Biography of Henry Knight Brooks

Henry Knight Brooks of Topeka is a Kansas man by adoption, and is as loyal to the state as any native citizen. The state may properly congratulate itself that Mr. Brooks has found a congenial home here. As an inventor, manufacturer and practical all around mechanic he has a genius which has made his name familiar in industrial circles, not alone in Kansas but in many parts of the United States. For one thing he deserves credit for building up and developing the Capital Iron Works at Topeka, one of the cornerstones of that city’s industrial prosperity. However, that has been only one phase of his busy career.

He was born in Kettering, Northamptonshire, England, January 8, 1869. His father, William Weston Brooks, was a college man and for many years was superintendent of public schools at Kettering in Northamptonshire, and later at Wisbech, Cambridgeshire. His mother was Eliza Knight, whose ancestors were Huguenot fugitives that found refuge in England from their persecutors in France. Mr. Brooks’ matternal grandfather, Joseph J. Knight, was president of Albion College, South Hackney, and became a noted man in the East End of London, where much of his life was devoted to work among the slums and poorer classes. He advocated temperance when such a virtue was almost considered a crime, and he was caricatured as Anthony Hum in the Pickwick papers by Charles Dickens. He was a close friend and coworker with Gen. William Booth of the Salvation Army.

As a boy Henry Knight Brooks attended private school, finished a common school education at Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, and from there went to London. For about a year he worked in a printing machinery [p.1752] plant. He moved to Leicester, and while there took a technical course given under the auspices of the University Extension, extending evening classes after working hours. He left the engineering firm in Leicester to take a better position with the Midland Railway Company. Becoming a student of the American form of government he soon decided to come to this country. For a time he was a resident on Long Island, New York, came west, was in Chicago for a time, and then continued until he reached Kansas.

In this state his first work was with the Santa Fe Company at Wellington, and he was there during the days of the cattle rush from Oklahoma, prior to the opening of the territory. Later he was with the Southern Kansas Railway Company at Ottawa, Kansas, but left there to go to Arizona, and was with the Southern Pacific Railroad Company at Tucson for about two years. Later he spent a short time at Los Angeles and San Francisco, and then determined to take a European trip, sailing from New York to England. Six months in Europe convinced him that he would not be contented there, and he was soon back in New York and again in Kansas, where he took a position with the Southern Kansas Railway Company.

His next position was as machinist for the Santa Fe Railway Company at Topeka. The superintendent of motive power and machine shops, Mr. J. Player, was asked by the Kansas State Agricultural College to recommend a man for the position of superintendent of the college iron shops and foundry. The choice fell on Mr. Brooks. At the time this position required a person able to teach the various mechanical trades. Mr. Brooks was at the college at Manhattan about a year, and during that time he married the present Mrs. Brooks, who was Edith B. Harrison, daughter of Col. J. Harrison of Ottawa, Kansas.

While in Manhattan one day he was asked over the telephone if he would accept a position then open as manager of the Capital Iron Works Company at Topeka. Taking the train, he looked the situation over and decided to accept. In a short time he discovered this company was in bad shape mechanically and financially, the management being scarcely able to pay his salary. That did not daunt him and he stuck to his position. It should be mentioned that this was just after the boom period in Kansas, and the Capital Iron Works were owned by the receivers of the Kansas National Bank. Judge Slonecker had charge of the bank’s affairs, and Mr. Brooks has always considered him one of his best friends. The judge made a proposition to Mr. Brooks to purchase the property, and though the young mechanic’s assets at that time were practically nothing and he was getting no salary, Judge Slonecker had such confidence in his capability that he took Mr. Brooks’ notes for the property. A brother, G. W. Brooks, was made shop foreman, and they both put on their overalls and personally worked at the bench and in the foundry until such time as the business began to improve. There he spent several years of the hardest work of his career, and laid a foundation and system in the foundry, machine and structural iron shops that lasts to the present day.

About this time the National Light, Heat and Power Company of New York asked Mr. Brooks to assist them in some experimental work they were conducting on the passenger cars of the Santa Fe Railway Company. This work was the equipping of the Pullman and day coaches with an apparatus for the generation of electric light from the axle of the cars. Up to that time such experiments had not been successful. His former experience in railway work stood Mr. Brooks in good stead, and he was soon prevailed upon to accept the position of mechanical engineer with the company with headquarters in Topeka. This took up most of his time and required a very considerable mechanical and electrical knowledge to make the system of lighting a success. Several other large concerns were also working out apparatus for lighting railway cars by electricity, since the use of compressed gas as then commonly used had proved very dangerous, especially in wrecks, and at best it was a very unsatisfactory method of car lighting. To begin with the electric apparatus was very crude, but after many improvements had been inaugurated by Mr. Brooks it was regarded as so satisfactory that a large purchase of the apparatus was made by the railway company, the contract running into a quarter of a million dollars. Such was the starting point of electric car lighting on the Santa Fe system, and today the equipment of that one company for electric lighting of passenger and Pullman cars is valued at above $1,000,000. This is one among the many benefits Mr. Brooks has conferred upon the world of invention and Kansans might properly give him credit for an important share in the excellent method of lighting railway cars at the present time.

