Monday, March 25, 2013

Schenectady Inventor Revolutionized Golf


Drawing of Schenectady Putter, patent no. 723,534, patented by Arthur F. Knight. Image from United States Patent and Trademark Office, viewed via Google Patents (http://www.google.com/patents/US723534). 


This blog entry is written by Schenectady County Historical Society trustee John Gearing. 

Every so often I search Ebay for items that have “Schenectady” in their description, just to see what turns up. Almost without fail, there will be at least one antique golf club described as a “Schenectady putter” up for sale. With curiosity piqued and the Spring golf season about to begin, some historical investigation seemed to be in order.

In 1900 Arthur F. Knight lived in Schenectady, where he was a electrical engineer at General Electric and an avid golfer at the Mohawk Golf Club. By 1902 Knight was a star of Mohawk's golf team, but like all golfers, even those of today, he was bitten with the bug of improving his game. Engineer Knight decided to try designing an improved putter. Putters of the day consisted of a vertical blade with the shaft attached at the heel. Knight's design was for a low-profile, blocky aluminum head with the shaft attached near its center. His teammates on the Mohawk team thought the putter odd looking, but in those early days of organized golf there were few rules governing golf equipment. Knight was quite pleased with the new putter. One day that summer a visiting Garden City golfer named Devereux Emmet borrowed Knight's putter and then took it home for “further tests.” Emmet let America's leading amateur golfer, Walter J. Travis, who also played at Garden City, try the putter and within a few days Knight received a letter from Travis asking for one of Knight's new putters.

Arthur F. Knight in 1901. Image from Knight surname file, Grems-Doolittle Library Collection. 

Walter J. Travis had a reputation as an innovator. He had pioneered the wound rubber golf ball, using one to win the 1901 US Amateur championship. He also had experienced problems with his putting. Travis enthused over Knight's putter, declaring it “the best putter I have ever used.” By some accounts Travis used his “Schenectady” putter in winning the 1902 US Amateur title, and according to the Walter J. Travis Society he used the putter in the 1903 US Open, finishing second. Knight's putter became famous in 1904 when Travis used it to become the first non-British golfer to win the British Amateur.  Knight suddenly was besieged with orders for his putter. He dubbed the patented (1903) design the “Schenectady Putter” and established the Schenectady Golfclub Company at 831 Union Street. An advertisement at the time lists a price of $2.50 and reminds customers “The genuine has 'SCHENECTADY' cast on every head.”

The Schenectady Putter also played a leading part in one of the great golf matches of the era. The 1904 Nassau Invitational featured the top American amateurs, including Walter J. Travis fresh from his triumph at the British Amateur. Travis made it to the finals, where his opponent was 17 year old phenom Jerry Travers. Travers had beaten some excellent golfers en route to the finals, but had been having putting trouble. Before his showdown with Travis a friend loaned him a Schenectady putter to try. Travers liked it and decided to play it. In the finals, both Travers and Travis used Schenectady putters. The match went to extra holes and on the 21st hole Travers used his Schenectady putter to sink a 10-footer and win the match in an astounding upset that marked his ascendancy to the top ranks of amateur golf.

Golfer Walter Travis with the Schenectady Putter. Image from Walter J. Travis Society (http://travissociety.com)


Some accounts of the Schenectady Putter state that the Royal and Ancient Golf Club (of Scotland), the rules-making body, banned Knight's invention shortly after Travis won the British Amateur, with the implication that this was a reaction to Travis victory in the British Amateur. According to the USGA this is simply not the case. In 1910 the “R & A” adopted rules banning “mallet-headed”  clubs. Since they considered the Schenectady Putter to fall into this category, it was banned. The USGA, however, elected to interpret the rule differently than their British cousins. The USGA only banned clubs that were actual mallets, akin to a croquet mallet. By the American definition the Schenectady Putter was legal and continued to be used in sanctioned events in America. The Royal and Ancient Golf Club lifted its ban in 1952.

Having revolutionized putting, Knight patented hollow steel golf club shafts in 1910. Steel shafts, Knight found, would resist twisting at impact better than hickory shafts and provide more accurate shots. This time though, his invention was banned for use in sanctioned events in both England and America until the late 20s. Golf club makers produced steel shaft clubs for recreational use instead. Ironically, when golfing's rule-makers lifted the ban they said the clubs were legal because they did not confer an advantage on the golfer, despite the fact that they were intended to do just that. By the 1930s, steel shafted clubs were the standard.


Retired golf pro Jim Thompson poses with an original Schenectady Putter, part of his personal collection, ca. 1959. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

Knight was not through inventing. He also patented a table-top golf game played on a fabric “course” with tiddly winks. Knight was also involved with golf course design and designed both the Schenectady Municipal golf course and the Edison Club's course.

Arthur Franklin Knight was born in Rensselaer on September 6, 1868. He was married to Grace Van Vranken, daughter of Benjamin Van Vranken. Arthur F. Knight died at age 71 on May 5, 1936. He left substantial bequests to the Ingersoll Home, Ellis Hospital, the Old Ladies Home, the Children's Home Society, and the Schenectady Day Nursery.


Sources:
Schenectady Gazette May 5, 1936 obituary
Schenectady Gazette May 7, 1939 article “Most of Knight Estate Is Left To Institutions”
Ancestry.com; Rootsweb, “Descendants of Richard and Sarah Rogers Knight and Others”
“Better Golfing Through Chemistry,” American Heritage's Invention and Technology, Vol. 9, Issue 1, 1993.
 Mike Cullity, “Museum Moment: Schenectady Putter Helped Travers Make His Mark”, www.usgamuseum.com, August 18, 2011.
www.usgamuseum.com, “Walter Travis”.
“List of Past Champions,” www.usamateur.org
“1902 U. S. Open Golf Tournament Scores,” www.About.com
The Walter J. Travis Society, travissociety.com
B.B.H., “The Origin of the Schenectady Putter”, The American Golfer, 1911, Vol. 8, 371-373.
“The Schenectady Putter,” www.thegolfballfactory.com
Patent 976,267, Arthur F. Knight, US Patent Office, November 22, 1910. Steel shaft golf clubs.
“The Rise of Golf c1895-1950,” www.patentlygolf.com
Patent 723,543, Arthur F. Knight, US Patent Office, March 24, 1903. Schenectady putter.
Patent 711979, Arthur F. Knight, US Patent Office, October 28, 1902. Table-top golf game.

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