Walkabout: Thomas E. Murray, Brooklyn’s Most Important Forgotten Inventor, Part 1

Murray, with Edison. Photo via temurray.com

Read Part 2 and Part 3 of this story.

As you travel east on Atlantic Avenue sometime, take a minute to notice the factory buildings on the south side of the street, between Bedford and Nostrand Avenues.

They are a bit hard to see, as one’s attention is distracted on the left by the rising elevation of the Long Island Railroad tracks as they come up out of the ground near Bedford Avenue.

Back in the 20th century, these buildings belonged to one of the greatest inventors in Brooklyn, a man named Thomas E. Murray.

Murray has the distinction of being the second most prolific holder of patents in the United States, surpassed only by Thomas Alva Edison, his friend and colleague. Yet most people have never heard of Murray, and fewer still know that these long factory buildings with rows of windows stretching along Atlantic Avenue were the headquarters for the Metropolitan Engineering Company, Murray’s company.

If you are a follower of the Southampton, Long Island, crowd, and the history of the rich and famous who have summered there for over a century, the Murray name may ring a bell. Murray’s extended family was part of the “Golden Clan,” wealthy Irish Catholics who helped build Southampton into THE posh summer village of the rich. That seems as far away from a gritty Brooklyn factory as one could get. We’ll get to that part of the story later.

Thomas E. Murray was born in Albany, N.Y., on October 21, 1860. He was one of twelve children, the son of a carpenter. When he was nine, his father and two of his siblings died. Young Thomas went to work to support the family, working three jobs.

In 1875 he apprenticed at the Albany Iron and Machine Works. Here he learned how all kinds of machines worked, and how to build them. He built his first steam engine that year.

Young Murray had a gift; he was a machine whisperer. He was one of those mechanical geniuses who instinctively know how machines and technology work, and how to improve on it. By the time he was a young man, he had caught the eye of the owners of the Albany Waterworks. They made him the chief engineer at the age of 21.

Tomas E. Murray. temurray.com

Tomas E. Murray. temurray.com

It was here that he caught the attention of Anthony N. Brady, a powerhouse Albany businessman who was well on his way to becoming a national transportation and energy mogul. He was president and owner of the Albany Municipal Gas Company.

Nicholas N. Brady. Photo: temurray.com

Nicholas N. Brady. Photo: temurray.com

In 1877, he hired Murray to run the gas company. That same year, Murray married Catherine Bradley, the daughter of State Senator Daniel Bradley. According to family lore, they met while singing in the choir at an Albany church.

While working with the gas company, Murray began inventing things to improve gas production and distribution. He also showed a natural business sense that was impressive in a man of his age and experience. Brady sent Thomas to New York City and Brooklyn to purchase and organize all of the electric franchises in those cities.

Brady, by this time, was partners with Thomas Edison. He had expanded his energy holdings well beyond Albany to New York, Brooklyn, and throughout the Northeast. At one time, Brady was the richest man in America, with a net worth of over $100 million.

In Brooklyn, Murray merged all of the companies together into the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of Brooklyn, which later became the Brooklyn Edison Company, Inc.

In Manhattan, he brought the companies together to form the New York Edison Company and the United Light and Power Electric Company. Eventually, all of these companies would become Consolidated Edison.

After Murray had finished putting the new companies together, he was put in charge of all of them — in Westchester as well as Brooklyn and New York City. He was responsible for the building of many of the city’s earliest and largest power stations, many of which are still in use today.

They include plants at Gold Street in Brooklyn (1898), Hell Gate in the South Bronx (1921), Hudson Avenue in Manhattan (1924), and the East 14th Street Power station in Manhattan (1926). Murray also electrified the Brooklyn Transit System.

14th Street Con Ed powerplant. Photo: BeyondMyKen on Wikimedia

14th Street Con Ed powerplant. Photo: BeyondMyKen on Wikimedia

By 1900, the Brady-Edison energy holdings supplied all of the electric power and light to Brooklyn. By 1901, they represented the largest electric and gas monopoly in the world. Murray had his hands full, as the demand for electricity spiked by 32% between 1899 and 1901. He was always trying to find new ways to bring more power to a growing system.

