The story of William Augustus Merralls (1852–1914) and Temperance Laura Clarke Neely Merralls (1865–1930) during their life together. Related posts and information on main Merralls page. This post from 2018 was updated in 2023 to reflect new research.
By Amy O’Hair
William Augustus and Temperance Laura Merralls were remarkable and eccentric residents of early Sunnyside. William left a legacy to the neighborhood—the Sunnyside Conservatory, a city landmark on Monterey Boulevard, which he built about 1902.
When they married in 1909, they were both in middle age, William a widower, Temperance a divorcee. William’s inventions were innovative, and wide-ranging; Temperance brought an interest in alternative medicine and healing. They were devoted to each other, but had just five years together. The match was anchored in a deep love, but it was also a meeting of minds. They shared interests and beliefs, rooted both in the Baptist faith and a complete confidence that human progress was positively furthered by new discoveries and ideas.
Dreaming on Sunnyside Avenue
Living in the house at 258 Sunnyside Avenue (now Monterey Blvd)—with its extensive grounds surrounding the Conservatory, the couple were outliers in an otherwise working-class neighborhood.
In the years between their marriage and William’s death in 1914, they were busy with an intense number of projects, mostly driven by William’s inventions, but also by Temperance’s desire to start a sanatorium, ‘Sunnyside Laboratories.’
William was a prolific inventor, holding over 20 patents in all. The most widely sold and profitable were the mining machines he brought to market when he first arrived in California in the 1890s.
In 1892 he won a silver medal at the California State Fair in Sacramento, for “Best machine for gold saving from placer and from quartz.”
Up in the Air
Later in life, during his five years with Temperance, William’s restless mind moved onto other challenges. By 1910 he had caught the aviation bug—so many different people were working on the project of getting humans airborne. He invented a new type of aeroplane.
William joined the Pacific Aero Club and attended their meetings during 1910, being appointed to the governing board by the end of the year. The Club had been formed in May 1909, “for the purpose of encouraging experiments in aerial flights,” an endeavor which brought San Francisco “into line with the other leading cities of the world.
In July 1910, William presented to the Club blueprints for his invention, Merralls Safety Aeroplane, which had the novel feature of a small hot-air balloon, which was filled using the exhaust from the engine.
Later in the stock prospectus, William would tout this novel innovation as an effective method of getting the pilot to safety if the fuel ran out in midair.
William kept an obsessive scrapbook in these years, clipping articles about aviation happenings all over the world, ultimately running to many pages. The book is now much degraded, with the pages fused, having been eaten by bugs sometime during the last hundred years.
Sidelight on an Airborne Woman
One article from the SF Call that he pasted in was about the athlete and Boston socialite Eleanora Sears, who took several flights with pioneer pilot Claude Grahame-White the week before he won the Bennett Trophy in October 1910. On the day of the big competition, she was seen on the field with him as he got his engine going, but didn’t go up on his winning flight.
Happily, Sears didn’t much listen to the ‘orders’ of her Boston Brahmin family, nor society in general. She was a preeminent athlete of the early 20th century; she went where she wanted to, did want she wanted to do, and was one of the first women to persistently wear trousers in public.
William, besides holding in great esteem the independent spirit of his wife Temperance, had some history with supporting women. In the 1890s he had helped a group a women start a company, the Ideal Placer Mining Water and Power Company—which had all women as its board of directors. Unfortunately the project ended in contentious lawsuits, which did not show William in a particularly good light.
Toward a Safer Aeroplane
In November 1910, just two weeks after the Bennett Trophy event back East, William started a company to manufacture his new idea, The Merralls Safety Aeroplane Manufacturing Company. The stock prospectus from this venture survives, but is also eaten away by bugs.
Here is a brief quote from the text William wrote in the prospectus, which contains a great many other similarly enthusiastic run-on sentences.
