There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Ninety One

William Austin Burt (1792 – 1858)

Such is the ubiquity of Global Positioning System (GPS) devices that it is almost a sign of eccentricity to be seen struggling with a map and peering at a compass. Of course, GPS is a recent innovation but two hundred years ago when there were still vast tracts of land to be explored and surveyed, at least from the invading white man’s perspective, a magnetic compass was invaluable to navigate around terra incognita.

One of the problems with a magnetic compass, or at least so I’m told, is that they are susceptible to interference from iron-bearing minerals, a serious problem in the States. A better, more accurate compass was needed and this is where the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, William Burt, comes in.

Burt is best known for developing and patenting the typographer, the first typewriter to hit the United States, but from 1833 he was working as a Deputy Surveyor, charged with surveying the then wide-open spaces of Michigan and Wisconsin. The latter state is particularly rich in iron ore deposits and Burt found that they were affecting the accuracy and consistency of his compass readings.

Burt started to exercise his little grey cells to come up with an instrument that did not rely on magnetism. His solution was a solar compass, made of brass with an attachment that allowed surveyors to determine true north by observing the sun. It consisted of an arc for setting the land’s latitude, another for establishing the declination of the sun and a third for setting the time of day. All three arcs were placed on an upper plate which was kept stationary when in use. The instrument’s sights were placed on the lower plate which could be clamped in any position to the upper plate.

Having created a working model in 1835, Burt submitted his design to the scrutiny of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. They awarded him a medal and twenty dollars in gold. On February 25th 1836 Burt received a patent for his compass but continued to enhance its design over the next fifteen years. It was displayed at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851 and was awarded a prize.

Amongst his accomplishments as a surveyor were the discovery of the Marquette iron ore range in 1844 and establishing the northern portion of the border between Michigan and Wisconsin in 1847. The solar compass had more than proved its worth and for a century or more became the standard piece of kit adopted by the General Land Office to be used in mineral-rich areas.

But trouble was looming.

With his patent soon to expire, Burt went to Washington in 1850 to renew it. But the Land Committee, recognising how useful the compass was in surveying the immense tracts of the western United States, persuaded him not to renew the patent but rather petition Congress for compensation equivalent to the sum he may have otherwise generated from a reinvigorated patent.

Burt followed their advice. After all, the Congress was full of honourable men. What could possibly go wrong?

So Burt took the committee’s advice, foregoing the chance to renew his patent. Whilst a payment of $300 was mooted it never materialised in Burt’s lifetime or afterwards, for that matter. Now that the patent had expired, it left the way open for other instrument makers to supply what were known as Burt’s solar compasses to surveyors.

For inventing the solar compass and foolishly letting your patent expire, William Burt, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.

If you enjoyed, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone



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