Woman Who Tamed Pollution

The major scientific shortcoming of the Industrial Revolution that transformed the U.S. in the years after the Civil War was, and still is, pollution. One of the pioneers in the fight against pollution, especially in large cities, was the independent inventor Mary Walton.(1)

As early as 1879, Walton developed a method for minimizing the environmental hazards of the smoke that up until then was pouring unchecked from factories all over the country. Walton’s system, an improvement on the locomotive and other chimneys, consisted of a smoke-burner that consumed all the smoke from a fire, furnace, or locomotive, as well as certain kinds of dust (patent #221,880) and deflected the emissions being produced into water tanks, where the pollutants were retained and then flushed into the city sewage system. Her burner also destroyed the offensive odors emitted by factories and gasworks. When she traveled to England, British officials congratulated her, calling the burner ‘one of the greatest inventions of the age’.(2)

Some years later, Walton applied her ingenuity to a different kind of air pollution — noise. The elevated trains being installed throughout the larger cities of the U.S. in the 1880s were producing an intolerable amount of rattling and clanging: sociologists even blamed the noise for some urbanites’ nervous breakdowns and neuroses! Walton, who lived in Manhattan near the El tracks, set out to solve the problem. She set up a model railroad track in her basement, and in time discovered an excellent sound-dampening apparatus. She cradled the rails in a box-like framework of wood, which was painted with tar, lined with cotton, and filled with sand. As the vibrations from the rails were absorbed by the surrounding materials, so was the sound.

After successful trials fitting her apparatus under the struts that supported real El trains, Walton received patent #327,422 (granted February 8, 1881). She sold the rights to New York City’s Metropolitan Railroad, which thrived thanks to Walton’s new, environment-friendly system. She received $10,000 and ‘royalty forever’. The system was also adopted by other elevated railway companies. Walton herself was hailed as a hero — and gave voice to feminists.

As the Woman’s Journal put it twenty years later: “The most noted machinists and inventors of the century had given their attention to the subject without being able to provide a solution, when, lo, a woman’s brain did the work...”

Some of the greatest machinists and inventors of the country – including Edison – had evidently tried to solve this major urban nuisance without success. In an age when men did most of the inventing, she rose above tradition to stand out and make a difference.(3)

Not much is known of Mary’s background and how she gained such technical knowledge except a clue from her own statement from 1884: “My father had no sons, and believed in educating his daughters. He spared no pains or expense to this end…

Mary is an example of the fact that education refines true potential irrespective of gender. Let’s pass judgment on gender capabilities when all have one platform to stand on. Simply Denying education is a loss of invaluable resource.

True then and true now is the fact that if we teach the girl child, we move nations forward!




1. http://www.engineering.com/Library/ArticlesPage/tabid/85/ArticleID/37/Mary-Walton.aspx
2. https://books.google.ae/books?id=uRJt7QqA7GEC&pg=PA334&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false
3. http://www.kidsdiscover.com/quick-reads/mary-walton-woman-tamed-pollution/
4. Feature image – http://www.pinterest.com