Accomplished inventor, visionary photographer, philanthropist, and successful businessman, Francis Blake (1850 1913) changed not only the way Americans communicated in the nineteenth century but also quite literally how they saw themselves. His major inventions, the telephone transmitter and innovations in high-speed photography, and his Weston, Massachusetts estate Keewaydin epitomized how a gifted individual of modest circumstances could create and re-create himself during America s Gilded Age.
The Blake telephone transmitter became the world standard, and anyone who spoke into Alexander Graham Bell's device in the last twenty years of the nineteenth century also encountered Blake s name, emblazoned on his transmitter. In addition, he invested an enormous amount of his energy, talent, and wealth in his home, originally designed by Charles Follen McKim, and its elaborate grounds. This self-contained compound, which included homes for his in-laws and his children and a complete water system, reflected Blake's passion for precision, beauty, and order. It became his major preoccupation, a place where he could exercise unchallenged mastery.Unfortunately, the fabulous Keewaydin estate did not endure, but thankfully Blake's photographic images remain. Blake's experimental camera work placed him in the forefront of the photographic world in the 1880s. His high-speed photographs remain unsurpassed for their clarity, crispness, and composition, and are as fresh today as when he first snapped them over a hundred years ago. Although little-known today, Blake helped revolutionize photography and transformed the role of the photograph in American society, marking him as a significant figure at the dawn of the twentieth century. His story is a compelling and fascinating chronicle of unbounded energy, independence, and genius.
Elton W. Hall, former curator of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, is Executive Director of the Early American Industries Association. He is the author Sperm Whaling from New Bedford: Clifford W. Ashley's Photographs of Bark Sunbeam in 1904 and Frederick Garrison Hall: Etchings, Bookplates, Designs.