Dead Inventors Bragging

July 17th, 2008 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

Decaying entrepreneurs in Forest Hills Cemetery are at once ephemeral and relatively permanent. I think of two in particular, John T. Hancock (who?) and Richard H. Lufkin (who?). Both were wealthy big shots in their ways and days. Each treated the trappings of immortality differently.

Each was quite proud of his invention that changed his corner of the world. Each literally had an image carved in stone.


Consider first one of my favorite Forest Hills mausolea, Lufkin’s. It has the surely not coincidental distinction of being on the highest point of the cemetery. Outside and inside, this is not subtle.

Pix Click Trick: Click on a thumbnail to see a larger version.

The mausoleum, with six spots for family members, went up in 1928, six years after he died. Perhaps it was a relative who had the images of grandeur and not Richard. Regardless, there’s much to see here.

Lufkin tomb exterior vamp folding machine carving

At the top of the front, for example, we see that the patriarch was THE INVENTOR OF THE FIRST VAMP FOLDING MACHINE. Moreover, above the door is a large, ornate carving of the device, replete with the words that appears on the machine and the date he patented it (1877).

You might wonder what the big deal was. Well, at the time, it truly was a marvel, one that made a ton of money for Lufkin. In case you have forgotten lasts, vamps and other shoe manufacturing terms, the vamp of a shoe includes all the pieces that cover the toes and instep. There are lots of parts, and folding and holding them in situ while stitching them is the biggest part of the labor. In effect, Lufkin’s innovation made it much more economical to churn out something everyone owns multiples of, thus increasing profits for the many shoe makers.

Tracking Lufkin is tricky. I can find no mention of him in standard print or online documentation. The kindly folk at the main BPL research library located him in an old version of The National Cyclopædia of American Biography. Tidbits of his entry include:

  • Born in Charlestown on January 31, 1851
  • Died in Roxbury on July 10, 1922
  • He never married
  • He was an Oddfellow (Vernon Lodge 186 in West Medford)
  • He was a Republican who “contributed liberally to the expenses of the party”

As for the machine, it performed many related tasks and only weighed 22 pounds. Shoe factories throughout the United States and Europe used it. A year after his initial patent, a diploma from the Massachusetts Mechanics’ Association, included, “This is a well-known and meritorious machine and is standard among shoe manufacturers. It turns the edges of leather and cloth for vamps or linings of shoe perfectly, making a superior finish indispensable in a nice fitted shoe. It is unrivalled and is in use in all parts of the country and also abroad.” It earned Lufkin a gold medal at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (a.k.a. Chicago World’s Fair).

Not only did he do well from his machine, but his bio includes, “He cherished the greatest devotion to the members of his own family and he was beloved by all who knew him.”

I haven’t been able to confirm the obvious yet. However, both Tufts and WPI have industrial projects and buildings paid for by the Richard H. Lufkin Memorial Fund. It surely is the same fellow. If either or both confirm, I’ll update this post.


The mausoleum interior is a highlight of the cemetery. While the other grave monuments, such as the Boy in the Boat, are more in view and more visited, it is worth a climb to the northwest corner. In Summit Circle off Summit Avenue, look in the Lufkin memorial.

Left and right before the six crypt shelves are pleasant floral stained-glass windows. Straight head is old Richard himself, also in stained glass. Of course, he appears with his vamp folding machine. Under the window is a garish plastic flower display.

In his glass form, Lufkin looks mousy, rather like a stereotypical accountant. You would suppose that someone associated with such grand display of marble and glass would be physically imposing. Then again, some of the Egyptian Pharaohs were wispy too.

Just as prideful in its own way is the monolith above the grave of John T. Hancock.  His innovation was widely used but likely less enriching. His patented Inspirator valve for gasses and steam is still common place. In his life, it was essential in steam locomotives, but the engines and even the whistles.

Hancock was born in Boston (1827) and died in Sabattus, Maine (1881).

You can search for his valves now and find thousands of citations. Lufkin’s vamp folding machines seem to have been supplanted by following generations of automation. Hancock’s valves were seminal to engineering and just keep on regulating.


Hancock’s stone is diagonally opposite Lufkin’s eternal apartment. By the Walk Hill gate go east on Citron Avenue, looking left as you head toward the Boy in the Boat. About 12 feet north of Citron is the stone, obvious because it looks a bit like a birdhouse and because a carving of the valve appears at the base.

Hancock tombstone detail

This is another, far subtler, example of an inventor identifying with his masterpiece. His stone also proudly proclaims that he was Engineer & Inventor of the Hancock Inspirator.

Though weathered a bit, the valve is quite detailed and discernible. Hancock’s memorial whispers, while Lufkin’s shouts. Yet as far as I have seen, they are this cemetery’s only two bearing the likenesses of inventions. I have nothing comparable to put on my tombstone. Then again, if I did, would I?

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5 Responses

  1. Mark B says:

    Great info – thanks!

  2. Leonard Shaw says:

    Thanks for the bios. Just visited old Richard’s mausoleum again today, and tried again to look for detailed info about him on the Web. This time I was successful!

  3. Leonard Shaw says:

    Would also add this on the question of bragging rights: a great percentage of all the graves in the Christian sections have symbolic representations of Christ or Christianity in either pictorial or sculptural form: yet should the Christ be proud? What has he ever done for human beings? Doctors and nurses, not God in his ‘manifest forms’, help the sick; the charitable, whether rich or poor, help the needy; businessmen and scientists help drive economic and scientific progress forward, and teachers in their knowledge and zeal help the ignorant. And so too Lufkin and Hancock actually helped living, breathing human beings! Everyone certainly should be free to put whatever they want on their gravestone or in their mausoleum, but far better to see the representations of those men and women or the represenations of their gifts to mankind in a cemetery than those of a do-nothing who promised millenia ago to come back and lead us to Heaven but who has yet to show His Face or give us one ounce of true knowledge.

  4. sandra742 says:

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

  5. Robyn Sabine says:

    Richard H. Lufkin – I am a descendent of Richard Lufkin. I also know there are other schools, besides the ones you mentioned, that he left money to for the students. They were: MIT, WPI, Franklin Institute, and Northeastern. In Burlington, Northeastern use to have a library for he and his sister, I believe. Her name was Elizabeth. I know his ancestry was that he, as well as I, am connected to the Kennebecasis Island, which is located outside of New Brunsiwck, Canada. I also believe he and his brother were responsible for this invention. Robyn Keith Sabine

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