“…in the aggregate, thousands upon thousands of Safety Aeroplanes could be used, and each one bringing in in a very handsome revenue until the aggregate would swell into millions, and would only be surpassed in earning power and dividend distribution by such great concerns as the Standard Oil Company and the United States Steel Company, but we would enjoy the immense revenue without the enormous outlay for these concerns, for by having a factory somewhere in the Middle West where raw material is cheap and labor cheaper than it is on the Pacific Coast, and by turning out the machines in quantity, a Merralls Safety Aeroplane of the size described, boxed ready for shipment, will cost net, about two thousands five hundred dollars…”
The photo that adorns the cover of the prospectus William apparently borrowed from another inventor, George Loose, whose ‘seagull’ plane was demonstrated at a Pacific Aero Club meet the previous May.
On the prospectus cover the photographer’s name, Frank Frost of Oakland, was cropped out.
William’s new company issued stock certificates, this one to Temperance.
In December 1910, the Pacific Aero Club announced that there would be a big aviation meet, to take place over several days in January, with prizes and aeronauts from all over the world. Read an article here: “Pacific Aero Club to hold Flying Model Contest.”
Later that month, it was announced that William’s special new craft—containing both lighter-than-air and heavier-than-air capacities—would be featured at the big event. These two categories of aircraft were central to the developing field: hot-air balloons being the former, airplanes and glider the latter. A sensation!
However, when the details of the aircrafts and aeronauts who were to demonstrate during the meet were announced at the beginning of January, William’s device was missing from the daily lists of the scheduled events. He was only listed as one of the many appointed timers of the various contests. He seems not to have been able to raise the money needed to have his craft constructed.
The big aviation meet took place 7-25 January 1911, at the Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno. It was the third such event held by the Pacific Aero Club. Luisa Tetrazzini showed up on one of the last days that year, creating another sort of sensation.
The Impoverished Inventor
Sometime in 1911, William forfeited his beloved aeroplane business. After his death in 1914, his stepson Charles FN Merralls wrote this letter to the Examiner, speaking with great feeling about the trials of being an inventor, with the task of finding the money to demonstrate an idea being excessively burdensome—no venture capital then. No doubt he witnessed the effects of this on his adopted father. An excerpt:
“After an inventor has spent months and even years of his time, and all the worldly goods he possesses., quite naturally he is ‘down and out,’ and at this condition of his career his personal appearance is usually such that people look upon him as a freak or ‘crank’ upon some particular line of invention,, often remarking that ‘if the invention is so good, why doesn’t Mr Rockefeller or Mr Ford buy it?’
“This is answered by the same reason that Mr Astor doesn’t buy the State of California. The man with money to invest in most cases, knowing the inventor is ’up against it,’ either wants the ‘whole thing’ or more than control, and the result is that many a good invention is ‘shelved’ for lack of financial assistance.”
William endured a period of recovery from his disappointment, which included placing this unusual ad in the ‘Employment Wanted – Male’ section of the classifieds.
Then he began work on another invention. By September of 1912, he had patented an automobile starter mechanism. Crank starters were notorious for injuring or even killing users. Many different ideas for automated starter were being tried then.
William’s idea used compressed air from a four-foot long canister, which was recharged from the engine’s exhaust, echoing his aeroplane idea, and showing a certain tidy self-sufficiency of functioning. View the patent documents here.
To manufacture and market the device, Temperance and William took an eighteen-month trip back East, leaving for Detroit at the end of 1911. Detroit was where many of Temperance’s family members lived, and an emerging center of automobile manufacturing.
In October 1912, William formed a company in Detroit to manufacture the devices. One of the investors noted in this article in Motor Age was Robert CS Neely, one of Temperance’s children by her previous marriage.
William went to New York City, in search of investors in November 1912. While there, this item was published in The Automobile in late 1912, describing William’s new invention.
In February 1913, another article about the starter appeared in Motor World.
During these years there were several different mechanisms being tried as starters, and unfortunately for William, the one that was destined to emerge as the victor was the electrical battery, such as all cars still have today.
