by Kelly Sullivan
In honor of celebrating International Women’s Day and Women in Construction Week, we are highlighting Mary Walton, a female inventor from the 1800’s who received two patents for her railroad sound and pollution fighting inventions. There are so many forgotten women who made an impact in the trades in a time when very few women worked on the railroads in any capacity. Not only that, but Walton also cared about sustainability.
In 1879, Mary Walton kept a boarding house stationed right next to the Early Gilbert Railway in New York City. In the midst of the Industrial Revolution, lots of new jobs were becoming available that brought immigrants and workers into the city. While this workforce boom improved the livelihoods of many citizens, complaints increased over the noise and the smoke brought on by the railroads. The thick, toxic smoke and screeching of the trains against their steel tracks was a problem.
Walton decided to take matters into her own hands. She experimented with the cause and effect of the noise. She rode the trains for days to find the cause of the sound – she had a reputation for being smart and resourceful. Even Thomas Edison, who also tried to solve the noise issues, gave up after a short time.
Elysia Segal, in an article written about Walton, wrote that “after just three days of observation, she noticed that the tracks seemed to amplify the sounds of the trains due to the wooden support boxes that they sat inside, similar to the way the sounds post works within a violin. She built a model of the tracks in her basement and discovered that by lining the support boxes with cotton and sand, the noise could be significantly reduced.”
Walton picked up the tip of using sand to dampen sound from her father. He used sand to quiet the clanking of the anvils that echoed from the blacksmith shops near their home when she was a child.
She patented her idea, and sold her discovery to the Metropolitan Elevated Railroad Company for $10,000 and royalties for life. Her method was soon adopted by other railway companies, completely reimagining the noisy mode of transportation.
Before receiving her patent for stifling railroad noise, Walton also received a patent for creating a system designed to reduce the harmful effects (on both people and the environment) of different types of smoke being emitted from chimneys. Her system channeled the emissions produced by factory smoke stacks into water tanks, where the pollutants were held and then flushed into the sewer or other redirected into other more suitable channels..
Walton was clearly ahead of her time, and although she was not an officially educated scientist, she did her own hands-on research to solve a problem that resulted in a massive discovery that still benefits us today.
Mary Walton set an early stage for women’s accomplishments, reinforcing something very near and dear to our hearts – that women are capable of incredible things, even when they’re not being watched.