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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Edward Hill Amet (1860 - 1948)


One of the most significant, yet little known contributors to the early motion picture industry was Edward Hill Amet (1860-1948) of Waukegan.

The Lake County Discovery Museum maintains a collection of photographs, documents, lantern slides and objects related to Edward Amet and Essanay Studios.

This electrical engineer and self-styled “consulting inventor,” invented the first practical 35mm motion picture projector—the Amet Magniscope.

In the 1890s, when electricity was not readily available, Amet’s Magniscope, being hand-cranked and offering a choice of either electric or gas illumination, could be used anywhere. In many ways, it was an improvement over Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope.

The Kinetoscope was a motion picture viewing machine which used the 35mm film format, patented by Edison. Kinetoscope parlors were all the rage in major cities, but the machine allowed for only one person at a time to view moving images through a peephole. Amet had seen the Kinetoscope in 1894 in Chicago and was impressed, but not satisfied. Photo of Kinetoscope parlor in San Francisco, circa 1895. (above)

Amet improved on Edison’s design by projecting images for all to see. The Amet Magniscope, using Edison’s 35mm film format, had gears which pulled film strips behind a lens at 32 frames per second, making the projected images appear to move realistically. Amet’s now familiar reel-to-reel arrangement was also a significant step forward in film projection design.

According to George K. Spoor (1871-1953), while he was the co-manager of Waukegan’s Phoenix Opera House in 1894, Amet approached him for money to complete work on his “machine for the projection of motion pictures.” There is dispute among historians whether Spoor indeed gave Amet the money to start his business, but most agree that Spoor did manage Amet's motion picture interests.

Spoor (third from left in bowler) discussing Amet's Magniscope with curious onlookers, about 1933. From the 1920s on, there was a great deal of interest in Amet's work and promoting Waukegan as the birthplace of motion pictures.

When Amet's projector was finished in late 1894, he acquired two discarded Kinetoscope films, cemented them end-to-end and using the Magniscope projected them against a wall in a factory building. “After the demonstration that night, there was not much sleep for any of us,” recalled Spoor.

Again, according to Spoor, the next day he bought 14 more discarded Edison films, and put out advertisements for the “Great Motion Picture Show” at Waukegan’s Phoenix Opera House at 10, 20 and 30 cents admission. They showed the films with Amet’s machine and made $400 the first week. Phoenix Opera House (right) in ruins after it was gutted by fire in 1904. The Phoenix was located on Washington Street, and was formerly Dickinson Hall where Abraham Lincoln spoke in 1860.

It is generally accepted that the French Lumiere Brothers’ showing of motion pictures in Paris to a paying audience in the winter of 1895 was the beginning of the movie era. If Spoor’s memory can be trusted, and later accounts by Amet's brothers, the Magniscope showing pre-dates the Lumieres’ by one year.

From about 1895 to 1899, Waukegan became the center for the movie machine business as Magniscopes were produced at the Electrical Recording Scale Company and then sold for $100 each.

Magniscopes were available to anyone without territorial restrictions, were manually operated, and did not require electricity as an illuminant source. Amet sold at least 200 to traveling showmen who were using lantern slides to entertain audiences, and who easily adapted to the moving picture format. Photo of Amet's laboratory in his backyard on North Avenue, Waukegan. This is where he developed his film and worked on his inventions. The building was razed circa 1966. (above)

Amet is credited with at least 59 patents, including a musical instrument the “ethelo,” a guidance system for naval torpedos (which he sold to the British government), a process for producing acetylene gas as an illuminant, and a fishing reel.

Remarkably, the Magniscope was not patented. Thomas Edison (1847-1931), who earlier had patented the 35mm movie film format, sued Amet and other inventors and entrepreneurs for using this film type. The results of the lawsuit meant that Amet could no longer manufacture the Magniscope. But with hundreds already in use, Amet was ready to move on to other inventions.

Amet’s brother, Herbert, recalled (in 1957) that because of Amet’s improvements to the Edison Talking Machine, “Edison detested Ed with an undying hate. He had those gramophone patents.” Rumors abounded that Edison sent his thugs into towns to destroy any newspaper evidence of Amet's invention, in order to claim sole title to inventing motion pictures. Photo of Herb Amet, 1898. Herb worked with his brother in his laboratory and was a "player" in his films.

In 1907, George K. Spoor founded Essanay Studios in Chicago with cowboy actor / director G.M. “Bronco Billy” Anderson. Read my post on Essanay Studios for more on that motion picture venture.

Amet left Waukegan around 1913, heading west and settling in California. He continued working on motion picture devices, as well as other inventions. When he died in 1948, he was working on a cure for cancer.

His obituary appeared in the New York Times and stated:

Edward Hill Amet
Redondo Beach, Calif., Aug. 17 - Edward Hill Amet, an inventor of motion-picture equipment, died at his home here yesterday. His age was 87. In 1895, Mr. Amet perfected the nagnagraph, known as the "grand-daddy of motion picture cameras." The first model of the camera is in the Smithsonian Institution.


