Friday, September 04, 2015

Thomas M. Workman, genius inventor of Laurens County, SC

Sanctuary of Rocky Springs Presbyterian Church
Our series on Laurens County, SC, during Reconstruction continues with a genius inventor living between Laurens and Clinton.


Out in the Rocky Springs community, a young genius named Thomas Madison Workman (1847-1921) was writing and thinking ahead of his time. He wrote in his unpublished diary, "I believe this country needs some efficient means of irrigation." He proposed such ideas as windmills to fill above‑ground cisterns placed on a hill in order to power the water through pipes across the fields. The cistern could also be used for "raising fish, ducks, and many other things that would be desirable." Plus, telegraph wires could be run along the pipes and one could "be in constant communication with anybody."

Thomas M. Workman was born in Laurens County, near Clinton on November 4, 1847, the son of John C. and Caroline Blakeley Workman. He was educated in the common schools and at the Laurens Male Academy. He grew up six miles east of Laurens and 300 yards from the railroad. By age eleven he was reading Comstock's Philosophy and exploring the causes of thunder, lightning, and eclipses. His father was a hat manufacturer, and his early life was spent at that trade and on the farm. 

Workman was a school teacher and made a living in the sawmill business. Workman also had an idea for a hydraulic or compressed air chamber plow using a windmill and compressed air and water to power it. "The winds of heaven would plow my fields for me and the brook of the vally would assist them. . . There would need be no time waisted in resting my horse or waiting for steam to get."[1]

According to J.C. Garlington's Men of the Time, Workman is the inventor of the first telephone of which there is record. Workman called it "an electric speaking trumpet." Workman heard of a man named Bell who was working on a similar machine, and he sent him his ideas for collaboration. Bell never wrote back, but Workman claimed he used his ideas freely. His invention of steam brakes for locomotives met the same fate, but he did make a steam thresher with which he threshed wheat for community farmers, and drew crowds. He also built an automatic railroad car brake and a press to make round cotton bales. In 1871, he advanced the theory in newspapers that mosquitoes carried malaria, which the medical community ridiculed.

Workman married Hattie Senn in 1888, but she died in 1900. In later years Workman grew restless and walked to visit relatives, once going as far as Mississippi, carrying a cane to knock rocks out of the road.[2] A remarkable genius with little opportunity in poor, Reconstruction-era Laurens County, one can only wonder what Workman might have accomplished given the opportunity. Workman is buried at Rocky Springs Presbyterian Church.

[1] Workman, Sayings and Doings, 42‑47.

[2] Betty W. Irwin and James Sloan, "Thomas Madison Workman," Scrapbook, 412‑414; J.C. Garlington, Men Of The Time: Sketches Of Living Notables. A Biographical Encyclopedia of Contemporaneous South Carolina Leaders (Atlanta: Foote and David Company, 1901), “Thomas Madison Workman.”

Reconstruction-era Laurens County, SC
Post-bellum Laurens County, SC, smaller towns
Emerging Black Leadership in Reconstruction-era Laurens County, SC
Days of Terror in Laurens County, SC
Reconstruction-era Clinton, SC
Reconstruction Clinton, SC: Liquor and Temperance
Farm Labor and Freed Slaves: Reconstruction-era Laurens County, SC
Joseph Crews' ignoble escape from Laurens, SC
The Infamous Joseph Crews
Post-bellum Laurens County, SC: No railroad to Laurensville