He was the first person in the United States to bend iron for practical use and to turn animal hides into patent leather.
His locomotives were the first to pull trains up steep hills. He produced the country's earliest daguerreotype camera. He developed a hybrid strawberry.Few people recall Seth Boyden or his 19th century contributions. Yet he was regarded as a genius in his time, and Thomas Edison hailed him as one of America's greatest inventors.
James Drummond, a Westfield, N.J., High School history teacher writing a book on Boyden, says the inventor's humility was partly to blame for his anonymity.
"He did not really materially take on the trappings that were so important in the Victorian period," says Drummond. "I think people just set him aside as a nonentity because of that."
Charles Dzuba, a metallurgic engineer in Maplewood, came across a Boyden footnote while testing iron four years ago. He has studied him ever since. He even honored him last November with a lecture and slide show on the 200th anniversary of his birth.
Dzuba has learned that the street where his laboratory sits, Boyden Avenue, was named for the inventor. So was Boyden Hall at Rutgers University's Newark campus, and Boyden Street, Boyden Terrace and the Seth Boyden Projects, all in Newark.
A statue of Boyden, in leather apron standing by an anvil, has stood in Newark's Washington Park for nearly 100 years. It was the first statue dedicated to the working man in the United States, according to Drummond.
"I just found more and more about this man and got to admire him," Dzuba says. "He was a great humanitarian. He gave away everything that he invented or improved upon."
"He is the Ford of Newark, in effect," says Drummond. "The whole economy of Newark in the 19th century ultimately revolved around his inventions - patent leather, steel making, silverplating."
Boyden was the working man's inventor, constantly trying to improve the tools and machines of his day.
Born in 1788 in Foxboro, Mass., he showed early skill as a craftsman, fashioning watches and an air rifle as a teenager. Boyden's father and grandfather, both Minutemen during the Revolutionary War, operated a forge and machine shop. Both were tinkerers and they noticed Seth's skills at an early age, Drummond says.
Boyden improved upon a leather-splitting machine his father built and headed for Newark in 1815, aware of that city's reputation as a leather center. His machine helped free millions of feet of leather for use in shoes, harnesses and book covers.
Four years later, Boyden coated leather with varnish, oven-baked it and dried the last coat in the sun. He called it patent leather, devised a way to mass-produce it and turned his attentions to making malleable cast iron, a shapeable iron known only in Europe.
At the time, iron had to be heated frequently to be beaten into the desired shape, a process that made it less durable, Dzuba says.
Boyden found the secret on July 4, 1826, developing a two-step heat treatment method for iron ores that made them soft and pliable. Gunsmiths, locksmiths, blacksmiths and coachmakers were among those who benefited from his seven years of work.
He later was credited with perfecting the daguerreotype photography method and helped Samuel Morse develop his telegraph.
At age 67, he retired to Maplewood and a house donated by grateful industrialists. Turning his interest to botany, he experimented in his garden. He used ice to concoct an artificial winter that was crucial to strawberry development and came up with a larger, sweeter version of the fruit.
Boyden died in 1870. Thomas Edison, honoring him in 1926 at the Newark statue, said:
"He was one of America's greatest inventors. . . . His many great and practical inventions have been the basis for great industries which give employment to millions of people."