Murray and his growing family lived in Brooklyn. Thomas and Catherine had eight children, four boys and four girls. The Murrays were devout Catholics, and as their fortunes grew, they generously gave their time and money to Catholic causes, especially the establishment of orphanages, hospitals and old-age homes. Catherine Murray was very active in fundraising for various causes throughout her life.

Their eldest son, Thomas E. Murray Jr., would later take up his father’s business, and grow it far beyond even that visionary’s dreams. Although Thomas Sr. had many business ventures beyond his work for the power company, he was, first and last, a prolific inventor.

Murray, with seed money from Brady, established the Metropolitan Engineering Company in 1904. The factory was located at 1250 Atlantic Avenue, near Nostrand Avenue. This company was his laboratory, as well as a business that started out making some of the first electric signage in America.

By 1901, Murray already held several patents for electric signs. The Metropolitan Engineering Company made, sold or rented some of the first signage on Broadway and other locales throughout the city. Their business soon grew and expanded outside of New York.

Brooklyn Eagle Ad, 1911

Brooklyn Eagle Ad, 1911

Murray also established several other companies, some of which shared space on Atlantic Avenue, leading to the building of more factory space there, until Murray’s firms took up almost the entire block. Murray owned the Metropolitan Device Company, the Murray Radiator Company, Murray Manufacturing, and Thomas E. Murray, Inc.

By 1908, the Metropolitan Engineering Company had 11 patents to their name, all Murray inventions. In addition to the signage, they began manufacturing these various products.

Some of Murray’s inventions are so familiar to us; we forget that at some time, someone had to come up with them. They include electric switches, fuses, meters, light sockets and insulated wiring. In 1910 Murray was awarded the Edward Longstretch Medal of Merit from the Franklin Institute for his “system of safety devices and protective appliances for interior electric wiring.”

1913 patent for a screw-in fuse. Thomas E. Murray. Source: temurray.com

1913 patent for a screw-in fuse. Thomas E. Murray. Source: temurray.com

Through Murray’s association with Anthony Brady and the Edison power companies, Thomas Edison was a frequent visitor to the Murray household and businesses. Edison came to Brooklyn on official visits several times, and always stopped by Metropolitan Engineering. In the photo below, via the Thomas E. Murray website, Edison, with Brady at his side, is shown on the steps of the factory. Also in the photo is Walter Chrysler.

Thomas Edison, center. Thomas Murray on left, Walter Chrysler, on right. Photo: temurray.com

Thomas Edison, center. Thomas Murray on left, Walter Chrysler, on right. Photo: temurray.com

By 1913, the family had moved to 783 St. Marks Avenue, in the prestigious St. Marks District. The large mansion with a corner tower and wrap-around porch had been built for James Truslow, a local businessman. The Truslow family was quite prominent in this part of Brooklyn. John Truslow, a brother, commissioned the Parfitt Brothers house recently featured on Brownstoner.

James Truslow died in 1901, and a few years later, his estate sold the house, one of the earliest mansions on St. Marks Avenue. Murray and his family moved in, and lived here until after Murray’s death in 1929.

783 St. Marks Avenue, Brooklyn Eagle, undated

783 St. Marks Avenue, Brooklyn Eagle, undated

The house was between New York and Brooklyn Avenues, the most prestigious block on the row. Their neighbors included some of the richest people in Brooklyn, which was fitting, as the Murray clan were also quite wealthy. Papa Murray was pretty low key, as rich guys go, but subsequent generations would change that.

Next time: The growth of Murray’s Brooklyn businesses, more inventions, more Edison, wartime production, life in Brooklyn and Long Island, and the legacy of Thomas Murray.

Many of the images and some of the information about Thomas Murray and his world come from the Thomas E. Murray website established by his great-grandson, Sean McGuire. That includes the photo above of Thomas Edison, seated at far left, with Thomas Brady on the far right. The other men are Arthur Williams, standing, John W. Leib and Nicholas Brady (son of Nicholas Brady, Sr.).

1250 Atlantic Avenue. Photo: Rebecca Baird-Remba

1250 Atlantic Avenue. Photo: Rebecca Baird-Remba

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