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"A Shadowy Missoula Inventor - Kennedy Dougan"

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Kennedy Dougan – Missoula’s Shadowy Inventor

Today Kennedy Dougan is sometimes given credit for inventing and patenting the first punched card voting machine over 125 years ago, in 1890. Interest in this subject became more intense during the 2000 Presidential election when election inspectors pored over thousands of Florida ballots for days and found that Bush beat Gore by only 537 votes. Before this election most of us gave little thought to the complexity of vote counting but it became a hot topic in November of 2000. Voting machines have been around a long time.

In an article appearing in the April 2010 E & T (Engineering & Technology) Magazine on the subject of voting technology, author Mark Harris noted that Florida’s voters were using equipment that had been conceived more than 100 years ago. Harris also credited Missoula’s Kennedy Dougan with forging the punch card idea before anyone else. “The modern punched-card voting machine was first suggested in 1890 by Kennedy Dougan of Missoula, Montana, whose US patent describes a device not vastly dissimilar from the Votomatics of post-millennial Florida. Sporting a simple printed over-sheet, a sharp stylus and security against multiple votes, both seemed to provide a fairly resilient and fool-proof method of mechanizing elections. There were no power supplies to short, no software to crash and no touchscreens to fail. There were, however, other technical challenges, including those in 2000 that had the whole world talking of hanging, dimpled and pregnant chads.”

Kennedy Dougan was also one of University of Virginia researcher Bryan Pfaffenberger’s subjects while he was investigating the general history of voting technology for a book. Pfaffenberger learned that Dougan took steps to commercialize his invention not long after patenting his voting device in 1892. As Pfaffenberger noted, Dougan was able to entice several well-known Missoula investors to join in his project.

In a 2009 message that he posted on Rootsweb, Pfaffenberger gave us a glimpse of Kennedy Dougan’s scheme to crack the voting machine market.

From: Bryan Pfaffenberger

Subject: [MTMISSOU] Montana Vote Registering Co. - Missoula
Date: Sun, 25 Jan 2009 06:09:17 -0500


Hello! I am a historian of technology at the University of Virginia.
I'm writing a book on the history of American voting technologies.
I've been trying to track down information on the Montana Vote
Registering Co., which was incorporated in Montana in 1893, I believe,
with an astounding $5 million in capital. In what follows, I'll tell
you what I know about this company, including the names of the
incorporators, officers, board of directors, and of course the
inventor. If anyone has any information or knows of sources to
pursue, I'd be much obliged to hear from you.

The inventor's name is Kennedy Dougan. He obtained 4 U.S. patents

for a punch-card voting system; the first two, issued in 1890, were

followed by improved versions, issued in Dec., 1892:

"Ballot-holder" No. 440,545 (Nov. 11, 1890)
"Mechanical ballot and ballot-holder" No. 440, 547 (Nov 11, 1890)
"Ballot-holder for voting machines" No. 488,937 (Dec. 27, 1892)
"Vote-registering machine" No. 488,938 (Dec. 27, 1892)

These patents describe an innovative voting system that anticipated
the punch-card systems of the 1970s. Voters prepared their ballots by
inserting them in a ballot holder and then punching holes next to
their preferred candidates' name. The ballots were read at the
precinct by a machine equipped with hundreds of tiny needles; after a
ballot was inserted into the machine, the counters would increment if
a needle dropped through one of the perforations. Although it's
impossible to tell from a patent alone, I must say that I have my
doubts about whether the described device would have worked reliably.
I have not located any surviving artifacts.

In 1893, the Montana Vote Registering Co. was incorporated in Montana.
The incorporators were:

Kennedy Dougan
Miles Mix
Edward Lindsly
W.P. Brayton
Wm. H. Houston
A.J. Urlin
Wm. H.H. Dickinson
H.M. Ogden

The officers and board members were:

Wm. H. Houston, President (ex-Sheriff of Missoula County)
Miles Mix, Vice-President (proprietor of the European Hotel)
Edward Lindsly, Treasurer (Hickman & Lindsly Drug Co.)
W.P Brayton, Secretary (Higgins Western Bank)
Kennedy Dougan, Manager and Inventor

The board members were:

A.M. Ogden, Director (Manager, Electric Light Works, Bozeman)
Wm. H. H. Dickenson, Director (Dickenson & Fairchild, Real Estate)
John Hayes, Director (Livery and Feed Stables)
A. J. Urlin, Director (Real Estate)

The company would have mounted a strong campaign to persuade the
Montana State Legislature to adopt the machine for use in elections
throughout the state. I haven't yet read the legislative journal to
find out whether the machine was debated, but it no such measure was
approved, I believe, and the Montana Vote Registering Co. disappeared
from the historical record. One of the patents was found to be in the
possession of the Myers American Ballot Machine Co., upon its
bankruptcy in 1898. Dougan resurfaces in Minneapolis, where he
continues his inventing career with some success, it seems. It appears
(from patent records) that he died in Minneapolis in 1922.

I'm sure there's a great story here, and I'd love to tell it. Any
assistance would be greatly appreciated.

Bryan Pfaffenberger, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Univ. of Virginia
Charlottesville, VA

Many of Kennedy Dougan’s prospective investors were well known in Missoula history. Sheriff William Houston, William H. H. Dickinson, and Alfred Urlin were prominent people in Missoula at that time and by joining the Board of Directors of Dougan’s project they lent it creditability. W. H. H. Dickinson was the husband of Missoula’s first teacher, an early Missoula Postmaster and school superintendent, while Alfred Urlin almost singlehandedly built Missoula’s northside. With this solid cachet and a huge capital investment it seems this corporation could have been a guaranteed success, but it wasn’t. Dr. Pfaffenberger’s research found that the company disappeared quickly after incorporating, and the voting machine patent was transferred to another company that went bankrupt. If the initial investment amounted to anything close to what Dr. Pfaffenberger found, the financial repercussions in Missoula’s little berg would have been catastrophic.

