The Micro-Cremator

Well, here it is finally. The story of Kate’s invention, or part 1 of it I should say. (It is definitely a two parter.) The Micro-Cremator. (A machine for the heating of dry air or gas for the cure of lung complaints such as consumption and similar diseasesSpecification by Kate Carina May Thorne) (National Archives of Australia: Patents Office; A4617, New South Wales Letters Patent, 1902; Control Symbol, 12571)

Like so many points on this journey of Kate’s, I will be hypothesising from the sliver of insights that have been left behind as to why a young woman born into the paternal restraints of late Victorian society would think that she would have the confidence and skills to invent this machine and then put herself in a position of vulnerability and ridicule by putting her work out there for public scrutiny. And, damn, if it wasn’t an avalanche of ridicule that was heaped on her, and it was very much in the public eye.

In order to support these hypotheses I will share with you the wonderful collection of articles and information that I have uncovered or more like, stumbled upon. Articles which I have given you small glimpses of in previous posts, that show an amazingly confident woman who had no fear of meeting her critics head on. What is more amazing is that her words were even given a platform. And in a few examples, to be heard without any sarcasm attached and even a number that outright lent Kate’s opinions support.

Wow, so that was reminiscent of the start of a uni essay, not sure where that came from, but we will go with it.

As always, how to dig into this topic? First off I think we must go to that golden stockpile of information now available to us from the National Archives, Kate’s Letters Patent application. So happy that these documents have been given another lease of life.

Kate’s Hand Drawn Diagram of the Micro-Cremator
Figure 1: Courtesy of the National Archives of Australia

Figure 1 is page 3 of the application, but I think this is an opportune time to share with you as it gives us a clear idea of what Kate’s invention actually looks like. Kate’s hand drawn diagrams of her invention. You’ll note there are 3 components to the micro-cremator drawn separately and then Kate has drawn them together at the bottom of the page to see how they work in conjunction with the other. The following is a copy of Kate’s typed application.

Kate C M Thorne’s Letter’s Patent Application pg1
Figure 2: Courtesy of the National Archives of Australia
Kate C M Thorne’s Letter’s Patent Application pg2
Figure 3: Courtesy of the National Archives of Australia

There is another example of that wonderfully flourished signature, and a fantastically detailed description of the workings of the machine. Have to say the chamber “…packed with asbestos…” is a bit of a surprise considering our knowledge of the dire effects of asbestos on respiratory functioning now. Although at the time I’m sure that Kate was using it for its thermal stability and insulating properties. Yes, I’m admitting my ignorance here, I had to do a quick Google to find this out.

The other fascinating thing Kate confirms for us is in this document is that she refers to herself in that opening paragraph as a “…pharmacy student…”. Which is great to read as these are Kate’s own words. So we now know that when Kate makes this application on the 24th October 1902, 18 months after finishing the Materia Medica course in 1900, she is still studying pharmacy. But wait, the questions are forming, here is that double edge sword again.

So does that mean that Kate is studying another course component? If so there are no records of this as I have stripped NSW Archives bare on my last visit. Maybe it means that Kate did take up an apprenticeship position with a registered Pharmacist. This was one of the stipulations of the course that was stated in the new Pharmacy Act, that I uncovered a couple of posts back. Perhaps there is merit to my suggestion that she might be working with Mr J H Barnett (her examiner) at his shop in Lewisham. (Last post) See what I mean? Double edge sword, so happy to uncover that bit of new info, but it then poses so many more questions.

Now here is a real treat for us, check out the photo below! What an absolute gem!

Ebenezer Thorne demonstrating use of the Micro-Cremator
Figure 4: Generously shared by New Plymouth District Council

Yes, that is Kate’s Dad, Ebenezer demonstrating the use of his daughters invention. How proud he must have been. And look how good Kate’s diagrams are now that they can be seen in real life. I know digital version of IRL but still its close.