However, compressed-air starters do work well, although they are often loud. Read more about them and hear one here. They are still used even today on certain vehicles like commercial and military aircraft—and apparently Russian tanks, as they function in sub-zero weather.
Not for the first time, William had a good idea, but at the wrong time for the wrong application. In January 1912, Cadillac had already introduced the first electrical starter on a consumer vehicle, and soon all the manufacturers of consumer cars followed suit. More here.
Dear Wife and Baby
While they were apart, he wrote this enthusiastic and heartfelt letter to Temperance.
“Well, darling, you should see the Merralls starter at work on that big engine, you would be tickled to pieces, it is a dandy, and does all that I thought it would do, and even better, when I get my new valve on the Automobile, we shall go down on the street and when you come on for Thanksgiving, you shall be the first Lady to ride in an Automobile that has the only Commercial Perfect Self-Starter in the world, and that one is a Merralls….
“Give my love to all, kiss those for me that you think should be kissed, and a whole lot of hugs and kisses for my lover and baby. Good night, loved one, may he who rules our destinies take care of you, and protect you from all harm and temptation, is the prayer of your Hubby.”
Home Again on Sunnyside Avenue
By February 1913, Temperance returned to the house on Sunnyside Avenue. William, back in New York, needed more money. She and her son Charles Merralls, who had remained at the Sunnyside house, placed several ads in the newspapers, selling household items of some worth to raise funds.
Charles and his wife Eline had been holding down the fort during their absence. Sometime before 1912 the house underwent some renovations, probably under Charles’ watch. There was an addition built out on the front, extending it about fifteen feet to the edge of the property line. A low third story had been added to the front of the building as well.
It is my surmise that the reason for these additions was Temperance’s project to found Sunnyside Laboratories, a sanatorium (more on this below).
Deep Breathing and Spinal Manipulation
In November 1913, William gave Temperance a book, which stayed in the family for over a hundred years. William inscribed the flyleaf. Later, after his death, she tucked several personal items into it over the years. The book was Neuropathy: the New Science of Drugless Healing by AP Davis MD, 1909.
The title page of the book says:
“Neuropathy the new science of drugless healing amply illustrated and explained, embracing [among other things] … osteopathy, chiropractic, magnetism, diet, and deep breathing. Instructions how to cure disease without medicine and some conditions where certain domestic remedies are useful. by A.P. Davis, MD, doctor of ophthalmology, Baker City Oregon, 1909.”
The book included chapters on Deep breathing, Diet, Osteopathic and Chiropractic Manipulation, Ophthalmology, Home remedies and many other nonconventional medical practices. (Read it in Google Books here.)
William supported Temperance’s interest in alternative methods to improve health. Among the recommended practices in the book, there are detailed instructions on how to breathe deeply. Sometime in these last years he invented (but did not patent) something he called a “Deep Breathing Developer.” The only evidence that remains of this curious invention is some letterhead stationary from the family business dated after William’s death. It shows a list of his inventions, and this item is included.
The Last Years
The rest of 1913 and 1914 saw William and Temperance at the house. Charles brought some cheer to the family by buying a pit-bull dog, which he showed off at the Golden Gate Kennel Show in April 1913. Then they bred and sold pit-bull terrier dogs over the next two years.
Death of a Beloved Husband
In early September 1914, William was hit by a speeding Southern Pacific train in Alameda, while returning home from visiting friends. Given the failures of his last years, and the financial straits his family was in, the possibility that he willfully caused his own death must be considered. Temperance filed a suit against the Southern Pacific Railway Company, but she lost in the California Supreme Court in 1920.
In the two years after William’s death, Temperance lived on at the house with her son and daughter-in-law. They continued to sell things off periodically in the newspaper classified ads, such as an aeroplane that William had bought sometime during his aviation phase.
‘Two Pit-Bulls to watch over all’
In the year after William’s death, Charles wrote a poem about his parents’ love for each other, touching on several items in the house on Sunnyside Ave, their mutual love of music, and of course the beloved dogs.
