The legacy of the Pigeon River inventor recounted
Calvin Filmore Christoper (1859—1940) was touted as North Carolina’s “most prolific inventor” in a story released by The State magazine in 1935. By some accounts Christopher registered more than a hundred inventions with the U.S. Patent Office. Our recent “googling” dive into the internet world has, so far, uncovered and verified more than thirty patents registered in Calvin F. Christopher’s name.
His “new and improved” ideas included stock tethers, a railway turntable lock and automatic railway switch, a driving mechanism for traction road engines, various improvements to steam engines, churn gearing, a swinging crib, motors, power transmitting mechanisms, collapsible wheel rim to facilitate changing of tires, a unique turfing needle, computing machine, portable calculating device, measuring instrument for fabrics, filling station machine that computed the price of gasoline delivered, and an improved dinner pail and fly trap.
All of these wonderful things Christopher himself imagined and designed. Whether fanciful or practical, useful or lacking, these inventions attest to the veritable mechanical genius of the man who lived on the bank of Haywood County’s Pigeon River. Yet, contemporary reports reveal to us that it was another novel notion that led to his most important invention.
Calvin once explained that a grocer’s ciphering ineptness provided the inspiration for his merchant’s price scale. While watching the man get out pencil and paper and tediously multiply weight by the price per pound, Christopher envisaged what was needed. He went on to invent a scale that could show both the weight and price of an article, and could be easily rotated so that the buyer, as well as the seller, could see the price and weight.
Arithmetic-challenged merchants were not the only beneficiaries of this new price scale in the early 1900’s. Customers throughout the depressed Jim Crowe South, with similar ciphering or educational deficiencies, stood to gain with Christopher’s transparent scale. The patrons could see with their own eyes what they owed, making it much more difficult for unscrupulous or unwitting merchants to relieve them of their hard-earned coins.
In the year 1900, Calvin Christopher assigned two price scale patents to the Columbian Automatic Computing Scales Company of Washington, D.C., an enterprise founded for the express purpose of producing the Christopher price scales. Over the next few years, as manufacturing of the scales ramped up, Calvin and the Automatic Scales Company successfully defended against a patent rights law suit brought against them by the Computing Scales Company of Dayton, Ohio.
The District Supreme Court finally ruled to dismiss the complaint, making it clear that Christopher’s “famous computing scales,” as described in The Morning Post of Raleigh, were indeed the creation of the North Carolinian, Calvin Filmore Christopher.
For the next three decades Calvin continued to tinker with the design of his scales, producing at least four additional patents and several different models of the Christopher price and computing scales. An official count of the sheer number of Christopher scales that were manufactured and sold cannot be found today, nor can an accurate estimate be given. But at the time of Christopher’s passing in 1940, a reporter reminded readers of the tremendous cultural impact his scales and other inventions had made, “The world’s grocers and butchers today never have to take pen and paper to figure out the cost of weighed purchases. Millions of us save labor, time, and money with 100 other devices. They owe it to an obscure Pigeon River inventor but they don’t know it.”
No matter the inventor’s obscurity then, the utility of Calvin Filmore Christopher’s several computing price scales alone changed countless lives for the better—lives of citizens of this state and all across the country. Few people in Haywood County and North Carolina had heard of him when he lived. Today, more than seventy-five years after his death, he is an all-but-forgotten man; and one must wonder how in the world can that be?
Local author, Carroll C. Jones, is spearheading an effort by the Bethel Rural Community Organization to obtain a highway historical marker for Calvin Filmore Christopher (1850—1940). Christopher was a prolific inventor who lived in Bethel during the latter part of his life. The following essay was included in the submittal to the N.C. Dept. of Natural and Cultural Resources.