Updated: Aug 24
Seth Boyden, “one of America’s greatest inventors,” according to Thomas Edison, spent the last 15 years of his life in “Middleville”—what is now the Hilton neighborhood of Maplewood. Although Newark was the site of most of his innovations and inventions, it is in Hilton neighborhood where he is honored by both Boyden Avenue and Seth Boyden Elementary School. The simple farmhouse where he spent the last years of his life still exists, adjacent to the school that bears his name.
Seth Boyden was born to Seth and Susan Boyden in 1788 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. During his youth, he worked on his father’s farm, and learned about cast iron and hand-wrought iron at his grandfather’s iron furnace. His skill at mechanics and engraving was apparent when he was just a teenager. Although he lacked formal education, he educated himself in the fields of chemistry, optics, metallurgy, astronomy, electricity, geology and botany.
Boyden’s achievements range from inventing a machine to make nails (at the age of 21), a machine to split leather hides, innovations to the processes of plating silver and making “patent leather.” He produced the first daguerreotype camera in this country after reading a description of the process. His most famous invention was the process for making malleable cast iron. Boyden also constructed three steam locomotives and invented a cut-off valve for steam engines.
Boyden married Abigail Sherman in 1814. The following year, at the age of 27, he came to Newark, New Jersey and set up a harness and leather shop—the beginning of 55 years of contribution to American industry. After years of experimenting in a small forge he had built in his house, Boyden discovered the process for making malleable cast iron. This is considered his most valuable invention because it freed American industry from its dependence on European iron. Boyden’s method was one of the most important steps in the development of modern steel.
Seth Boyden established a small factory and employed over sixty men to operate its furnaces. By 1835, Boyden sold his iron business and began to work on steam locomotives. The Morris and Essex Railroad, the forerunner of the Lackawanna, needed an engine that was strong enough to pull a train up the steep grade between Newark and Orange. After three years, Boyden produced the “Orange” and the “Essex”—two steam engines with mechanical improvements he had invented that gave them the power to climb steep grades. Boyden even built a steam engine for a railroad in Cuba—the “Cometa.”
In 1850, at 62 years of age and accompanied by his son, Seth Boyden crossed the Isthmus of Panama on a donkey and in one of the earliest steamboats on the Pacific, embarked on an adventure—the California Gold Rush. After little success in this endeavor, father and son returned to Newark all but penniless, but were welcomed home with a salute of guns in Washington Park.
Boyden’s lack of interest in wealth was well known. He was a man of great generosity, who preferred to share his ideas rather than hold on to them. Too busy to apply for patents, Boyden lost potential income from his many inventions. Only once did he apply for a patent and that was for one of his last inventions—a hat-body forming machine. Typical of his generous nature, Boyden turned the patent over to a manufacturer who later employed him in a hat factory for $50 a month.
Boyden’s impoverished state compelled several Newark businessmen who had profited by his inventions to purchase a small farm and house in Middleville, just several miles from Newark. This was intended as a home for his old age. Boyden moved there in 1855 at the age of 67, and in this community, spent the last 15 years of his life. He had a small workshop beyond the house where children brought him their pennies to be nickel-plated. In this little shop, Boyden continued to tinker and invent. He was fascinated with lightning and set up an electric barometer on the roof of his house. Local farmers paid attention to his weather predictions, which were often correct. Boyden continued to work at the hat factory in Newark in order to support himself.
While living in Middleville Boyden became interested in horticulture and he turned his efforts to the cultivation of strawberries. In order to improve the size and flavor of local strawberries, Boyden experimented with hybridization. He set out plants of the large, sour type in alternate rows with those of small and sweet berries. The “Boyden” and “Hilton” strawberries were the result. Other varieties developed by Seth Boyden were “Boyden’s Mammoth”, “Green Prolific”, and “Agriculturalist.” “Boyden’s No. 30” became widely known as the best of them all. Because the normal process of producing seeds took so long, Boyden manipulated the soil by adding a freezing mixture. He was able to do in 48 hours what typically would take all winter. Typical of this generous man, Boyden gave plants to all of his neighbors as well as advice about growing them. Soon it seemed that all Boyden’s friends and neighbors were growing strawberries. Elias W. Durand of Irvington became so proficient under Boyden’s direction that several years after Boyden’s death, his berries won medals at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876.
Henry Jerolamon bought the Boyden house after Seth Boyden’s death and found three rows of “Boyden’s No. 30” berries in the field. Jerolamon had great success with his strawberries and was known as the “Strawberry King.” Strawberries were still being grown commercially in Hilton as late as 1915; however, the yield became progressively less, until it took so many plants to produce a quart of berries, it was now longer economical.
Not long before he died, Boyden told a friend, “I have enough ideas to last two more lifetimes.” Boyden died in Middleville on March 31, 1870 at age 82. His funeral was at the Universalist Church in Newark and he was buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Newark. A movement to erect a statue in his memory began the year after his death. The site chosen was a spot in the center of Washington Park in Newark, not far from the site of his old workshop. The statue was unveiled May 3, 1890.