Object of the Month

“At once an art and a science”: Francis Blake Photographs His Son Benjamin

Benjamin Sewall Blake jumping Positive image derived from glass plate negative in the collection,

Benjamin Sewall Blake jumping

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This photograph of Benjamin Sewall Blake jumping was taken by his father Francis Blake as part of the elder Blake’s investigations into high-speed photography. The image is one of many items featured in the online exhibition Our Favorite Things.

“Transmitter Blake,” Inventor and Renaissance Man

Francis Blake was born in Needham, Mass., in 1850, the youngest of five children born to Caroline Burling (Trumbull) and Francis Blake, Sr. With his family’s finances precarious and two years at Brookline High School under his belt, Blake began working for the United States Coast Survey at the age of 16, thanks to the recommendation of his uncle George Smith Blake, a naval officer. In 1874, he married Elizabeth Livermore Hubbard, the daughter of Louisa Bowman (Sewall) and Charles Townsend Hubbard.

Elizabeth’s father, a wealthy textile manufacturer, owned hundreds of acres of land in Weston, Massachusetts, and gave each of his four children land upon which to build a house. After his marriage to Elizabeth, Francis Blake began the construction of a shingle-style home designed by architect Charles Follen McKim. Upon its completion in 1875, the grand home was christened “Keewaydin,” a Massachuset language term for the northwest wind that occasionally swept over the hillside.

For many years, the Blakes lived off the largesse of Elizabeth’s family, but five years after their marriage, Francis invented what became known as the “Blake Transmitter,” a crucial development in modern telephony. Further improvements to the technology and shrewd investments in the telephone companies that utilized his inventions made Francis Blake independently wealthy and enabled him to pursue his passions without the necessity of regular employment. He also began a massive expansion and redesign of Keewaydin headed by the Boston architectural firm of Colt & Chandler. By the time the project was completed, Blake had created a lavish home for his family that included stables, bowling alleys, a boat house, 90 seat theater, and more; the family rarely had occasion (or need) to leave Weston.

Experiments in Photography

Francis Blake had first become familiar with photography during his service with the Coast Survey, but did not purchase his first camera until 1884. Photography quickly became an all-consuming interest and he built an extensive photographic laboratory on the grounds of Keewaydin. Blake honed his talents taking photographs of family members and his grand estate, but given his mechanical genius, soon became fascinated with improving the technological aspects of photography. In 1885, after purchasing an “instantaneous shutter,” Blake began experimenting with shutter design, eventually designing a focal-plane shutter that allowed one to take photographs with exposure times of 1/1000 to 1/2000 of a second, a vast improvement over the 1/300 of a second afforded by the “instantaneous shutter.” His resulting stop-action images of trains, birds, horses, bicyclists, and athletes were exhibited in Boston, Philadelphia, and London from 1891 to 1893, to much critical acclaim. By 1893, however, his interest in photography was on the wane, and he turned his attention once again to family matters and improving the house and grounds of Keewaydin, as well as serving on several boards and in town government. Francis died at Keewaydin on 19 January 1913 at the age of 62.

Who was Benjamin Sewall Blake?

Benjamin was born on Valentine’s Day 1877, one of two children born to Francis and Elizabeth Blake; his sister Agnes had been born in 1876. He was raised in the luxurious confines of Keewaydin, where he and his sister were educated (along with other family members and friends) by a succession of private instructors. In 1889, Benjamin began attending the Williams School in Newton, Mass. He struggled to get into Harvard, failing on his first attempt, but found a place in the class of 1901 thanks to his father’s intercession. Although not a scholar, Benjamin graduated with his class and was a member of the Hasty Pudding Club and the Institute of 1770. He was involved with the First Corps Cadets, M.V.M. for several years and served in the Massachusetts State Guard during World War I. In a report to his Harvard classmates written in 1916, Blake wrote of an unusual interest:

I have been interested for a long time in English spelling and its reform and hav kept in touch with the Simplified Spelling Board of New York and the Simplified spelling Society of England. I am a thoro believer in a more national orthografy. My particular hobbies ar farming and forestry, and, having acquired unusual knowledge of the latter, it was only natural that I was selected as one of the committee to plant the class tree.

In 1908, Benjamin married Ruth Amelia Field and had five children. They were lifelong residents of Weston, Massachusetts, where Blake served as chair of the Weston Park Commission. He died in 1959 at the age of 82. Blake’s obituary noted his interests in forestry and arboriculture and his memberships in clubs including the Somerset Club, Boston Athletic Association, Tennis & Racquet Club, Longwood Cricket Club, and the Weston Golf Club.

 

For Further Reading

Davis, Keith F. “The High-Speed Photographs of Francis Blake,” The Massachusetts Historical Review, vol. 2 (2000), p. 1-27.

Hall, Elton W. Francis Blake: An Inventor’s Life 1850-1913 Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2003.

The Massachusetts Historical Society has several collections related to Francis Blake and the Blake Family: The Francis Blake papers and photographs and the Blake Family papers and photographs. A selection of photographs taken by Francis Blake are featured in an online presentation at the MHS website Massachusetts Historical Society: The Photography of Francis Blake.

The town of Weston maintains a web page with more information on the Hubbard family and the development of Keewaydin and other family properties.