John Hays Hammond Jr.’s legacy survives, however remotely


According to the dated tour video playing on a loop in his unwelcoming foyer, John Hays Hammond Jr. liked his visitors to feel uncomfortable. He obsessed over lingering awkwardness, and in that regard the legacy of the most prolific inventor in Mass history endures. As I walk around his Gloucester castle, a red hot attraction 50 years after his passing, on a rainy weekday I trip twice — once while descending a jagged stone staircase feeding the entrance, then again indoors while twisting down a tricky marble corkscrew.

There are also inconveniences that Hammond couldn’t have imagined — my cell phone slipped into oblivion en route through cliffs as marvelous as any scene on Earth. The lack of 4G service would fit most Medieval habitats, but not this manse. Built by Hammond in the 1920s for his wife, Irene Fenton Hammond, and for his Hammond Research Corporation, where he hatched 400 patents and twice that many inventions, the joint is fully-automated. Eighty years and multiple technological generations before Bill Gates pimped his flat with a famously fly customization module, Hammond’s knob-driven Dynamic Accelerator system was the first of its kind, complete with monitor controls for the entire home and a turntable setup with cascading speakers, which hung from his courtyard to the Great Hall.

Hammond Castle feels and smells the opposite of the stale and pale, newfangled echo chambers in which modern startups toil. It’s a dark and dusty labyrinth with the charm of an abandoned dungeon, though more than any particular era or morbidity the estate reflects its iconically eccentric owner. The son of a 19th-century mining mogul and United States diplomat, the junior Hammond was encouraged from an early age to explore ideas in depth, and came from a family that was politically wired enough for him to meet several fathers of invention, including Thomas Alva Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. Holding extreme value in being able to execute on his own terms, Hammond ultimately lived more like an artist than did most of his contemporaries in the Great War engineering class.

There’s an L. Ron Hubbard aspect to Hammond. Like the Godfather of Scientology, he was obsessed with maritime exploration and prowess. The castle’s stellar cellar “War Room,” like many of its other crevices and corners, has no description or museum plates. Taking in his accomplishments, tourists are expected to rely on the ephemera and media around them. In this case, the walls scream bloody murder, an appropriate motif for somebody who not only lived through but helped power wars of legendary notoriety. Subtle as a bomb, Hammond’s salute is anchored by a mural of an imaginary sea battle on Gloucester Harbor in which the Americans prevail using his armaments. Garrish? Sure. Megalomaniacal and belligerent? You bet. But also well-deserved. A man cave for the ages.

The Emmet Ray to Edison’s Django Reinhardt, Hammond held patents for inventions such as the proximity fuse for torpedoes, and for the thermite bombs used in innumerable WWII airstrikes. On a glamorous North Shore that served as a home base for a cadre of elite inventors including Clarence Birdseye, the godfather of frozen food, Hammond stood out for his ferocity and body count as well as his inventive range. Besides the bellicose developments yielded from his remote and radio wave hacks, Hammond Research Corporation also gave the world the piano modulator and other quirky contraptions, including one of the world’s first mobile radio labs.

Though not often credited as such, Hammond could and perhaps should be remembered as the guy who invented drone warfare. In 1914, he dispatched a remote control “ghost ship” from Gloucester to Boston, and was well known for, as he put it writing for Popular Science in 1919, combining “use of the airplane, directive radio signaling to aircraft, and aerial photography.” But despite those dark advancements, Hammond, if he’s mentioned at all, is typically immortalized as the “father of the remote control.” Impressive stuff, but you almost have to wonder if his genius was for naught. For a guy who wanted people to feel uncomfortable, pound for couch potato pound, he may have delivered more convenience than anyone else in Mass history .

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