Ypsilanti’s Quaker Inventor

March 5, 2010 by  
Filed under Columnists

15-year-old Orin followed his father John and his younger brother Charles into the white building on Tuttle Hill road. They headed for the dozen men and boys on the men’s side. On the other side of the center partition, Orin’s mother Mary was already seated, with Orin’s older sister Alice and his two younger sisters, 7-year-old Ettie and 4-year-old Lutie.

Orin's shifting hand-plate signaled a left or right turn.

Orin's shifting hand-plate signaled a left or right turn.

Orin’s neighbor Mr. Alban sat down next to him. He was one of the most successful farmers in Augusta Township. Orin’s father had a good farm too, one of the biggest, with a creek for the five children to play in. Maybe there would be time to help Charles build a dam tomorrow after chores. They could use the rocks from–Orin blinked, and stopped daydreaming.

There had been six children, but Orin’s brother William had died ten years ago, two years and eleven days after his birthday. His death certificate said he’d died of “congestion of the brain,” which may have been bacterial meningitis. Bacterial meningitis can live in an asymptomatic carrier. It can be transmitted when a mother gives her adorable toddler a kiss.

The men sat quietly. Dust motes drifted in the sunlight coming through the open window. Orin felt a breeze on his cheek and smelled the fragrance of the warm field outside. He heard a cough from the women’s side. Time passed. A cicada started its sawing trill, ending in a falling buzz.

Orin was still. But from his mind would come an invention for use in a noisy and dangerous world many decades after 1880.

One of the elders on the front platform stood up and shook hands with her neighbor. That was the signal: Quaker meeting was over. Occasionally no one felt like speaking or quoting the Bible. A silent meeting like today’s was still considered a good one. Orin stood up with the men. Now it was time for the big picnic outside, before evening services.

From the picnic tables, one could see the small white tombstones in the nearby Quaker cemetery. It held the deceased of the numerous Quaker families that had settled in northern Augusta and southern Ypsilanti townships.

Most folks in the area were Quaker farmers, as Orin and Charles became when they grew older and inherited their father’s 190 acres. Orin’s father died in 1909, and was buried in what was by then called Alban Cemetery. Orin’s mother had died of heart trouble, gastritis, and nephritis in 1902, and Lutie had died of pneumonia in 1907.

In 1913, when Orin was 48, his 66-year-old widowed aunt Elma Hewens died of bowel cancer. Her death certificate said that her father had been Orin’s grandfather, also named Orin Bemis, and that her mother was unknown.

Orin, a first son, was named for this paternal grandfather in a slight departure from Quaker tradition. As a loose rule, a couple’s first son was often named for his mother’s father, the second son for his father’s father, and the third son for his father. The first daughter was named for her father’s mother, the second daughter for her mother’s mother, and the third daughter for her mother. The custom showed the importance of the principle of equality to Quakers.

Charles signed Elma’s death certificate as kin. Elma was not buried in Alban Cemetery, but in Stony Creek Cemetery.

The Alban Cemetery’s Quaker farmers’ simple, dignified graves were usually inscribed with unadorned text. One grave, that of Abel Pasco who had died in 1871, was carved with a hand pointing upwards.

Orin watched the sky. He measured snowfall with a ruler, and maintained a rain gauge. By 1910 he was an official weather observer for the Michigan Central railroad. His observations were published, with those of other observers across Michigan, in the state weather bureau’s annual reports. He was 46 years old. He, Charles, and his sister Alice lived together on the old farm. None had married.

The farm was not electrified. After dinner cooked on the iron stove, kerosene lamps lit the evening reading and sewing. Outside was quiet and black. But the world was changing–fast–thanks to Henry Ford’s creations pouring off the assembly lines a few miles to the east.

Orin viewed automobiles as dangerous; he thought he could make them safer. In 1916, he was granted two patents for two turn signal inventions.

The gadgets were to be mounted on the back of a car. The first patent was a machine that when activated, displayed a sign that said “SLOW DOWN.” The user could also manipulate the device to expose a cutout of a pointing hand, signaling a left or right turn.

Orin immediately improved on this design with his second patent. A fan shaped segment with carefully spaced holes moved to expose either the letters “SLOW” or “STOP” from a background printed with “SSTLOOPW.” The driver could also activate a panel of joined hands to expose either half, showing a hand pointing left or right.

Orin proposed to operate this device with a foot pedal. The only drawback was that in the year of his patent, the most popular car on the road was the Model T. The Model T was operated with three foot pedals: the right one for the brake, the center one for reverse, and the left one for the gear lever. There was also a hand lever near the driver’s door for spark timing. Plus a lever on the steering column for the throttle. Orin was proposing to add a fourth foot pedal to what was already an acrobatic driving experience.

It never caught on. In the late 1930s, Orin, Alice, and Charles left the farm and moved together to 415 Pearl Street in Ypsilanti. Orin remained a weather observer until age 72. It wasn’t until the 1940s that turn signals, by other inventors, started to appear on cars. Orin died in 1942 at age 77, four months after his sister Alice and seven years before his brother Charles. He, Alice, and Charles died single.

Their legacy is Bemis road, named for Orin, Alice, and Charles’ onetime farm on the southeast corner of present-day Bemis and Stony Creek roads.

Orin’s elegant invention, an attempt to bring an iota of calm to the world, was never produced. Had it been, he could have seen that when his foot pedal was released, the hidden signal hands, like a benediction, pointed up.

Laura Bien is the author of “Tales of the Ypsilanti Archives,” is available in Ypsilanti at Mix boutique and in Ann Arbor at Nicola’s Books. You can reach Laura at ypsidixit@gmail.com.

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