Leesburg’s James T. Guthrie was an enigmatic character in Highland County history, a self-taught engineer and electrician who invented multiple contraptions in the mid-1800s, captivating the town of Leesburg with his innovative apparatuses.
Guthrie worked on many projects throughout his life, especially during his later years. His work was considered revolutionary to the citizens of Highland County and he achieved local fame, welcoming hundreds into his home to view his latest invention. Though his creations never reached national fame, Guthrie was a remarkable inventor beloved by his town.
Guthrie was born in 1801 in Campbell County Va. Not much is known about young Guthrie, but in 1820 he moved to Leesburg with his father. He married three women during his time in Highland County and fathered 12 children. It is unknown exactly how many inventions Guthrie created, but four have been patented under his name.
In 1879, he created what he described as a “combination of cooking stove and retort.” The stove attachment supposedly converted used coal fumes into energy. It was the first of Guthrie’s inventions to be patented. He didn’t stop there. He went on to develop an intricate two-bolt lock and a special latch for releasing horses from carriages. Both of those inventions were patented in the late 1800s.
Guthrie was undoubtedly inspired by Alexander Graham Bell’s 1876 invention of the long-distance telephone. In 1885, Guthrie announced his own device that was said to have worked more efficiently than Leesburg’s existing telephones and allowed for clearer listening. The feat is especially impressive considering Guthrie was 84 years old at the time. Guthrie tested a three-mile-long telephone line over which a clock could be heard ticking. Encouraged by the success of his invention, Guthrie secured a patent for his device.
Despite this reported advancement in technology, the world didn’t seem to notice Guthrie’s new invention. That may have to do with the attitude around telephones at the time. As one Greenfield writer wrote of telephones in 1885: “…If there is no more satisfaction in their use in general than in the line between here and the county seat, it is the opinion of this writer the system should be abandoned.”
Yet another reason Guthrie’s improved telephone didn’t take hold is the sheer number of wannabe Bells flooding the patent office seeking their own fame. Regardless of how revolutionary Guthrie’s inventions may have been, the public likely took his creation as another attempt by a small-town engineer to reinvent the wheel.
Guthrie lived out the rest of his days working on small inventions and tinkering with various electrical and mechanical machinery. Despite never achieving the national acclaim he sought, Guthrie entranced a town with his innovative gadgets, introducing a young Highland County to the world of advancing technology.
James T. Guthrie worked hard to improve the lives of Leesburg citizens and should be remembered as an intelligent and notable figure in Highland County history.
Sources for this story included:
Isabella Warner is a stringer for The Times-Gazette.