It isn’t difficult to understand why William Hannis Taylor (1806-1848) ended his short life impoverished and forgotten. He was a terrible businessman, who convinced others to invest in high-risk schemes, and appeared have had no ethical hesitations in doing so. This trait was in evidence from an early age: in 1827, at age 21, he was a privateer captain raiding shipping while in service to Argentina. He was arrested by a US Navy vessel, but asked permission to return to his ship to retrieve papers needed for his trial on the charge of piracy. Instead, he slipped away and reappeared in North Carolina, vehemently protesting to President Andrew Jackson that he had been mistreated.
In my book I detail his central role in the development of apparatus diving in America. He was granted a patent in 1837 for his “diving armor,” a fact that few historians have noted, since there were several diving suit patents in America in the 1830s–not to mention the already=successful diving apparatus invented years earlier in England by the Deane brothers (and improved upon by others). Taylor’s patent drawing looks silly by comparison–almost like the Tin Man from Oz; but the facts speak for themselves: from 1837 through to 1849-50, all diving done in the United states was performed by Taylor divers. Moreover, looking at the text of his patent, Taylor made no claims about helmets or air valves–his patent was on the “closed-dress” rubber-coated mesh suit.
During the 1840s, it’s likely that Taylor’s junior partner, George W. Taylor (who was no relation), quickly abandoned that mesh-suit and tin plate arm and leg protectors, and started to copy the suit designs of the English. Even so, the quality of the Taylor gear in the 1840s was said to be exceptional; when tested against other gear used to dive to the wreck of the USS Missouri in Gibraltar, Taylor’s equipment beat European designs.
William H. Taylor wasn’t around to see that. In fact, just two years after founding “Taylor’s Submarine Armor Company” in New York, Taylor left that business and went to England to promote an electric motor he had designed.
The motor he created was no tabletop toy. It was what is known today as the Switched Reluctance Motor (SRM)–a design concept that has persisted for two centuries due to its high efficiency (countered by torque fluctuations).
After not making much headway in promoting his motor, Taylor opened an automated coopering business that had all the cooper craftsmen in England up in arms. He could have made a fortune in that business, had he not been distracted by the search for the treasure of the Telemaque, a barge that sank in the Seine, supposedly with Marie Antoinette’s jewels. Taylor invested heavily in the search, conned other investors, ran up unpaid bills, and was eventually thrown into a French debtor’s prison.
He never really recovered. There was one attempt to invent a new, silent ship propeller, but it came to nothing. Taylor returned to the United States broke, and died at age 42 a few months later. He was a very flawed character–but nonetheless a visionary genius.