W. & L. E. Gurley HistoryW. & L. E. Gurley was started in 1852 by two brothers William Gurley & Lewis Ephraim Gurley hence the name W. & L. E. Gurley. To truly understand the history of W. & L. E. Gurley instruments you need to know a little history of the Gurley family starting with Ephraim Gurley, the father of both William and Lewis E. Gurley. The history of the Gurley survey instrument legacy begins with Col. Benjamin Hanks, who had established what might have been the first bronze bell and cannon foundry in America in Mansfield, Connecticut, in 1785. A little over twenty years later, in 1808, Col. Hanks set his son Julius up in the brass foundry business in Gibbonsville, a settlement across the Hudson River from Troy.
Col. Benjamin Hanks was friends with and had previous business dealings with the Gurleys, also in Mansfield, Connecticut, but the Gurleys were in the iron business. He urged Ephraim Gurley to relocate to Gibbonsville, NY and establish a business there. In 1811 Ephraim went to Gibbonsville, NY, (Now Watervliet) to seek employment. After twice returning to Mansfield and marrying his wife, Clarissa, he returned to Gibbonsville in 1813 to go to work at the Julius Hanks foundry.
In 1816, Ephraim established, in Gibbonsville, a small foundry to satisfy the local demand for small iron castings. In 1818 Ephraim moved to Troy, NY, and went into a partnership with Alpheus (Col. Benjamin Hanks’ brother) and Truman (Benjamin Hanks’ second son) Hanks under the name of Hanks, Gurley & Co. They built the first iron foundry in Troy located at Fifth & Grand Streets and called it the “Troy Air Furnace”, which casted the first stove plates and, thus, initiated stove-making, one of Troy’s most important industries. In 1821 Alpheus and Truman Hanks sold their interest in the company to Charles & Nathaniel Starbuck and the company name changed to Starbucks & Gurley. When Charles Starbuck died in 1823 the company name changed by dropping the “S” to Starbuck & Gurley and continued business until the death of Ephraim Gurley in February 1829. After Ephraim’s death the company continued trading as Troy Air Furnace.
In 1825 Julius Hanks sold his foundry in Gibbonsville to one of his former apprentices and employees and another famous bell and survey instrument maker, Andrew Meneely. Julius moved to Troy, having purchased lot 795, on the northeast corner of Fifth and Elbow (Fulton) streets. On it he erected a two-story, weather-boarded building, residing in the part fronting on Fifth Street, and using the other, on Elbow (Fulton) Street, for his business. As advertised, Julius Hanks was prepared to execute any orders for church-bells with improved cast-iron yokes, town clocks, copper and brass castings, and surveyors' instruments of the most improved construction. In 1830 Alpheus & Truman Hanks bought out Julius Hanks and started to do business as A. & T. Hanks. In 1834 after just four years in business Alpheus and Truman Hanks sold the business to Oscar Hanks, son of Julius Hanks.
William Gurley, son of Ephraim and Clarissa was born on March 16th 1821 in Troy, NY. In 1839 he graduated from Rensselaer Institute with a civil engineering degree. In search of work, William traveled west as far as Michigan to try and find a position as a civil engineer. William’s trip did not go well as he never found work as a civil engineer so he returned to Troy, NY a year later in 1840 and went to work for Oscar Hanks as an apprentice making surveying instruments.
William served for 5 years as Oscar Hanks’ shop foreman. It was during this time at the Hank’s shop that William met his soon to be partner Jonas H. Phelps. Jonas Phelps also worked in the Oscar Hanks shop from 1833 to 1837 when he left Hanks employ to start his own business. It is believed that Phelps had his instruments graduated at the Hanks shop and this is how William and Jonas became friends. When Oscar Hanks decided to close his business in 1845 he may have sold William the survey instrument portion of the business. With William out of work, he formed a new partnership with Jonas Phelps under the name Phelps & Gurley. The strong connection between the Hanks shop and the principals of the new partnership of Phelps & Gurley makes it easy to see why the early Gurley instruments had the same look and feel as the older Hanks’ instruments.
