No 'humbug': Belleville inventor sued government during Civil War

News-DemocratMay 3, 2014 

EDITOR'S NOTE: THIS IS PART OF A SERIES OF OCCASIONAL COLUMNS THAT WILL APPEAR ON BELLEVILLE'S HISTORY IN CONJUNCTION WITH THE CITY'S BICENTENNIAL CELEBRATION.

Charles W.S. Heaton of Belleville attracted a lot of attention back during the Civil War.

He was an inventor who first came to notice in local newspapers in January 1863 when an item in the Belleville Weekly Democrat noted his patent for improvements to a farming cultivator, his second patent.

Apparently that same month, Heaton headed to Washington, D.C., with an idea for improving the metal armor on Union warships which was so heavy none of them could stay afloat in any kind of rough sea.

In May 1863 he wrote to the Democrat explaining his odyssey. He couldn't get audiences with any government higher-ups so he went to New York where he attracted the attention of the tycoon Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt and some big shipbuilders.

Heaton wrote that they tested his armor system and recommended it. With those proofs he was able to go back to Washington and get the Navy to test his system.

"Mr. Heaton's system has proved so satisfactory that some of the naval contractors have attempted to appropriate his invention but their game is watched, and will be blocked at the proper moment," the Democrat wrote.

Heaton noted in his letter that he also didn't trust the government.

"Before doing anything with the Government, I took the precaution to obtain patents to secure me the credit at all events of my labors," he wrote to the Democrat.

It was patent no. US38206, issued on April 14, 1863, for "Improved defensive armor for ships and other batteries."

He also attracted attention in St. Louis, where the Republican noted, "C.W.S. Heaton, of Illinois, who was recently making experiments in the neighborhood of Belleville, and explaining his ship-building theories through the Belleville papers, has invented a new system of armor cladding for war vessels, which, by experiment, has given great satisfaction. Tests were made at the Washington Navy Yard not long since which resulted very favorably to this system."

His idea consisted of surrounding regular armor plate with more absorbent wood on both sides. The outside wood reduced the impact of shells for the metal while the inside wood shielded occupants.

Despite his close watch on those who might want to steal his idea, the government apparently allowed other contractors to use his system without any payment to him.

So he sued in 1864.

"He at length brought suit against the Government for damages to the amount of $95,000, which he claims is the amount saved to the Government by the adoption of his system of defensive armor. This suit has been decided in his favor --and also another suit for $750,000 -- and it is likely that satisfactory arrangement will yet be affected," the Democrat noted.

The paper also said that the Belleville man left his lawsuits in the hands of his attorneys, "...while he comes home to attend to the construction of machinery and erection of factories in the West for the manufacture of paper for a wealthy company in New York City," the Democrat wrote.

Heaton's armor also was the subject of an article in Scientific American which praised his idea although he objected to some of the writer's conclusions.

And someone who only identified himself as G.W.B. wrote disparaging remarks about Heaton to the magazine.

In a letter to the New York Times of Feb. 3, 1864, Heaton replied, observing, "If my armor is a 'humbug,' why is it put on to the Onondaga, and (as I an informed) the monitors at Charleston?"

I could not find any records of his various lawsuits in which he claimed success, but I did find a record on one he lost.

In January 1872 his suit was heard against George Quintard who had put something similar to the Heaton armor system on a ship for the government during the Civil War.

After a myriad of arguments, a federal judge decided Heaton's patent wasn't valid because the same idea had been published in a scientific journals in England in 1856 before Heaton created his system.

Have a column idea? Call Wally at 618-239-2506 or 800-642-3878; or email: wspiers@bnd.com.

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