In the meantime the business of the Capital Iron Works had progressed steadily, new buildings were being put up and modern machinery installed, and its general condition was so satisfactory that when the Railway Electric Light and Equipment Company made Mr. Brooks an offer of the position of assistant chief engineer, he concluded to accept the place for a time, especially in view of the very flattering salary offered him. He also was moved to accept by the opportunity given for following up several lines of mechanical and electrical work he had in mind. This took him out of Kansas and to New York City, where he was given charge of a new factory starting there for the manufacture of electric lighting apparatus. In a few months the factory outgrew its capacity. Mr. Brooks was then entrusted with the complete equipment of an additional factory located at Derby, Connecticut. This factory was no more built than it had to be operated night and day in order to supply the demand for the apparatus for electric lighting. This experience gave Mr. Brooks a further opportunity of working out a number of special features and improvements which had occurred to him, but in time he found it necessary to resign in order to work out these features on a larger scale.

He then associated himself with one of the most successful inventors of electrical apparatus in the country, Morris Moskowitz, and together they invented an apparatus which was without question one of the most perfect for electric lighting of trains ever produced. Patents on the apparatus were obtained and a company of New York capitalists formed to begin the manufacture. In the American company were such men as Chauncey Depew, Joseph Leiter, W. J. Arkell and other men of national reputation, while in the foreign company were the Earl of Kintore, Laycock of Sheffield, England, and many others. The later Edwin Hawley was president of the company, which was closely connected with the New York Air Brake Company of New York through Mr. C. A. Starbuck, its president. Almost from the start an enormous business was done, and Mr. Brooks was chief engineer of the company for six years, during which time he lived in New York City. He had direct supervision of the installation of lighting systems on over thirty of the leading railways of the country, and a large number of cars equipped with this company’s apparatus are operating in Europe at this time. Mr. Brooks naturally feels somewhat proud of the fact that he helped name the company, which is called the United States Light & Heating Company. It is capitalized at $16,000,000, and the principal factory is now located at Niagara Falls. It covers over sixteen acres of ground, and is one of the most modern plans of its kind in the world, manufacturing complete electric car lighting systems, storage batteries, automobile starters and other apparatus. Its products are now sold in every important city in the United States and foreign countries.

After six years as chief engineer of this company Mr. Brooks again heard the call of Kansas, and so far as he knows and hopes Kansas is his permanent home. For the last eight years he has again been active head of the Topeka institution, The Capital Iron Works Company, during which time several new departments have been opened, and machinery installed and new buildings erected to meet increased demands. There is scarcely a building of any importance around Topeka or through the state which does not contain some work turned out by this firm, which has built up a reputation for “quality first,” while the engineering staff maintained in connection with the works contains some of the most practical and expert technical men in the state.

As a matter of history it should be noted that a new industry has been developed in the West called the Steel Fixture Manufacturing Company, and this, though a large business in itself, is really a branch of the Capital Iron Works Company. Many of the courthouses, banks and public buildings are now equipped with furniture turned out by the Steel Fixture Company. Their products are installed in courthouses, banks and public buildings in many states, and only recently a large amount was placed in the New York custom house, and New San Francisco postoffice, showing that Kansas products are by no means limited to use in the Middle West. Many thousands of Kansas are familiar with some of the output of this company in the ornamental steel work found in the splendid Kansas State Memorial Building, especially the stairs, elevator grills, book stacks and counters. It is a distinction of which Kansas is proud and reflects credit upon Mr. Brooks’ firm that no other industry of this character has a plant within 800 miles of Topeka.

Naturally enough Mr. Brooks has associations with many of the leading industrial and technical organizations in the country. He is a member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers of New York, and has several times been invited to read papers on various subjects before that body. He is a member of the New York Railway Club, a charter member of the Kansas Society of New York, belongs to the Masonic fraternity, the Topeka Commercial Club, the Young Men’s Christian Association, and always identifies himself with other progressive industrial and civic movements in his adopted state. He is also secretary and treasurer of the Kansas Employers Association. The purpose of this association is to promote the mutual interest of its members in industry and commerce, to endorse constructive legislation, to further all legitimate measures and principles which will work for the common good and industrial advancement and efficiency of our state.



Connelley, William E. A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans. Chicago : Lewis, 1918. 5v. Biographies can be accessed from this page: Kansas and Kansans Biographies.

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