C.T. Mason, Part II

Inventor and entrepreneur

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About 1883 C.T. Mason became interested in solving the problem of picking cotton by machinery. After several years, he succeeded in perfecting a mechanical device that would remove the cotton from the open boll without injuring the plants, and he then set to work to incorporate this device in a machine that could go into the fields and harvest the cotton.

An experimental machine was built, and it showed such promising results in operation that Mason had little difficulty in interesting many investors from Charleston in the organization of a company to continue the experimental work for the ultimate development of a machine that could be manufactured at a reasonable price and that would do the work required.

A finely equipped workshop was built, and Mason, with a force of skilled mechanics, some of whom he obtained from the famous tool makers, Browne & Sharpe, of Providence, Rhode Island, continued his experiments for a period of six to 10 years, building model after model, which were tested year after year in this and other states. Among those who became deeply interested in the development of the Mason cotton picker was the then nationally known cotton planter Richardson, of Mississippi, who was said to grow more cotton than any other man in the world.

One year, 50 cotton pickers were built here for a practical test on the Richardson plantations in Mississippi. But in the end, it was reluctantly admitted that the mechanical perfection of the cotton picker was impossible at that time - the insurmountable obstacles being that of power for the operation of the machine - and the 10-year effort to give the South a machine that would do for cotton growers what the McCormick reaper and binder had done for the grain grower, was abandoned. Mason, in talking of his work on the cotton picker, said that he was confident that he would have succeeded in making a success of his machine had the internal combustion engine - the automobile motor of today had been available. The rock on which all his hopes and efforts were wrecked was the lack of suitable power to operate the machine; the mule could not do what was necessary.

"Immediately after giving up the cotton picker experiment, Mason began the manufacture of telephones for sale to independent telephone exchange operators who were at that time entering the field in competition with the Bell Telephone Co. Starting with only three helpers the business grew rapidly, and within a few years a company with $50,000 capital was organized to take over the business, with Mason as the executive head. Thus came into being the Sumter Telephone Manufacturing Co., which within a decade became the biggest and most successful manufacturing industry that Sumter has ever had. At the peak of its operation it employed between 300 and 400 employees and its products were shipped all over the world, wherever telephone and telephone switchboards were used.

"Later as a side line, the manufacture of magnetos for stationary motor and airplane engines was undertaken, the magnetos being an original design patented by Mason. The magneto department rapidly became the major part of the business, and about this time the Splitdorf Manufacturing Co. bought an interest in the Sumter Telephone Co., which then had capital of $500,000 and a large surplus.

The next step was the acquisition of a majority interest in the company by the Splitdorf Co. which finally gained complete control.

Then the Sumter Telephone Co. was merged into the Splitdorf Co.; the plant here closed and the business transferred to Newark, New Jersey.

"Mason retired from active connection with the company at the time the Splitdorf Co. acquired control, and resided at his home, which he made one of the loveliest in this part of the state. This obituary does not cover the sum of his life as he was instrumental in establishing the first electrical light plant in Sumter and for several years operated it, and at the same time was a consulting electrical engineer who was called to all parts of the South when trouble developed in electrical plants. He retained his interest in the development of electrical science to the end and kept in touch with the leading scientists in this field of work.

"Mr. Mason was married twice, first to Miss Emma Stewart, of Baltimore, Maryland, who died. This marriage produced three children, Stewart Mason, Mrs. E.K. Friar and Carl Mason. His second wife, Miss Edith Evans, survived him. Following the funeral, Mr. Mason was interred in the Sumter Cemetery."

Reach Sumter Item Archivist Sammy Way at waysammy@yahoo.com.