Benjamin Franklin Sturtevant (1833-1890) was a Jamaica Plain inventor and industrialist who filed more than 60 U.S. patents. Sturtevant’s patents related to fans revolutionized manufacturing worldwide and played a special role in the advancement of the shoe making industry in 1860s New England. Sturtevant built the first commercially successful blower in 1864.
Sturtevant was born into a poor Maine farming family. He left home at age 15 to work in Northbridge, Massachusetts. He later returned to Maine and became a skilled shoemaker. He devised a crude machine used in shoe manufacturing and came to Boston in 1856 seeking backing for further development. He worked on his design from 1857 to 1859 and secured five patents for design improvements. In December 1859 he patented a special spiral veneer lathe to manufacture stock for shoe-peg machines.
Sturtevant set up a successful manufacturing plant in Conway, New Hampshire to manufacture wooden shoe pegs and from that base sold materials to factories around the world. Sturtevant was troubled by the airborne wood dust created by the machines in his factory and went to work designing a way to eliminate the dust and its resulting health effects. In 1867 he patented a rotary exhaust fan and began manufacturing the fan and selling it to industrial buyers across the country.
Image provided courtesy of the New England Wireless and Steam Museum
With the exhaust fan business doing well, Sturtevant went to work designing air blowers, fans, and pneumatic conveyors. In 1878 he built a factory near the current intersection of Green and Amory Streets in Jamaica Plain. At the time, it was the largest fan manufacturing plant in the world. At its peak, the plant produced 5,000 blowers per year and employed about 400 workers. Sturtevant opened branch outlets in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Oregon, England, and Germany.
Sturtevant lived at 11 Revere Street until 1889 and then at 60 Elm Street. He died in his home on April 17, 1890. Sturtevant had two daughters, the younger of whom, Lilla married Eugene Noble Foss on June 12, 1884. The Foss family lived at 8 Everett Street from 1884 until 1905. Sturtevant came to know young Eugene Noble Foss while he was a successful salesman for the Vermont-based St. Albans Manufacturing Company.
Foss home at 8 Everett Street in Jamaica Plain. Photograph 2007 by Charile Rosenberg.
Sturtevant hired Foss in 1882 and put him in charge of the manufacturing department. Two years later Foss became treasurer and general manager. Upon Sturtevant’s death, he was elected president. He later directed several other manufacturing enterprises but resigned all corporate positions when he was elected to his first political office. Foss served as governor of Massachusetts from 1910 to 1913.
In addition to the industrial fan line, the Jamaica Plain factory also produced American Napier automobiles from 1904 until 1909. The Sturtevant Aeroplane Company operated from 1915-1918 in Jamaica Plain building military aircraft for both the U.S. Army and the U.S. Navy for use in World War I.
Sturtevant’s son-in-law, Eugene Foss, moved the main manufacturing operations to Hyde Park in the early 1900’s and the large building complex remains there today. A photograph of the Hyde Park facility is shown here to the right. Westinghouse purchased B. F. Sturtevant Co. in 1945 and continued to operate a Sturtevant Division. The Howden Fan Company bought the Sturtevant brand in 1988 and continued to manufacture Sturtevant fans, selling them under the Howden Buffalo name. Sturtevant fans were recently installed as part of the Central Artery project to ventilate Big Dig tunnels. Howden Buffalo’s local offices are located in the old Sturtevant complex (now Westinghouse Plaza) in Hyde Park. The entire Sturtevant fan line was later sold to Acme Manufacturing Corporation, a family-owned business in Claremore, Oklahoma that continues to build fans under the original Sturtevant product names.
The Sturtevant and Foss families are buried in Jamaica Plain’s Forest Hills Cemetery in nearby plots.
Photographs of the Sturtevant plant in Jamaica Plain from the 1919 Aircraft Year Book
1919 Aircraft Year Book, Aircraft Manufacturers Association Inc.
Air Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration News, Nov 2001, An early history of comfort heating. Bernard Nagengast.
“Benjamin Franklin Sturtevant” Dictionary of American Biography
Heating/Piping/Air Conditioning Engineering, Oct 2002, Industrial ventilation throughout the 20th Century. Kenneth E. Robinson.
J.D. Van Slyck, New England Manufacturers and Manufactories (1879)
Old Woodworking Machines web site
The New Encyclopedia of Motorcars, 1885 to the Present, GN Georgano, editor. Dutton, New York, 1982. U.S. Patent Office
By Charlie Rosenberg and Michael Reiskind
Copyright © 2003 Jamaica Plain Historical Society