For years I have been interested in women inventors, especially those from Michigan which is my home state. Clarissa Britain’s 1863 United States Patent Model for an Improvement in Boilers caught my attention since she was from St. Joseph, Michigan. New research from our patentee research project has opened the door into her fascinating world.
Born in Brownville, New York, in 1816, she attended Emma Willard’s Troy Female Seminary in 1838 and 1839 with the goal of becoming a teacher. What is unusual about her is that she taught and led schools in a lot of places including: Troy, New York, St. Joseph, Michigan, Beaufort, South Carolina, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Wheeling, Virginia, and Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Why did she travel so much? The answer was family. Most of her jobs were places where her siblings lived. Her first move was to St. Joseph, Michigan around 1840 to live with her unmarried brother who was one of the founders of St. Joseph and later the Lieutenant Governor of Michigan. While there she became the principal of the Niles Seminary until she returned to Troy, New York for three years.
In the late 1850s, she got a teaching job in Beaufort, South Carolina where she lived with her married sister. She was there when South Carolina seceded from the United States in 1860 and only lived six miles away from the naval Battle at Port Royal in 1861. When her brother died in 1862, as his executrix she had to return to Michigan. How she travelled that long journey with the country at war is unknown.
What we do know is that after she got back to Michigan, she began a brief spurt of patenting inventions which seem to have been inspired by what she experienced on her trip. From 1863 to 1864 she received seven patents more than any other woman in Michigan at the time. Her patents included a floor heating stove, ambulance, boiler, combined lantern and dinner pail for workmen, vegetable boiler, dish drainer and a lamp burner.
One patent that stands out is her improved ambulance to be used “for the removal of the wounded from the field of battle to safe quarters, where they may receive immediate surgical aid.” Only someone who had seen an ambulance in action could have invented an improved version of it.
From Michigan she took a job at the Kenosha Seminary in Wisconsin but was there a short time when her sister in South Carolina died leaving her to care for her children. Because of the war, she and the children moved to Chicago. When they were grown, she returned to Michigan until her heath declined. Her last move was Baton Rouge, Louisiana to live with her sister. She lived a remarkable life.
Debra Hughes is the Museum Curator of Collections and Exhibits.