The Lake County Discovery Museum acquired a Magniscope in 2001, which is on permanent display in the museum's exhibition galleries.

Edward Amet's home at 421 North Avenue in Waukegan (above) was originally the home of Oliver S. Lincoln, who had it built around 1840. The house is still standing, and is part of Waukegan's Near North Historic District which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

Amet's pioneering films will be discussed in next week's post.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Lake County Courthouses, 1875 - Present


In 1875, the county’s first permanent courthouse (built in 1844) was destroyed by fire. Funds to replace the building were not available, and it was two years before construction began on a new courthouse.


The contract for the next courthouse was signed in August 1877. The laying of the cornerstone (above) probably took place in the fall of that year.

The courthouse was completed in November 1878 for a cost of $45,000. It was designed by H.C. Koch and Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and built by William Price and B.F. and J.B. Porter. This building was made of cream-colored pressed brick and had a slate roof, gray stone trimmings and basement, a clock tower and a cupola.


This image (taken from a glass plate negative) may be from the new courthouse's dedication in 1878. The American flag bunting has an emblem of Abraham Lincoln at the center.


The new courthouse with its beautiful design became a popular subject on colorized postcards. This postcard (circa 1910) shows the courthouse park. Note the county jail (built 1895) partially hidden on the left, and the Soldier and Sailor Monument (dedicated 1899) at right. LCDM 61.8.24.


In 1922-1923, a large addition was constructed onto the county building to accommodate the county’s growth.


This photo taken in August 1923 shows Mr. Sandstone (contractor) and Mr. Beers (architect) at the construction site.

Incredibly, in 1955, there was another courthouse tower fire. This one was started by workmen repairing the 1878-three-faced-clock, which had been inoperative for months. When the workers tried to start the clock's motor it triggered a short circuit in the electrical junction box, apparently causing the fire, resulting in $25,000 damage. Fortunately, the fire was contained to the tower.


Photo of firemen climbing more than 100 feet to fight the blaze in June 1955.

The tower was not rebuilt, perhaps with good cause, but probably for fiscal reasons. The bell was removed and temporarily stored at the Lake County General Hospital, before being put on permanent display outside the Lake County Sheriff's Radio Department on Milwaukee Avenue in Libertyville.


Photo detail of the 1878-courthouse bell courtesy of Kent McKenzie, Emergency Management Coordinator.

By 1958, debate began about building a new courthouse. The 1878-structure was no longer large enough to house the county's employees and records, in many cases staff were working in hallways and closets.


The County Board eventually voted to allocate $11,500,000 to build a modern courthouse. The International style building was designed by Ganster and Hennighausen. The building was completed in 1968.


For a time, the 1878 and 1968 courthouses stood side-by-side. (above)


When the 1878 courthouse was razed, the cornerstone went missing. Most locals assumed it was buried along with the rest of the debris. Last fall, the cornerstone turned up in the backyard of a Waukegan residence and was donated to the Waukegan Historical Society. Photo courtesy of the Waukegan Historical Society.

Within the last year, a number of county departments have moved from the Waukegan courthouse into a new Central Permit Facility on Winchester Road in Libertyville. Although, this new facility does not host county board meetings or the courts, it does bring the county full circle to Libertyville where the county's offices were first located in 1839.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Lake County's First Courthouse


Lake County, Illinois was created on March 1, 1839 by an Act of the Illinois Legislature.

In June 1839, surveyors appointed by the state selected Libertyville as the location for the new county seat. The site they chose for a permanent courthouse was at the northeast corner of today's Milwaukee Avenue and Route 176. This site was never used for a courthouse.

The first meeting of the County Commissioners' Court was held at the Burlington schoolhouse on August 18, 1839. Without funds to build a permanent courthouse, the commissioners temporarily held court at the schoolhouse. By December of that year, the circuit court was being held in a "room provided and furnished by Dr. Jesse Foster... for $9."

In January 1840, Burleigh Hunt of Little Fort (Waukegan) made a proposal to provide a court room, two jury rooms, and furnishings. The commissioners agreed, and Hunt constructed a frame building on the west side of Milwaukee Avenue between Church and Division Streets. Hunt milled the timbers at his mill in Little Fort and transported the materials by horsedrawn wagon to Libertyville.

The commissioners leased this building from Hunt. On March 30, 1840, Hunt sold the building to Henry Steele of Libertyville for $500, who in turn rented it for use by the county.

Even as early as 1839, there were rumblings to move the county seat to Little Fort. "The Little Fort Party" boosters made certain that a number of their supporters were elected to the Commissioners Court, including the very influential, Nelson Landon (1807-1884).

This group, no doubt, delayed any plans for a permanent courthouse in Libertyville. They worked to gather signatures on a petition for a special election to determine the location of the county seat between Libertyville and Little Fort.


