Concise Encyclopedia of Tufts History
Pearson, Fred Stark, 1861-1915
Fred Stark Pearson (1861-1915), E1883, G1884, H1900, H1905, was a highly influential electrical engineer who revolutionized city rail systems and the use of hydroelectric power. The Pearson Memorial Chemistry Laboratories are named for him.
Pearson was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, on July 3, 1861. Pearson's father died when he was only fifteen years old, leaving his mother to support Fred and his brothers. After his family moved to Medford in 1877, Pearson began work as a station agent at the Medford Hillside railway station, located across from where stands today. While working at the station, Pearson attracted the attention of several Tufts professors, including Professor Amos E. Dolbear, who taught physics and astronomy. Dolbear pressed then-president Capen to allow Pearson into Tufts, and in 1879, Pearson was admitted. He became a special student in chemistry under Professor Stephen Minot Pitman, but transferred to M.I.T. in 1880, hoping to delve even more deeply into chemistry. Pearson returned to Tufts in 1881, completing his schooling over the next two years while working as Postmaster at the Hillside Post Office.
After graduating in 1883, Pearson was immediately hired as Walker Professor of Mathematics at Tufts for three years. He finished graduate school in 1884, while working as a professor and pursuing personal contracts with various commercial groups. Teaching, however, would prove to be the wrong career choice for Pearson. Although he was an enthusiastic professor, he often moved too quickly in class, leaving slower students behind. After his three years of teaching came to a close, Pearson decided to move on.
Pearson had become interested in mining during his final year of teaching and decided to explore the possibilities of becoming a mining engineer. He toured Texas and Mexico in search of metal deposits, and traveled to Brazil to survey the chances of developing a gold mine in Sao Paulo. On his return to the United States, Pearson married Mabel Ward, who he had known since childhood. His marriage served as a precursor to yet another career change.
After his marriage, Pearson, along with fellow Tufts graduate H.C. Buck, founded the Somerville and Woburn Electric Light Companies, and founded a similar business in Wakefield. The companies were some of the first to provide electricity to an entire community using only one power source, and both companies gained much attention and success.
In 1888, Boston businessman Henry Whitney hired Pearson to work as chief engineer for the West End Street Railway, which incorporated six local horse-drawn railway lines. Whitney had heard of Pearson's electrical expertise, and was attempting to convert his railway to electric power. Pearson was put in charge of the project. Although Whitney's original plan was for a cable drawn system, Pearson scrapped the idea in favor of overhead wires. Within three years, the project was complete and West End Street Railway had become one of the richest companies in Boston. In 1893, Pearson left the company, now a seventeen million-dollar business, and moved to New York to work for the Brooklyn Heights Railway Company. While in New York, Pearson designed two central power plants for the company and organized the Eastern Power Company.
For the remainder of the 1890s, Pearson continued working with railways and electricity. He began working on a subway system in New York, and also worked in Montreal, St. John, Syracuse, Providence, and Liverpool. After gaining an interest in coal mining, Pearson invented the first machine to carry coal from a railroad car to a vessel.
At the turn of the century, Pearson decided to commit more time to developing hydroelectric power. In 1899, Pearson moved to Brazil to begin developing a hydroelectric plant to supply power to Sao Paulo. By using the Rio Tiete, Pearson was able to produce more than six thousand horsepower in energy, and transmitted it to Sao Paulo via a twenty-two mile high-tension wire. Pearson then founded a power company in Sao Paulo to regulate the power he developed. By 1905, he would own a similar enterprise in Rio de Janeiro as well.
While working in Brazil, Pearson had continued to invest in other projects. In 1906, Pearson, using water harnessed from the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, founded the Toronto and Niagara Power Company and developed a twenty-five thousand horsepower plant in Winnipeg. Pearson also financed the construction of power plants and railway systems in Mexico, and built the Medina Dam near San Antonio, which was used to irrigate thirty thousand acres of land.
Pearson, who was a millionaire by his early thirties, now owned houses in New York and Surrey, England. In 1902, Pearson became enamored with Great Barrington, Massachusetts, buying a thirteen thousand acre property and relocating his family. He would remain in Great Barrington, becoming a major benefactor of the town.
Pearson's last great project was centered in Barcelona, Spain. Pearson used the Ebro River and its tributaries to provide power to Barcelona and most of the province of Catalonia. The central plant of the system was completed in 1914, but due to the outbreak of World War One, the project was temporarily halted.
In May of 1915, Pearson was working in New York when he was called to London for a meeting to discuss developments in Barcelona. The only vessel slated to arrive in time for the meeting was the Lusitania, and Pearson booked passage for himself and his wife. On Friday, May 7, 1915, German torpedoes sank the Lusitania, and both Pearson and his wife died. Ironically, Tufts had recently been developing anti-submarine devices, and on Pearson's return, he was to officially present the results of the project.
Pearson was memorialized at Tufts with the construction of the Pearson Memorial Chemistry Laboratories in 1923, and had been honored prior to his death by honorary degrees in 1900 and 1905. On May 19, 1928, the Rotary Club of Barcelona dedicated a monument to Pearson in honor of his work in bringing power to Barcelona and the surrounding province.