There is an old adage that “necessity is the mother of invention.” My thought, rather, is that Ohio is the mother of invention. Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers come particularly to mind, but during the early 1900s the Buckeye state teemed with individuals bent on making improvements to all manner of things. Among them was Joshua Low who sold liquor in Steubenville to make a living but whose lifelong passion was inventing.
It appears that Low’s first invention was a “thill coupling,” shown left, that he patented in 1873 when he was 28 years old. For those, like me, not familiar with the term, a thilll is one of two long shafts, usually of wood, between which a horse is hitched. The coupling is important because it should be fastened easily, hold steady as the buggy or cart is being drawn along, and then be released with similar ease. The figure below shows a horse with a thill secured with a coupling.
Born in 1845 in the town of Paris, Washington County, Pennsylvania, Low had migrated the short ten miles over the Ohio River to Steubenville as a young man.
He dated the founding of his wholesale liquor house to 1865, a time when he was only 20, a dubious claim that suggests that he had bought an existing business, perhaps after working there for a time. The 1870 census recorded him working as a “clerk” not an owner. By the 1889 census, however, his occupation was “liquor dealer.” According to local business directories the “J. Low” company, was located initially at 221-223 Market Street, the avenue shown below.
Low’s decision to sell rather than dispense whiskey over the bar appears to have been a strategic one. Steubenville directories at the time listed only three liquor houses but some six dozen saloons, all of them needing regular restocking of spirits. Joshua supplied them and retail customers in cobalt decorated ceramic jugs, featuring one proprietary whiskey he called “66.” Although willing to spend significant funds to patent his inventions, he never bothered to trademark this brand name.
Low advertised vigorously in the local press: “Ask any man who is an judge of good liquor and he will tell you that our reputation for the finest goods as reasonable prices is not excelled by anyone in the city,” read one of his advertisements. “And if you want to see how true it is, give us a call.” Another Low ad shows a tiny child popping the cork on a bottle of sparking wine. The text suggested that good wine was health-giving for men, women and even kiddies. The ad urged “…get some good stuff from us and get well. Prices are right. Goods are right.”
The press of selling alcohol could not, however, deter Joseph from his passion for inventing. Although no evidence exists that his “thill coupling” ever saw commercial fulfillment, he turned his attention to coupling railroad cars. This invention, he claimed, could firmly join two pieces of rolling stock simply by pushing them together.
Once again, no proof exists that this innovation ever saw actual production. Perhaps discouraged with the coupling field, Low next turned his inventing fever to an area of where his knowledge was more personal — coaxing liquid out of a barrel and into a jug or bottle. Years of tediously siphoning whiskey and wine out of barrels and into wholesale or retail portions apparently had triggered a desire on Low’s part to facilitate a means whereby the liquid could be drawn off at a point higher than the tank or cask. It consisted of two tubes rather than the standard single. By blowing into the smaller tube, Low contended that liquid would be forced out into the larger one and the flow would continue until the container was empty.
Having patented this invention in January 1885, Low continued to work on the problem of emptying barrels. His improved dual siphons needed to be stabilized in place if they were to work right, he subsequently suggested. This required a specialized kind of siphon cork made of rubber to hold each tube in place. With this further development, patented the following September he claimed he had perfected “a device…that will meet the general demands of the trade….” While Low himself may have employed this invention, again there is no evidence of general manufacture.
Low’s last idea was for an “electric ignitor for gas engines.” Patented in 1894 just as the automobile age was dawning, he and his partner may have had in mind a way of starting a vehicle without the need for cranking to obtain a spark. The description speaks of a battery providing the electrical current needed to ignite the gasoline, presumably the answer to retiring the automobile crank. It would appear, however, that commercial application once again escaped the whiskey man.
One wonders about the thoughts of Joshua’s wife about his incessant tinkering. He had married Elizabeth Mohr, a German immigrant, when he was 22 years old and she was 21. They would go on to have a family of nine children, five girls and four boys. In addition to the amount of time Low was spending on his “novelties,” as he sometimes called them, obtaining a patent could be expensive. Even if the inventor did not provide a three-dimensional model, an artist had to be hired to provide a suitable drawing. A lawyer familiar with the patent process usually was required to fill out the necessary paperwork and to make sure that the written descriptions provided were done appropriately in “patent speak.” Otherwise the application might be rejected on its face with loss of the filing fee, itself a substantial sum.
No evidence exists that over the approximately 21 years during which Low was inventing and patenting his brain-children that any of them actually were put into commercial production or that even that he was able to sell the rights. In his lifetime Thomas Edison owned 1,093 U.S. patents, the first issued for a voting machine when he was 22 years old. By the time Edison was 33 he had invented the light bulb and Orville Wright the airplane. Low at 33 owned a patent on a horse hitch.
Nevertheless, the Steubenville whiskey dealer deserves no disparagement. Whether his inventions were commercially successful or not, Joshua Low was firmly within the rich tradition of the Ohio workshop tinkerer, passionate about making something that would improve an existing mechanism or process. Unfortunately Joshua developed heart trouble during his late 50s and died in December 1903 at the age of 58. His joint gravestone with Elizabeth is shown here.
After his death his elder sons who had been working with him in the business took over. They renamed the company "Joshua Lows Sons Wholesale Liquor." The sons piloted the company successfully until it was shut down when Ohio voted itself “dry” in 1916.