Until the incorporation of the Voting Machine Corporation, Kennedy Dougan’s Missoula career was unremarkable to say the least. He appears almost nowhere in any search of Missoula’s early business activity and it appears that he left the area not long after the collapse of his corporate vote machine dream. An unusual mention of him in Missoula can be found as early as 1879 when he was in discussions with Alfred Urlin and G. A. Wolf regarding real estate investments. Wolf later became a prominent Missoula banker and land developer, while Urlin played a significant role in shaping early Missoula by donating land to the Northern Pacific Railroad. Kennedy’s early presence in Missoula hasn’t been explained. His family in Missouri was heavily involved in grain and flour mills. Another mention of him in 1889 stated that he was about to take management of the Missoula Water Works & Milling Company.[1]

If Kennedy Dougan appeared to keep a low profile, it wasn’t because he was inactive. He was very busy designing and patenting other inventions. One of them would quickly become important and financially rewarding.

Dougan left Missoula not long after the voting machine debacle and in court papers regarding a messy divorce it can be found that he was heavily in debt at that point. His soon to be ex-wife alleged that he was hiding assets in order to avoid paying her alimony in an amount that she felt was appropriate. A judgement found in his wife’s favor and attested that the appearance of chicanery on Dougan’s part was likely real and that Dougan did attempt to hide assets. The assets referred to in the proceedings were patents and he had several of them.

Dougan’s invention and patenting career started when he was a young man in the 1880s and continued into the 1920’s. One of his inventions, a device for use in grain elevators called a feed governor, resulted in a money-making proposition after he began manufacturing and selling it all over the country. Patent records indicate that he invented this device in 1892, which almost coincided with his Ballot machine invention, although the patent for his grain separator/governor wasn’t published until 1896. In his divorce proceedings mention of this patent came up in connection with his proposed alimony, however he had transferred the patent to one of his brothers by that time.

An article in the Weekly Northwestern Miller stated that Kennedy Dougan had left Missoula by late 1897:

“K. Dougan, inventor of the Columbian first-break feed governor, is now making his headquarters in Minneapolis. He is having his machines made here and ships them wherever he effects sales. His feed governor is well spoken of by millers who have used it as a feed in handling the most difficult stock in a mill.”

Another article about his invention appeared in another publication, The Roller Mill, in July of 1898:

“The Columbian First-Break Feed Governor

To ensure an absolutely even and regular feed of grain to the first break rolls is said to have been regarded as impossible until the introduction, recently, of the Columbian First-Break Feed Governor. By means of this device, we are told, millers can prevent the first-break feed from changing with every change in the kind or condition of grain, and thus avoid one of the most fruitful and annoying sources of loss and trouble in the mill. . .

Many well-known millers in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Dakotas have testified to the value of the Columbian First-Break Feed Governor.”

Before long Dougan’s Minneapolis headquarters were given the name Columbian Feed Governing Company and this was located in substantial manufacturing plant in Minneapolis. Subsequent advertising by 1908 lists Kennedy as president of the operation and he was not done inventing ancillary products. Another article from the 1908 Weekly Northwestern Miller states that he had just patented two more devices: a wheat dampener and a grain steamer, both of which purportedly improved the performance of the Columbia Feed Governor. A grain blender was patented in 1913.

An ad in the June 1911 Northwest Miller indicates that Dougan’s machine had achieved wide acceptance in the milling business. A list of mills in several states that appeared in the magazine indicates most of them were using the Columbian first-break governor:

“Calculation shows that more than 96 per cent of the wheat ground in the mills listed in the above pages is fed through Columbian First Break Feed Governors, which goes to show that a Good Machine “is not without honor in its own country.” Notwithstanding the large number of mills using the Columbian First Break Feed Governors in Minnesota, there are more of them in use in Indiana than in this state. Ohio has more of them in use than Indiana. Oklahoma has a greater percentage of them in use than Ohio, and they are as numerous in Canada and Australia, in proportion to the number of mills, as in this country.”

Dougan’s patent history shows that he was interested in many other things throughout his life. Patents ranging from a hydraulic air compressor to belt buckles can be found under his name. Some of his most interesting patents occurred around the time of WW1 and involved weaponry. These ranged from projectiles designed to be fired from long ranges to torpedoes fired underwater. Another of his patents filed in 1911 and published in 1917 related to a two-cycle internal combustion engine, “primarily for pumping purposes.”

At least one genealogy site indicates that Kennedy was born in 1856 and emigrated to the United States in 1863 from Tyrone, Ireland with his family. His parents, William T. and Mary Jane Yarrow Dougan first settled in Frankfort, Missouri, and then moved to Salem, Missouri where the family operated a flour mill. In fact, it appears that his father, Willam, filed a patent regarding a flour mill. The family subsequently grew by four more children. Patent information from 1925 indicates that Kennedy was deceased.

As stated above Kennedy Dougan’s presence in Missoula hasn’t been explained. One interesting mention of him in 1879 indicated that he participated with R. A. Eddy in a shooting match at a county fair. Not long after that Eddy became very busy helping build the N. P. Railroad as it came through Montana. In the early 1870’s Eddy had partnered with E. L. Bonner and was an early manager of what later became the Missoula Mercantile. He was also a stockholder in the Missoula National Bank and the Missoula Improvement Company.



[1] The Weekly Northwestern Miller on Feb. 1, 1889. (p 134)

Last Updated on Sunday, 07 May 2017 19:51