This random bit of gold turned up for me first on Paul Granville’s blog, about the history of Highgate Hill. He initially had it listed as “Ebby with a strange apparatus…” and I assumed he didn’t know what it was. I, on the other hand knew what it was straight away. It had to be Kate’s micro-cremator. At that time the National Archives files hadn’t been released, but I just knew it, I mean look at it.

I had mentioned a few posts back that I would be sharing some information on Ebenezer but let me just say with what I have uncovered, he needs his own separate post. I will share now but as it relates to Kate’s story. The provenance of the photo and how I confirmed that it was the micro-cremator? Lots of Googling, which led me to a folder of court documents in relation to Ebenezer on the New Plymouth District Council site in New Zeland. New Zeland?

Long story short, Ebenezer ends up in New Zealand in 1907 living under the assumed name of Benjamin Enroth (anagram of Thorne) and married to a Clare Berridge. He is at this time still married to Kate’s Step-mother in Queensland and get this, also to another woman in England, who he married on his last trip back to England in 1900, which was to promote a book he had authored and published on the Heresy of Teetotalism.

The photo of Ebenezer with the micro-cremator was part of court proceeding documents in relation to trying to work out his estate in 1911 when his bigamy was uncovered. See what I mean? His story is frankly nuts and could be a BBC period drama for sure.

I made contact with New Plymouth District Council and received a wonderfully warm response from one of their Archivists informing me that they were very happy for me to use any information they had on Ebenezer and the family.

New Plymouth District Council Email
Figure 5: Macvean Family Archives

Back to the date of Kate’s application, 24th of October 1902. We can be sure of this application date as the National Archives also had a second file to share in relation to Kate’s Letters Patent. That is the correspondence file I’ve mentioned previously. Now, I have to say that this is the one that I was most excited about seeing. I was hoping that within it there might be some gems of letters from Kate. It is filled with some great finds, but it is not quite what I was expecting. The following example explains it clearer and confirms the date of the application.

Receipt for Provisional Patent Protection
Figure 6: Courtesy of National Archives of Australia

It is a correspondence archive of the times that Kate and the office have communicated and noting also when some action was taken in relation to Kate’s application. Below is just a bit of a collage of some of the files it contains.

Collage of Kate’s Patent Correspondence File
Figure 7: Courtesy of National Archives of Australia

I love the note under point 8 above, “…ask Miss Thorne to be kind enough to call at this office…

From what I have been able to put together, Kate applied for provisional patent protection on the 24th October 1902, which she was given and then the application moved through a number of assessments to ascertain whether it was viable in its functioning and whether there was anything already in existence that was comparable.

This report is one of those gems. The report confirming that there is no other invention out there with a similar patent. Again the language used is so interesting. “…find no direct nor complete anticipation of the invention…” a bit of Googling once again reveals that it is a well known legal phrase used in patent law referring to the invention itself and whether there is anything like it in existence.

I think the application must have taken awhile as Kate pays another 3 pounds on the 23rd October 1903, 12 months later to keep the provisional protection in place.

Receipt for Provisional Patent Protection 1903
Figure 9: Courtesy of National Archives of Australia

The Letter of Patents is approved 28th December 1903, 2 and a half weeks after George and Kate marry.

This is a fascinating document as it bears the signature of the Governor of NSW, Sir Harry H Rawson and the Chief Secretary/Premier of NSW Sir John See. There is also another family link here. Sir John is also a long time contemporary of Kate’s father-in-law, Bruce Baird Nicoll and his brother George Wallace Nicoll.

Admiral Harry Rawson (1843-1910)
Figure 11: Courtesy of
Sir John See (1845-1907)
Figure 12: Courtesy of Australian National University

Sir John See, had his own steamship company in the 90s, Nipper & See, in competition with the Nicoll Brothers. He also was a member of the Steamship Association at the same time as Bruce (Kate’s F-i-L) and I found an amazing photo of them together at a function in Cremorne. Sir John is the gentleman seated on the right with the white top hat. Bruce is the last man on the right, top row with the moe and black top hat. (This was actually the first photo of two that I have discovered of Bruce.)

