The inventor

Local History by Ron Patch. Ron Patch is a Chester native, Chester Historical Society president, and a lifelong antiques dealer. He can be reached at 802-374-0119 or email

As we’ve sorted and archived Ted Spaulding’s collection of Chester artifacts, we’ve made some interesting discoveries. Below is an example.

Robert and Lewis Wilkinson
Robert and Lewis Wilkinson. Photo provided by Ted Spaulding


Franklin Wilkinson

Franklin Wilkinson was a close friend of Ted’s grandfather, William Ryland “W.R.” Spaulding.

W.R. invested with Franklin’s invention of a new style rocking horse for children. While this venture wasn’t a commercial success, it began a lifelong friendship between the Spaulding and Wilkinson families.

This venture took place in the early 1900s. The Wilkinsons lived in Gloucester, Mass. at the time. Included in artifacts from Ted are numerous letters written to the Spauldings from Lucy Wilkinson, Franklin’s wife.

They are interesting to read. Lucy mentions different inventions Franklin was working on or where he was. The Wilkinson family spent many days in Chester at the Henry Farm.

Electric start

Another venture of Franklin’s was his invention of the first electric starter for an automobile. Cars of this period were all hand-crank to start them.

In an old newspaper clipping from Ted is an article regarding a friend of Franklin’s who lost his life in Detroit.

As his friend cranked his auto to start it, the crank kicked back, as they sometimes did. The crank came back and struck the man on the side of his face. Suffering a broken jaw, he died a few days later of complications.

Franklin decided to end these problems by inventing electric starters for cars. In 1908, Franklin received his patent for electric start. We have, from Ted, one of Franklin’s brochures for his electric start.

Franklin’s invention could be utilized in most any auto of the day. I have no idea how successful this might have been. Cadillac was the first auto to have electric start standard in 1911, just three years later.


Wilkinson's Marine Power Transformer
Wilkinson’s Marine Power Transformer. Photo provided by Ted Spaulding

The puzzle

I‘ve looked online for Wilkinson’s electric start but find nothing. Wilkinson’s patent should have prevented Cadillac from infringing. Perhaps Franklin sold his patent to Cadillac? I emailed a couple relevant historical societies but no reply.

The Avolator

We have a 1933 Boston Sunday Post newspaper clipping announcing Franklin’s revolutionary airship design. It was billed as the “Avolator.”

There is a drawing of this airship in the newspaper. It has four horizontal props – similar to a helicopter – that had a tilting feature to drive the craft forward. The cabin looks something like the cabin underneath the Hindenburg. The first sentence reads: “Flights across the Atlantic in six hours are now possible!”

Obviously, this never went into production. Reading the newspaper, I see similarities with modern helicopters. Did Franklin’s designs play a role in the development of the helicopter?

The Avolator design in the 1933 Boston paper
The Avolator design in the 1933 Boston paper. Photo provided by Ted Spaulding

Alternative energy

In Ted’s donation, we found another of Franklin’s inventions. This was called, “J.F. Wilkinson’s Marine Power Transformer.” It is accompanied with a drawing. I can best describe it as a large barrel floating in the ocean.

Franklin anchored to the ocean floor a geared sprocket system. The barrel rode the waves over the anchor. There was a chain from the barrel down to the anchor. The chain passed through a sprocket in the anchor. The chain then rose to the surface where there was a generator and a counterweight.

Both rising and falling waves generated electricity. Again, it seems this invention never went into production. At this time, Franklin was living in Beverly, Mass.

The boys

The photo with this article shows Franklin’s sons: Robert on the left and Lewis on the right. It’s an interesting photo to study. The wooden Express wagon has wooden wheels with iron rims. Painted on the side of the wagon is “Express.” There would have been a wooden pole close to three feet long with a handle on the end to pull it around.

Lewis, on the right, holds the wooden tailgate. He is attempting to reinstall the tailgate. You’ll notice wire pins near the reverse end. Remove and replace these pins to install the tailgate. This would require thought and dexterity. Lewis is about 4 years old and wonders, “How does this go?”

His right hand holds the top of the tailgate. His left hand holds the bottom. You can see he’s intently trying to figure it out. His older brother Robert is intent with another issue. I can’t tell what Robert is up to. It’s a great photo, possibly taken at the Henry Farm.

This photo is one of 18 photos in the 2020 Chester Historical Society calendar. They are available at Lisai’s Market, Stonehouse Antiques, Chester Hardware, Blair Books & More, and The Framery of Vermont.


This week’s old saying: “Hell is too good for him.”

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