A Montgomery County Inventor and Explorer

Yesterday morning, before we opened to the public, I opened a box from our archive to describe the contents.  I never know what I’m going to find when I do this, and this box was quite a surprise.

It contained papers concerning the Wetherill family, a family which began a white lead business in Philadelphia in 1762, later expanding into paints.  The bulk of the collection, however, concerned a member of the family who did not go into the paint business.  Henry Emerson Wetherill went to medical school at the University of Pennsylvania and he did practice as a doctor, but he he seems to have spent much of his time thinking up new inventions.

Some were directly related to his profession, such as this Oxy-Hemoglobin Scale:

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Or the cleverly spelled “cizr-curjon” (I’m assuming the second “c” is also soft):

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Or the “ventilated and comfortable” Perimetric I-shade:

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Other inventions were for office use, such as his pocket typewriter, the Typen:

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But his greatest invention, in my opinion at least, was the Trombone Flute, which he initially named the “Syrynxopanphone.”  Here’s a blueprint of it:

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It doesn’t have keys, but a sliding handle, like a trombone or slide whistle.  Dr. Wetherill himself seems to have been particularly proud of this invention, which he called “a labor of love” and was photographed with it.

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If you’re not convinced the world needs a trombone flute, here’s a poem or song he wrote promoting it.

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In his later years, Wetherill lived as a recluse in the family home in Audubon, Fatland, and legends seem to have grown around him. One obituary claims that he served in the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American War, and the Boer War, but those events all happened at more or less the same time and in very different parts of the world.  The same obituary also has him as a member of the Greeley and Peary Arctic expeditions.  However, Dr. Wetherill was only 10 years old in 1881 when Admiral A. W. Greeley explored the north.  Edward Hocker, aka “Norris,” in the Times-Herald, has Wetherill only on one of Peary’s early expeditions (not the one that might have reached the North Pole).

Dr. Wetherill donated the pamphlets and blueprints to the Historical Society himself, but, unfortunately, he did not give us any examples of his inventions.  As far as I can tell, none of them ever went into mass production.  So we may never hear the sweet sound of the trombone flute.

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10 Comments

  1. My great, great, great grandmother was Rachel Macomb Wetherill, who I believe was the Aunt of Henry Emerson Wetherill. While we were cleaning out our basement we found a ‘trombone flute’ with the paper leaflet that you have pictured above. Researching the flute brought me to this website, so it is very interesting to read the history of our mystery flute. It has a good sound and seems quite easy to learn as my 13 year-old son is experimenting with different sounds. Thank you for sharing the story of the trombone flute!

  2. Dr. Wetherill was related to Elkins Wetherill of Plymouth Meeting and all the many other Wetherills in the Delaware Valley. He was also a birthright Free Quaker as are all the Wetherills. He was also related to Robert Wetherill, discoverer of Mesa Verde, and to John Price Wetherill in whose name Franklin Institute awards a prize for Advances in earth science. As a member, by marriage, of the Wetherill family, I can attest to all of this.
    David Wetherill Wood, Jr.

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