Steamship Owners Association 1887
Figure 13: Courtesy of State Library of NSW

Sir John sells his interests in Nipper & See and becomes Managing Director of the North Coast Steam Navigation Company and negotiates the sale of the last of the Nicoll business interest when George Wallace Nicoll, Bruce’s brother and our George’s uncle, becomes gravely ill in 1906.

Letter to G W Nicoll 1906 from NCSNC
Figure 14: Courtesy of the State Library of NSW

This phenomenal scrap of carbon paper of a letter penned over 114 years ago took me about 4 hours to find in the North Coast Steam Navigation Company’s letter book at the Mitchell Library. I had no idea it was there it was purely a fishing trip for information.

So the letter from Sir John See’s office confirming the issue of the patents is sent to the Patents office and then this one below must be confirming the individual patents ready to send out to the Petitioners. I’m assuming here.

Patents Office Letter 1904
Figure 15: Courtesy of National Archives of Australia

There is no actual copy of a patent certificate in the folder dated with 1904. There is one dated 24th October 1902 when Kate lodges the application. I wonder if the Letters Patent is back dated to the original application date once the approval comes through to show there is no gap just in case someone else tries to come in with a similar invention in that time period.

Letters Patent 1902
Figure 16: Courtesy of National Archives of Australia

I was hoping that there was going to be some letters from Kate in the correspondence file. There wasn’t, but there was the next best thing, a detailed description of the Micro-cremator in Kate’s own words and hand.

Kate’s Description of Micro-cremator, 1902
Figure 17: Courtesy of National Archives of Australia

If you look at the photo of Ebenezer using the machine and then read Kate’s description there is no doubt that it is the micro-cremator, if the diagrams weren’t enough to convince. And how about that wonderful Easter egg just sitting on the page there. Look who signs Kate’s description as witnesses. Her future Father in law, Bruce Baird Nicoll and Brother in law, Charles Bruce Nicoll.

They are such slivers of information, but they mean so much to Kate and George’s story. I think we can safely lock in another fixed point in their timeline, that George and Kate know each other in October 1902. And that George’s family very much approve of his choice of bride to be. They are 13 months out from their wedding at this point and here is Kate’s future family already involved in her life and publicly demonstrating that they support a young woman breaking out of those male dominated societal restraints. How amazing is that? Just from those two signatures. The thought now is, why doesn’t George’s signature appear there? One for the never to know box.

You might have realised that I haven’t actually answered as yet one of the main questions I posed at the beginning of this post. What actually motivates Kate to pursue her studies and give her the confidence to not only think that she might know how to help treat consumption but then to invent and manufacture a machine to do it? And then to put herself under the scrutiny of public examination? It’s a two parter really, and I know I haven’t come to the avalanche of criticism as yet that Kate faced, but it is Kate’s motivation that really interest me here.

I wish I could say, ” …guess what? I found this trove of letters of Kate’s that answer these questions…” but the chances of that? I’m reading this book at the moment:

What a fascinating read! Jennifer Isaacs has sourced some, what can only be described as exceedingly rare resources from the female perspective and in it, she shares some heartbreaking information.

That in many cases when a female relative died her treasure trove of correspondence, clippings, articles or diaries that she had accumulated were given little importance and simply destroyed or thrown away. Certainly when there were no relatives involved it was a given they would be lost.

Kate’s collection must have been impressive. And like in the case of so many of my other female ancestors I actually ache a little for their loss. I can imagine that any of Kate’s collection that survived would have been with George after her death. Then this leads me to wonder, where are both Kate’s and George’s when George is killed in April 1915?

Unfortunately, anyone that might have known is long gone. So I can only speculate as to what Kate’s motivation might have been but there are a few clues left behind that might help in fleshing out that speculation.

Hope you can join me in the next post when I will share these clues and also continue on with the next chapter of the micro-cremator, the storm it creates, and catch up on what has been happening for George.