One of the motivations I had for starting this blog ten years ago in 2010 was my passion for discovering people and events of the past that had been largely ignored, forgotten or assigned to the junk drawer of history.
Every now and then I spend some time sorting through that old junk drawer and without fail, I tend to find a few gems. Such was the case this week when I came upon the story of Maurice J. Francill. Born in Marion Ohio just before the start of the 20th century, Maurice, whose given name at birth, was Francis Marion Cowgill,(he changed his name later in life) would spend most of life exploring the mystery and magic of radio. In fact, he was known as the Radio Wizard, and by the early 1920’s he was stunning audiences around the country with his ability to use radio waves to control mechanical devices. From toys to cars to trains, Maurice Francill had figured out the technology of “remote control”. Recall that in the 1920’s, most people were still wrapping their head around the remarkable new concept of listening to people speak from far off cities on a crystal radio in their living rooms.
This was big magic to most people at the time. It was a technology in its infancy and radio stations were just at the early stages of development. Toledo would not have a radio station until 1925. But here was Maurice Francill, already showing people how radio waves could not only travel through the invisible “ether” of air, but how those waves could make things move.
In the February 10th , 1923 Edition of the Coshocton Tribune, Francill was demonstrating a remote controlled automobile on the city streets of Coshocton as part of a radio exhibition that was touring the country.
The paper wrote: The machine he will demonstrate tonight is valued at ten thousand dollars and required a year to build. The machine is equipped with a radio selector which makes it possible to perform an operation request from any member of the audience, much in the same manner as if it had “mechanical brains”.
From that description it may be safe to conclude that Maurice Francill, who would later move his operations to Toledo, was the inventor, not just of remote control, but the first autonomous car. That was almost 100 years ago.
Francill would continue his demonstrations for curious eyes in a broad swath of cities and towns across the nation. In New Castle Pennsylvania in 1926 Radio Wizard Francill gave demonstrations at a car dealership of his invention showing the crowd how he could start the automobile, flash its lights, honk its horn or turn its wheel “without the touch of a human hand”. The newspaper writer reflected on what this “remote control” technology might mean for future. Francill even allowed people in the showroom to thoroughly inspect the car to make sure it wasn’t rigged with a hidden driver or wires. It wasn’t. The article also said Francill demonstrated how to fry an egg on a block of ice using this technology, but didn’t elaborate.
His amazing feats before thousands of people would be repeated maimes over from Newark Ohio to Reno Nevada with many stops in between. In Waterloo Iowa in 1927, thousands of onlookers jammed various points of the city to watch in awe as he drove a Hudson Essex down a city street, turned on a washing machine at a city laundry, and started up an ice factory with the press of a button on his 15 pound radio transmitter from a remote location. He was theRadio Wizard. His creativity for finding new applications was impressive. In 1929, In Newark,Ohio he was demonstrating at a local dairy, how his radio device could operate a mechanical milking machine for cows. He repeated the same stunt on stage at a theater in Lima in 1929, and the newspaper reported that the cow, “Duchess” was calmly brought onto the stage and Francill, was able to extract 40 pounds of milk which cascaded into the bucket like “Niagara Falls”. On that same trip to Lima he also showed how radio could be used to operate a street car, and he did it for all to see.
It is not apparent if Francill had succeeded in finding commercial uses for his new radio technology. However, because Francill was seen by many as an entertainer and not a scientist, his credentials and credibility may have been questioned as a serious inventor. Especially when considering that many of his shows also included spiritualism and Seance features. But it was hard to deny that he did have something tangible to provide audiences who marveled at his ability to drive a car, or a play a violin or milk a cow without the aid of a human hand.
It was the stuff of the future and in the 1920’s and 30’s, the science of radio was the new frontier of possibility and Francill brought some of that “wonder” to hometown America.
As far back at 1926 in an interview with a Reno Nevada reporter, Francill said he had built a death ray machine that could stop a beating heart and wanted to try it our on a convicted murderer who was condemned to die. He said he was asking some state governors to let him try it. He was convinced that the death ray technology would be the technology of future wars when armies would be able to use them to “annihilate people by the hundreds”. He also predicted it would become a popular crime fighting tool, for it not only could kill people, but kill the engines of speeding getaway vehicles and could start distant fires. His discovery of the“death ray”, he said, was found by accident while doing other experiments. He held its technology as a closely guarded secret lest it fall into the wrong hands of amateurs.
He also would later demonstrate the use of “light rays” which he touted as a new method to broadcast voice transmission on a,beam of light. He felt this was in many ways more effective and useful than radio waves. He was prescient on that thought, but light ray technology was not new. Hardly.
It had been invented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1880. In fact the use of light ray photo-phones did become an effective stealth communication during World War Two. Today’s fiber optic technology is built on the foundation of light ray technology.
Francill’s one questionable claim was his public insistence that he had a “death ray” device. In 1940 he demonstrated it to reporters and witnesses in Toledo. In February of that year he assembled a group of reporters and witnesses to his home in North Toledo. Nine men, according to the article in the Toledo Blade, watched as Francill used a “queer machine” with port holes and coils, to deliver a death ray of sorts to a rat that rose up on its “shaky haunches, ran in a few agonized circles and died.”
The reporter, Arthur Peterson, contended that the rat was a large brown alley rat and appeared to be in good health before it was taken out of a wire cage and put into a glass case. From 15 feet away Francill’s projector was trained on the rat inther glass case and caused its sudden death. How and why did it die? What exotic technology had this Toledo inventor uncovered? Francill told the reporter he didn’t know, but he theorized that the “ray” may have deteriorated the tissue of blood and flesh and nerves.
He also demonstrated another experiment with the strange projector by projecting a ray unto a pair of beakers in which were two unidentified chemicals. When hit by the “ray” the chemicals turned from a milky white color to blue color. Francill showed the witnesses assembled at his home other examples of his shadowy science including the projection of a ray from the secret box to a shaft of steel which became very hot. He also showed a “military” invention thathe says was a thermal compound that can be ignited by water and get so hot it can eat through the side of a battle ship.
Just how long Francill lived in Toledo I have not yet determined(still working on it). I do know that he was here in the 1930’s and through part of the 50’s before he returned to his hometown of Marion where he passed away in 1974 at the age of 77.
Was he a crackpot? A conman? Or was he the real deal? Maybe a little of all three. Not sure really, but what I can ascertain by what I’ve read in the limited research I’ve done, is that he made some of his money by selling sponsors to his shows. When he demonstrated his “remote control” automobiles, it was usually underwritten and marketed by a car dealership. Or a dairy if he was milking cows, or a street car company if he was “automating” the local street cars. His draft card and selective service application in 1943 shows he was living at 1702 N. 12th Street in Toledo, was employed by the Massachusetts Protective Association(insurance company) and was married to his wife Josephine.
I am very curious as to what Francill’s “death ray” was. If it was not a hoax, I suspect that perhaps he had stumbled into some rudimentary microwave wave technology. The use of very high frequency radio waves to heat objects, which had been discovered in the 1930’s and even featured at the 1939 World’s fair in Chicago.
Regardless, even if Maurice Francill was just a clever huckster who could harness electronics to make a quick buck, he gave Americans of all ages and walks of life a sense of wonder of the world around them, a sense of the future wonders that would eventually come to fruition. Heat the very least a futurist, and a teacher who helped spark the imagination of the country.