When Adam alone in the garden
Grew lonesome; knew not what to do,
God then sent him Eve for company
Having plenty of room for the two.
Two eyes he had previously given
To each, lest they’d fret and fear
That they would not have a vision
Of evils sure to appear.
Two arms for Brother Adam
To help him on his way,
And to hold Eve, his madame;
While both would kneel to pray.
And in our home there are some things
About which I would write,
As to my memory each one brings,
These thoughts I write tonight.
Two pianos alike in the parlor,
Two glass panes alike in the door;
Two vases alike on the mantel,
Two carpets alike on the floor.
Two zithers alike for our music,
Two parrots to chatter and call,
Two birdies to sing, Oh! so sweetly
Two bull-dogs to watch over all.
Dedicated to my father Wm A Merralls
In July 1916, Temperance placed a small notice in the social pages of the Examiner, which indicates she had a breakdown after William’s death.
A few months on, after Charles had already moved with his wife to Southern California to sell automobiles, Temperance took a trip. The place she would naturally go to recover would have been her hometown, Detroit. Later, she placed this notice of her intent to return for the holidays.
Unfortunately, as sales records at the SF Assessor’s Office show, there could have been no happy Christmas that year when she returned: the bank took back the house, Conservatory, and grounds in December 1916. There was no more money left for life on Sunnyside Avenue. Temperance then joined Charles and Eline in Southern California, leaving San Francisco behind forever.
End of a Great Love
During their short time together, William and Temperance Merralls were bound by a devoted love, sharing imaginative dreams and supporting each other through both difficult times and innovative projects.
The Sunnyside Conservatory and grounds are still with us today, including the tall palm trees that William planted over a century ago, now grown now to great heights. It’s still a place that can inspire dreams.
- The public record for the existence of the sanatorium is limited to a local history document produced in the 1970s by Sunnyside historian Thomas Malim, which cited local lore as its reference, and which unfortunately contained several errors of fact about other matters. ↑
- SF Examiner, 25 Dec 1910, p5; SF Call, 26 Dec 1910, p7. ↑
- SF Chronicle, 17 May 1909, p10. ↑
- “New Airship is Shown,” SF Examiner, 20 Jul 1910; “Aviation Discussed by Pacific Aero Club,” SF Call, 21 Jul 1910. ↑
- Formation of the Ideal Placer Mining and Power Company: SF Chronicle, 6 May 1893, p14 and SF Call, 6 May 1893, p4. Lawsuit: SF Chronicle, 3 Nov 1894, p7 and SF Examiner, 3 Nov 1894, p9. William Merralls was sued because he “alone did not pay for his shares but as an equivalent he agreed to make a present to the company of certain mining machines patented by him. However, according to the complaint, Merralls did not materialize with his machine.” (SF Call, 3 Nov 1894, p3.) This was not ideal for the women investors. ↑
- “Birdmen to seek new records in sky today,” SF Chronicle, 7 Jan 1911, p2. ↑
- SF Call, 23 Jan 1911, p3. ↑
- Certified Copy of Compiled Statement of Domestic Corporations Whose Charters Have Been Forfeited and Foreign Corporations Whose Right to Do Intrastate Business in this State Has Been Forfeited, State of California, 1911, p16, via Google Books. ↑
- In the social column of the SF Chronicle, 2 Mar 1913 (p34), Temperance says she is “at home to her friends” having just returned from “an 18-months’ tour of the eastern cities,” putting their departure date about October 1911. There is also a border crossing record of them going to Ontario Canada in Oct 1911 (Ancestry.com) ↑
- The Automobile, 28 Nov 1912, p1145. See https://books.google.com/books?id=KRWb_7TFyPsC&pg=PA1145 . ↑
- Motor World, 20 Feb 1913, p18. See https://books.google.com/books?id=Mv4_AQAAMAAJ&pg=RA4-PA110 . ↑
- SF Examiner, 10 Apr 1913, p10. ↑
- The Pacific Reporter, Vol.186, p778-780. Via GoogleBooks. ↑