Lewis Ephraim Gurley, son of Ephraim and Clarissa was born December 30, 1826 in Troy, NY. In 1844 Lewis went to work for Jonas Phelps as an apprentice at his shop. Lewis worked for Jonas for about a year when he decided to go to Schenectady to attend Union College. Lewis graduated Union college in 1851 with a B. A. Degree. Lewis came back to Troy in 1851 and became a full partner with Jonas Phelps and his brother William.
The company name was changed to Phelps & Gurleys and soon after that in 1852 William and Lewis bought out Jonas Phelps and the company became W. & L. E. Gurley. During their first years in business they had a modest shop that was located at 319 River St. in Troy, NY. Once the Gurley brothers bought out Phelps they decided to expand and in late 1852 they purchased the old Julius Hanks building of 1825, shown previously, at Fifth and Fulton streets.
The new building shown to the right was built in an amazing feat of construction in just 7 months to replace the previous building, which burned in the Great Troy Fire of 1862. The building is a four-story red brick building, encircling a small courtyard. A foundry with a floor and a half story below ground level was on the north side of the courtyard. The building was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1983.
Edward Wright Arms was born December 4, 1845 and was a very influential person within the Gurley organization. Arms was hired in 1862 at the young age of 17, by the Gurleys and by 1863 he was signing instruments which is an accomplishment that took most instrument makers many years. The Gurley’s sent him to Rensselaer to study engineering, which he did while tending to his regular duties at Gurley.
Arms graduated in 1869 and in 1935 Arms received an honorary doctorate from Rensselaer, his alma mater. Arms worked closely with William on technical matters and together they completed the large automatic circular dividing engine which the Gurleys had purchased from the Jonas Phelps estate in 1864. Arms built three large automatic circular dividing engines for Gurley in 1883, 1907, and 1908. (A circular dividing engine is a machine used to cut the proper divisions on the circles and arcs.) The image to the right is the circular dividing engine made by Edward Arms in 1883. By the 1880s, Arms was Gurley’s Chief Engineer, a post he held until his death at the age of 90.
With great new instrument designs Gurley took their wares on the road and attended many state fairs across the east. Gurley exhibited at the Centennial Exhibition in 1876 where they introduced the first aluminum transit shown below, said to be the first commercial use of aluminum in America. They also introduced the new smaller lightweight rugged transit called the Light Mountain transit and the new line of solar transits.
During the Centennial Exposition, Edward Arms made the acquaintance of Alexander Graham Bell, then in his twenties, who set up across the aisle from Gurley with his telephone. The aluminum transit was based on the design of the Engineers’ transit and was built solely by Edward Arms. Edward Arms also attended the Columbian Exposition in 1893 where he showed Alvin Clark (Renowned American astronomer and telescope maker) a telescope he had made using lenses ground at Gurley, and received a favorable review. The Gurley booth at the 1893 Columbian Exposition shown below right.
With sales agents in various cities, advertising in engineering and surveying print media, and the nearly annual publication of their American Engineer’s & Surveyor’s Instruments manual, Gurley quickly became one of the best-known makers in North America. Dealers, which at the time were referred to as Agents, were set up across the country and Gurley’s sales started to soar.
In 1908 Gurley established a branch factory in Seattle, WA in the Maritime building at Western Ave. & Madison St, to handle sales and service to western and pacific markets. By 1919 the Seattle Branch had moved to the Empire Building. In 1923, Gurley decided to abandon Seattle because of slow sales and perhaps not wanting to compete with their independent agents in the west. Throughout their years in business, Gurley was always at the leading edge of manufacturing and technology. Gurley was able to manufacture instruments at a low cost without sacrificing the quality of their instruments. Their equipment lasted for years in the field and would stand up very well compared to instruments costing much more.
Reference: Brian Aregood The Complete Guide To Early W. & L. E. Gurley Transits