Ahh-Mazing “AHA!” Discovery for January 2018: Porcelain Electrical Insulation of James and Richard Pass

by Dana Gourley on December 18, 2017

in Ahh-Mazing Discoveries, Innovation, Inventified

Background Note: Rob Gourley’s first adoptive mother, Neeler, passed when he was a young boy (Neeler was Helen Fox Trowbridge’s daughter). Rob’s father, Rob Sr., remarried to Ann Pass several years later that expanded young Rob’s “Inventified Family”. Rob’s great-grandfather and grandfather, James and Richard Pass respectively, manufactured porcelain china at their company, Syracuse China. Young Rob did not take fine china to school for show-and-tell in the 1950’s. Instead, he showed an item that his grandfather made with porcelain and solidified TNT (equivalent power of at least 20 sticks of dynamite) that helped defeat German General Rommel (the infamous tank commander called the “Desert Fox”) in the Northern Africa Campaign during World War II. 

Flipping on a light switch, dimming a light or even recharging your smart phone with a USB plug, all require safe electrical current. When homes were first being connected to electrical power, Syracuse China (a.k.a., Onondaga Pottery) had the kilns to make porcelain insulators used in electrical outlets and switches to avoid house fires.  Pass and Seymour, a long-standing American company, continues to this day in making a wide variety of electrical devices including surge protectors for computers, USB charging stations, dimmer switches, and antimicrobial wiring devices. The “Pass” in Pass and Seymour was Rob’s great-grandfather, James Pass.

James’ son, Richard (Rob’s grandfather) was a lead administrator for both companies during World War II. Rob told me that his grandfather invented a non-detectable anti-tank land mine made from porcelain and solidified TNT. Pass and Seymour later received the distinguished United States Army-Navy “E” award for “excellence in service” to the war effort.

Rob’s aunt, Ruth Hancock, and one of Richard’s daughters, witnessed some of the testing of the land mine. She writes in the book on the history of Syracuse China, that her father took the personal risk of correcting any misfire during testing since the others were young and were the future of the company.

Rob told me that his grandfather was the only one to carefully bring the TNT to the correct molten temperature and pour it into two receptacles near the top and bottom of each porcelain container. The TNT would solidify and there was a chemical fuse (two vials of chemicals) located between the two receptacles. The land mine would not detonate until there was over 400 lbs. of pressure (or the heavy weight of a tank). Rob said there was typically a trip wire to break the two chemical vials to discourage someone from digging up the land mine.

Source: Google Photos on ”Syracuse China Land Mines”


Rob also recalls another story of his grandfather recovering from appendicitis surgery in the hospital. His grandmother sneaked parts into his hospital room so Richard could assemble his first land mine prototype … there was no rest for those supporting our soldiers in WWII.

I had to ask Rob what happened that day when he carried in for show-and-tell, a live land mine. He shrugged his shoulders. He said the kids loved it and also his teacher. Rob also said … “People were just tougher then”.

We realize that land mines to this day are accidentally detonating and can cause tremendous harm. Land mines, however, were effective in damaging tanks that contributed to ending Rommel’s war machine. We admire bravery like Rob’s grandfather, who was willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of others, and take the calculated risks to prove success of a new invention used during wartime. Our hope is land mines are only found in history museums like the one shown above, and are no longer hidden underground in cow pastures.

On December 20, 2017 after we posted this blog, we heard from Rob Gourley’s childhood friend, Morgan Wesson (yes, Morgan is part of Rob’s inventified life). Morgan wrote us about both his great grandfather (Daniel Wesson) and grandfather (Victor Wesson) of Smith & Wesson:  “Explains why we get along so well: We have this shared preference for not blowing ourselves up. Dan Wesson is notable for building 19th century weapons, yes. But where he excelled was in inventing ways for not blowing himself up. Wesson was using a lot of pressure to set the powder and rim fire cap inside his cartridge cases, with a bullet conjoined out front. His patent for the metallic cartridge used in the Winchester and S&W guns was, like grandfather Pass’ mine production process, a safe method of inserting charges and a detonation device into an impossibly tight package.   My grandfather Victor Wesson got these secrets passed down to him.  (Victor apprenticed at S&W. Never went past High School) While Pass was building and testing his amazing mines, Victor left his Smith and Wesson factory and reentered the Army. He worked at a federal armory in San Francisco during WW2 building production systems to make all sizes of munitions safely and quickly. Love this landmine story, and I can just hear Rob explaining it in class! Let’s salute Pass’  invention by blowing off some cast off airbags..I understand there are many Takatas airbags newly available – just don’t get too close … M”

Thank you, Morgan, in sharing this parallel WWII story. It was a time of great American ingenuity. Even business owners like your and Rob’s grandfathers, felt compelled that it was their patriotic duty to share some of their knowledge in safety design and become the front line in testing new munitions. It is a proud legacy that you and Rob share. Not sure about detonating recalled airbags … but your willingness to keep inventive history alive with your writings for future generations speaks volumes…. D   

Do you have an Ahh-mazing “AHA!” Discovery to share?

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Greg Jordan January 15, 2018 at 8:18 pm

Amazing stories! Thanks for sharing.


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