyer, like some of his closest friends, but he became a machinist instead. One reason was his early and pressing need for an income. In 1814, as a teenager, he married Polly Anne Locks, a local girl three years his senior. Supporting her and the children who soon came–eventually there would be four–left him no opportunity to prepare for one of the professions. Certain other reasons for not becoming a preacher also appeared early. If his knowledge of the Bible and his understanding of religious issues went well beyond the ken of most preachers, so in a different sense did his beliefs, which were taking a decidedly unorthodox turn. However, while machine shop work offered no opportunity for the purely abstract speculation Hunt loved, it did have variety and challenge. Machinists were called on to solve every technical problem that arose in the community, in malfunctioning water wheels, inefficient farm implements, broken locks, stoves that would not work properly, and many other devices from the household or the farm. These puzzles were Hunt’s natural domain too, as much so as abstract theological questions, and he approached them with the sagacity of a grand master playing a game of chess.