On April 5, 1841, the special election was held with the majority of the 744 votes cast in favor of Little Fort. Eight days later, the county seat was formally re-located and permanently established at Little Fort. Vote tally abstract from the special election LCDM 92.25.51.

The main intent of the Little Fort Party was to make Little Fort a place of considerable trade. However, the economic boom was not instantaneous with the county seat's move. It took several years for the courthouse building to be completed, and for investors to arrive and build the piers that became the true economic engine for the town.


The first, permanent county courthouse was completed in 1844, by Benjamin P. Cahoon of Racine, Wisconsin. The building was Doric in style with its classical, columned architecture, and cost $4,000. The photograph above shows the recorder's office at left and first county courthouse at right on County Street, Waukegan, circa 1870.


This painting depicts Little Fort around 1845, showing the courthouse inland from the bluff and a burgeoning community. By Tom Smith, LCDM Collection.


The view above is from about 1870 and shows the corner of Genesee and Washington Streets looking west with the courthouse at far left. By 1849, the town had grown so much that it wanted to do away with the "little" and changed its name to Waukegan, supposedly an Algonquin word for trading place.

In 1875, roofers repairing the metal-plated tower on the courthouse sparked a fire that destroyed the building. However, no county records were lost since they were archived at the recorder's office next door.

(above) Stereoview of the county commissioners sitting on the steps of the first courthouse after the building was destroyed by fire, 1875. LCDM 94.14.49

In next week's blog, the county's other courthouse buildings will be discussed.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Jane Strang McAlister, Millburn


One of the county’s earliest and most generous philanthropists was retired sheep farmer and Scottish immigrant, Jane Strang McAlister (1817-1903).

Photo portrait of Jane Strang McAlister, circa 1890. (LCDM 94.34.260).

If you live in north central or northwest Lake County, the name Strang is probably familiar. The Strangs settled in Millburn in 1838 and built its most prominent buildings.

Jane was born in Perthshire, Scotland to Margaret Clelland and John Strang. She was their sixth child. In 1835, the family immigrated to Canada, where Jane met and married John McAlister.

The Rebellions of 1837, forced Jane's parents and siblings out of Canada. The rebellion was against the British colonial government in 1837-1838 over land rights. Jane and her husband's family remained in Canada, while the Strangs settled in Millburn.

Millburn's original name was Strang's Corner or Strang's Settlement. They quickly became its most prominent family. Several of the brothers went to the California gold mines in 1850 and “struck it rich.” The town's first brick building was constructed by John “Jake” Strang on Millburn Road in 1856-57.

Jane's brother's home, the John Strang home (above) was built in 1856 of Sherwood bricks. Sherwood's Corners was on Route 83 south of today's Lake Villa, and was the site of the Stephen Sherwood brickyard. The clay from the vicinity produced red common brick, which was purchased by locals to build the first brick structures in Millburn and nearby communities. The Strang house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 along with many other Millburn buildings. Photo circa 1979.

By 1842, Jane, her husband and mother-in-law, had settled in the Millburn area. They purchased 160 acres at the northwest corner of Kelly and Hunt Club Roads. They named their property Irving Farm and raised sheep. In addition to sheep farming, John McAlister loaned money to local farmers.

From 1842 to 1882, Jane's life centered around sheepherding and farming. She sheared sheep, carded wool, spun it into yarn and knitted stockings and other garments. She also worked in the fields. In 1882, Jane and John retired and moved to a house on Clayton Street in Waukegan. After John’s death in 1888, Jane sold their Millburn farm to her nephew.

After the sale of her farm, and with her husband's savings from his "bank" loans, Jane began to take on a new role as philanthropist. As a member of the First Presbyterian Church in Waukegan, she donated a house to the church for their minister to live in, bought the church a new pipe organ, and paid the church’s debts. (Postcard view, circa 1910 LCDM 92.27.231.1)

In 1891, a group of civic-minded men and women saw the need for a hospital in the county and formed the Lake County Hospital Association. With meager funds, initially they rented the A.C. Hathorne residence at 720 North Avenue and created a six-bed hospital, supported by physicians who provided their service for free. By 1896, the association purchased the Liebich home at the corner of Franklin Street and North Avenue.

The county's first hospital was located in this (above) modest house at 720 North Avenue, Waukegan from 1891-1896. Image from the "Waukegan's Legacy Our Landmarks" book edited by Sarah Griffin and Chandra Sefton, 1979.

In 1903, Jane McAlister donated $20,000 to the association to build a four-story brick building on the Franklin Street and North Avenue site. It was named the Jane McAlister Hospital. This hospital was the predecessor to Victory Memorial Hospital, built in 1922 on Sheridan Road. Postcard view circa 1908 LCDM 92.27.485.1.

After her death in 1903, Jane willed her money and property to family and charitable organizations. Her personal property was valued at $100,000; calculated for today's inflation, she was worth over $2 million. America turned out to be the proverbial land of milk and honey for Jane Strang McAlister, and in turn her fortune became Lake County's.