BABBITT, JOHN, jeweller, watchmaker, and scientist; b. 15 Oct. 1845 at Fredericton, N.B., son of Samuel Wellington Babbitt and Frances Maria Nealon; m. 9 June 1874 Margaret Turnbull (d. 1882), and they had two children; d. 10 Dec. 1889 at Fredericton.
In 1865 John Babbitt entered into partnership in Fredericton with the silversmith and jeweller, Alexander MacPherson. In 1868 he set up in business independently as a jeweller and watchmaker. He remained a craftsman all his life, but was at the same time keenly interested in scientific advances which were then being made. Babbitt seems to have had several sources of information concerning Alexander Graham Bell*’s invention, the telephone. He is believed to have seen an example of Bell’s telephone at the Philadelphia Centennial International Exhibition in 1876, as well as a description in the Scientific American. Another source was three letters written between September and November 1877 to Babbitt’s friend, Professor Loring Woart Bailey* of the University of New Brunswick, by his brother, William Whitman Bailey, professor of botany at Brown University in Providence, R.I.; these described a telephone constructed at his family’s estate with the help of Bell’s friend John Pierce, whose improvements Bell had adopted. Having gathered this information, Babbitt and Loring Bailey late in 1877 or early in 1878 made the first telephone in Fredericton, perhaps the first in the province. It was a magnetic telephone, the transmitters and receivers being wooden cylinders with vibrating plates of thin metal, and the magnets consisting of two iron bars around which wire was wound. This first telephone connected John Babbitt’s house with that of his brother, George Nealon, and then with Professor Bailey’s. It thus extended 200 yards. Babbitt later made telephone connections between various points in the city.
In 1879, when streets and places of business were lighted by gas and most houses by kerosene lamps and candles, Dr Loring Bailey imported from London, England, a 30- or 40-cell battery with which he and Babbitt produced the first electric light in Fredericton, and perhaps in the Maritimes. When such a light was placed in the portico of the university it was thrown by a parabolic reflector on the spire of Christ Church Cathedral and then on the Methodist church spire at Marysville three miles away, an event which produced a commotion among the inhabitants of both places. With some knowledge of Thomas Alva Edison’s recent invention, particularly from a description in a scientific review, Babbitt also made what is believed to have been the first phonograph in New Brunswick.
Babbitt, it is clear, was strongly inclined to the study of mechanical laws, and indeed to many branches of physical science in both a theoretical and a practical way. He sometimes assisted in experimental work at the University of New Brunswick and Provincial Normal School, and in about 1880, together with Professor Bailey, he exhibited to a Saint John audience, for the first time, a heliostat, a large induction coil, and a phonograph.
L. W. Bailey, “In memoriam, [John Babbitt],” Univ. Monthly (Fredericton), February 1890: 52. J. W. Bailey, Loring Woart Bailey; the story of a man of science (Saint John, N.B., 1925), 111–12. I. L. Hill, Fredericton, New Brunswick, British North America ([Fredericton, 1968]), 49–51. D. C. Mackay, Silversmiths and related craftsmen of the Atlantic provinces (Halifax, 1973), 91. A. G. Bailey, “The first telephone in Fredericton,” Atlantic Advocate (Fredericton), 47 (1956–57), no.8: 77–78. Daily Gleaner (Fredericton), 12 Jan. 1925.