Daniel McFarland Cook had a mind that never stopped turning, and for the greatest part of his life his thoughts were endlessly trying the secrets of electricity, and relentlessly unlocking sources of energy.
People around here had a hard time taking him seriously, and they branded him ‘Crazy Cook’ before he was 50 years old. But, as they say, ‘a prophet is never recognized in his own hometown,’ and you have to get farther from home—like Cincinnati, Washington DC, and Great Britain in his time, or on electrical engineers’ chatrooms all over the world in our time—before you find earnest credence given to the man from Mansfield who shared his laboratory with a horse in the 1880s.
And because there are people today who take him seriously—who are still working to solve the problems he addressed 140 years ago—it’s possible that Cook’s career may not yet be finished, and his story not yet completely told.
Some Inventions that Worked
One particular invention of Cook’s was instrumental in developing the sugar industry in northern US states, and he is unreservedly credited—in histories related to maple syrup—as the originator of the essential sugar evaporator system still in use today.
Another of his inventions that found success for a while was a battery to power telegraph machines, that was employed by Western Union in Ohio railroad stations for a number of years before a cheaper technology evolved.
A comprehensive list of Cook’s many patents is difficult to compile, so today discovery of his various products through historical research only increases the ever-widening scope of his genius.
The Celebrated Invention that Didn’t Work
When he was hot off the fabulous success of his sugar evaporator that was selling all over the country, Daniel Cook took a leap of fantastic projection by announcing very publicly the imminent launching of his next great triumph: his Flying Machine.
The news was greeted with a broad mix of wistful hope and skeptical humor in newspapers all around the country, and when the anticipated cross-country flight failed to show up in headlines the news quickly evaporated everywhere but in Mansfield. Here he entered folklore and legend as a sort of mad scientist with a robust imagination.
The Power of Electricity
Throughout his career, in success or failure, Cook insisted that his primary interest behind the inventions—what drove his creative fascination—was the study and understanding and mastery of electricity.
In 1871 he patented a device that the US Patent Office document claims to produce a constant electrical current without the aid of a battery. The patent, number 119,825, is easily found on the internet today because students of electrical energy are still wondering if and how it works.
There is a still more intriguing energy mystery, however, spawned from a newspaper article printed in 1886 by the Cincinnati Commercial Gazette, when the reporter claimed to have witnessed first-hand a demonstration of Daniel Cook’s ‘perpetual electric generator and engine.’
He quoted Cook as saying, “I have found the principle that I have been hunting for so long. I can now start a dynamo to going and it will never stop, except by the wearing away of its own parts. Not only will it run itself by its own current, but also produce power enough, according to the size of the engine, to run any machine in the world.”
“Perpetual motion,” I suggested.
“More than that,” he replied. “it is perpetual motion with only ten percent of the force used, leaving ninety percent for power to be utilized as desired…to produce light and heat your house.”
“What will be the cost to run it?”
“Nothing. As I said, start it and it will go; heat, power and light produced by one machine for absolutely nothing.”
“I looked at him to see if he was mad, in earnest, or joking. He laughed at my astonishment and said: “I am now making a model and when far enough along I will show it to you.”
Some months later the Cincinnati reporter was invited to Cook’s shop where he had to sign an agreement not to reveal the secrets he was to witness. The writer noted that Cook worked in a stable with a horse in the next room, and continued, “The machine was rudely constructed, for Mr. Cook made it all himself with a few old tools that had done too much service already. Parts of it were made of wood and the whole was put together in a not very artistic manner.”
“I tested the current in several ways and found it very powerful. Having made electricity somewhat of a study, I was surprised at the simplicity of many of the principles. The manner in which he expects to get the results is theoretically correct and there is no mechanical difficulty which he has not already overcome.”
“After examining this machine carefully in all its parts I was conducted to an adjoining room where, on a table, sat a smaller model of more accurate make. It contained a much better arrangement of the parts, and from what he showed me I am compelled to believe all that Mr. Cook had told me.”
The story of Daniel McFarland Cook’s life doesn’t have a particularly glamorous ending. After his initial successes he spent the rest of his career increasingly mired in debt until he lost his farm to the company that made the most money from his ideas. Some friends found him a small borrowed home and he died in 1897 at the age of 74.
His inventions, however, have not reached the end of their life stories. The dream he kept alive for decades of experiments—to create a simple, free source of power for the basic needs of peoples’ homes—is every bit as vital as it was when he devoted his life to it.
And, as crazy as it seems, his ideas may still be the seed in some young mind today who holds the ability to make it sprout and bear fruit.
Want to try your hand at cracking the secret of DM Cook’s electrical enigma? Join hundreds of other scientists of all rank who are studying this patent from 1871 by downloading it here.