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York County Court Stenographer and His Friend, Thomas Edison

A recent newspaper article said there is a shortage of court stenographers. It reminded me of Henry Clay Demming, official York County court stenographer for nearly 45 years.
Demming was born in Geneva, NY, but came to Harrisburg to learn printing at the Patriot and Union newspaper as a young man. He served in the Civil War and eventually reached the military rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Before becoming a professional court stenographer, Demming served on the editorial staff of the Harrisburg Daily Telegraph and a verbatim reporter for the Legislative Record.
His friendship with Thomas Edison probably came about because of Colonel Demming’s interest in science, including rocks and minerals, judging by his position as State Geologist in the early 1900s. Edison’s shared interest in minerals, especially iron ore, led to the great inventor’s biggest failure.

The following column, which I wrote a few months ago for the York Sunday News, tells about Colonel Demming’s big day with Edison.

Colonel Demming and Thomas Edison
I recently came across a lengthy 1897 article about an exciting visit Henry C. Demming, official court stenographer of York County, had with Thomas A. Edison. Much to my surprise, the article didn’t talk about electric lights, phonographs, or motion picture cameras. Instead it described Edison’s experiments with iron ore extraction and the gigantic New Jersey plant he built for the project.
I became curious about Colonel Demming. Why would a local court stenographer be ecstatic about mineral ores and be welcomed with open arms by Edison?
Henry Clay Demming came to Harrisburg from Geneva, NY as a young man and worked for the Harrisburg Patriot and Union newspaper. He served in several different regiments during the Civil War, going from Private to First Lieutenant. After the war he was active in the Pennsylvania National Guard and served on the staff of at least one Pennsylvania governor. Demming was also the commander of York’s Sedgwick post of the Grand Army of the Republic for many years. (The GAR was the extremely popular fraternal organization made up of Union Veterans.)
Demming was evidently a crack stenographer. He held the York County court post for nearly 45 years, while serving in the same capacity for several other counties. He did have a staff under him, and he seems to have lived most of the time with his family in Harrisburg. He was living in York, however, with a Bortner family when he died in 1928. He may have moved here after his wife passed away.
What does that have to do with Edison and ore? Demming evidently had an intense interest in minerals. We don’t know how much formal training he had in the field, but he did serve as State Geologist in the early 1900s. He experimented with various road-building materials during that time. The state was trying to build roads that would now be used by automobiles; not horses, carriages, and wagons as before.
Demming somehow managed to spend a whole day as Edison’s companion at his huge Ogdensburg, NJ ore-crushing plant. He described the day in detail to a Harrisburg Telegraph reporter, and the story was copied in the York Gazette.
Why don’t we hear more about Edison’s idea to magnetically extract iron ore from crushed rock? Because the project, into which Edison sunk millions of dollars and ten years of his life, has been labeled Edison’s biggest failure.
Transporting iron ore was expensive. Edison looked for a way to cut shipping costs for nearby New Jersey and Pennsylvania steel plants. The plant Edison built crushed lower grade ore into fine particles and electromagnetically separated the iron. The trouble was that the product was essentially dust, and dust isn’t easily transportable. Edison reportedly tried 200 different adhesive formulas to bind the particles into briquettes. According to our Colonel Demming, he was present when Edison found the one that worked. Demming related: “…about noon on that day, a test of cheap adhesive material was made, with complete results, whereupon Mr. Edison manifested his gratification by two or three high jumps while resting his hands on the work bench.”
Then why was the project a failure? Discovery during this period, the 1890s, of huge high-grade iron deposits in the Mesabi Range of Minnesota brought down iron prices. That meant that the cost of mining, crushing, and processing all that ore in Edison’s plant was just too high in comparison with shipping higher grade ore from farther away.
Edison closed his plant with the close of the century. He went back to his lab in West Orange, NJ and worked on his next projects: storage batteries and mass production of phonograph record cylinders. He didn’t, however, waste all the expertise he had gained crushing rock. Edison built a Portland cement plant, which supplied the cement for Yankee Stadium and other venues. He is said to have recouped at least part of his millions in ore-crushing losses through cement production. Other useful processes, such as metal coating, also came out of Edison ore experiments.
Colonel Demming? He may have learned something about crushing rock from the visit to Ogdensburg. It was just a few years later, while still holding down his court stenographer positions, that he was conducting tests for the state on what type of crushed stone were best used to construct Pennsylvania highways.

Click here to read about York County interest in inventions.
Click here to read about a York County man’s invention.
And click here to read about a would-be York County inventor whose idea was a little too late.