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The text that follows is reproduced from (the report of the) Sixty-third Annual Reunion of the Association of the Graduates of the United States Military Academy, June 9, 1932.


[image ALT: A photograph of an old man. He is Isaac Newton Lewis, the subject of this webpage.]

p151 Isaac Newton Lewis
No. 3031 Class of 1884
Died November 9, 1931, at Hoboken, New Jersey,
aged 73 years

Isaac Newton Lewis was born October 12, 1858 in the village of New Salem, Fayette County, Pennsylvania, the son of James H. and Anne Kendall Lewis. On his father's side he was of Welsh stock; on his mother's side he was of Scotch-English descent. Colonel Lewis's paternal ancestors were among the earliest settlers of Western Pennsylvania and Virginia. His maternal grandfather was an officer on Washington's staff at Valley Forge.

In June, 1880 he entered the U. S. Military Academy as a cadet from the State of Kansas. He graduated in June, 1884 and was assigned to duty as a Second Lieutenant of Artillery. He served continuously as an Artillery Officer until his retirement for physical disability in 1913 with the rank of Colonel.

Early in his career as an army officer Colonel Lewis gave evidence of that marked inventive and mechanical talent which later was to bring him an international reputation. While on duty at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas in 1888‑1890, he invented and developed the first successful artillery range and position finder to be used in our service. This instrument was adopted by the War Department in 1896 and became the basis of the elaborate system of artillery fire control installed in all of our coast defenses. Seventeen years later, Colonel Lewis, at his own expense, developed and presented to the War Department an improved model of his range and position finder, which after a long series of competitive tests was adopted as the service type to the exclusion of all others and at great saving in cost to the Government.

In connection with his rangefinder experiments at Fort Wadsworth in New York Harbor, during the years 1892‑1896, Colonel Lewis originated and perfected four other fundamental elements of the present system of coast artillery fire control, viz.:—

p152 (a) A terrestrial telescope of moderate power having an unusually large clear field of view.

(b) A system of quick-reading mechanical verniers by means of which the observer can read at a glance the smaller sub‑divisions of one degree of arc. This system is now used on all the angle measuring instruments employed in harbor defense installations, and a special device of this kind known as the "Lewis Sub‑Scale" is in general use on seacoast mortar and gun carriages.

(c) A practical plotting board for battery use. This plotting board has since been greatly improved through the collaboration of other officers of the Artillery Arm but to Colonel Lewis belongs the credit for the basic idea and the construction of the first successful apparatus of its kind.

(d) The time internal electric clocks and bells used in all fire-control installations to mark the plotting points during the vessel tracking and target practice.

Other inventions of Colonel Lewis pertaining to the artillery service were an automobile submarine torpedo, an automatic gun sight, an automatic electric switch for charging storage batteries, and electric dials for transmitting fire control data.

The outstanding military invention of Colonel Lewis, and the one which brought to him his lasting international fame as an ordnance engineer, was his automatic air‑cooled machine gun. This he designed primarily for use with field troops but it also proved particularly effective as an airplane weapon.a It was the first machine gun to be successfully fired with accuracy from an airplane. In June, 1912, at College Park, Maryland, Captain Chandler gave a demonstration of solo flying and machine gun operation with the Lewis gun, which attracted the immediate attention of the whole military world.

The Lewis Machine Gun was developed and improved by Colonel Lewis entirely through his own efforts and at his own expense without the slightest assistance from the Government. He was therefore entitled in full to any royalty that might accrue from its manufacture and sale, but he offered it free of such royalty to his Government. The Government failed to adopt the gun at this time; so upon his retirement in 1913 Colonel Lewis went to Europe where his invention was most favorably received and arrangements were made for its manufacture there. The beginning of the World War in the following year gave to the gun its opportunity to prove its worth. Of the twelve Zeppelins brought down during the early stages of the war, ten are p153credited to the Lewis Gun. As its superior merits were demonstrated in service, it became one of the outstanding weapons of the great struggle. Before the Armistice more than a quarter of a million Lewis Guns had been supplied to the armies of the Allied forces. The Birmingham Small Arms Co. was delivering them for use by the British troops at the rate of over 2,500 guns per week, and a factory at Paris was supplying them to the French troops at the rate of nearly 1,000 per week.

Naturally such an exhibition of demonstrated efficiency attracted the attention of our own government, and a large number of Lewis Machine Guns was ordered from the Savage Arms Co., American manufacturers of this weapon. When the first consignment of three hundred and fifty-three guns had been delivered Colonel Lewis's royalties on this consignment amounted to $10,889.17. Promptly on receipt of this royalty Colonel Lewis drew his check for this same amount payable to the order of the Secretary of War. At the same time he wrote to the Secretary that he desired that all royalties due him on guns purchased for the United States should be credited to the government in payments to the Savage Arms Co., makers of the gun. This was a rare bit of patriotism on the part of Colonel Lewis. Under the provisions of his offer more than one million two hundred thousand dollars were returned to the Treasury of our government. On March 21, 1918, Acting Secretary of War Benedict Crowell wrote Colonel Lewis as follows: "I cannot let these long negotiations be concluded without expressing to you my personal and official thanks for your gracious action in permitting the Government to retain from royalties to be paid on the Lewis patents all your interests in these payments for guns delivered after January 1, 1918. It is exceedingly gratifying to observe the fine spirit of sacrifice and patriotism manifested by the people of this country, a notable instance of which is your action in this matter."

It was not alone in the field of invention that Isaac Newton Lewis was a marked man. From the very beginning of his service as a commissioned officer his excellent judgment, his sound common sense and his indefatigable energy made him an outstanding officer. It was an official report from Colonel Lewis on the inadequacy and inefficiency of the obsolete ordnance equipment furnished to the Artillery Troops in the Philippines during the war with Spain that first drew the attention of Secretary of War Elihu Root to the needs of that branch of service. A short time later when Secretary Root decided to bring the matter to the attention of Congress he directed Colonel Lewis to prepare a plan for the modern corps organization of the artillery. With p154but few minor modifications that plan was accepted by the Military Committees of both houses of Congress and became a law.

From 1894 to 1898 he served in the New York Harbor as the recorder of the Board on the Regulation of Sea Coast Artillery Fire, and from 1898 to 1902 he served in Washington as the Recorder of the Board of Ordnance and Fortification. From 1904 to 1911 he served as instructor and director of the Coast Artillery School at Fort Monroe, Va.

In the summer of 1900, upon the recommendation of General Nelson A. Miles, Colonel Lewis was selected by Secretary Root to proceed to Europe for the purpose of studying and reporting upon the design and supply of ordnance materials to the various European armies. His confidential report to the Secretary of War was the basis for the adoption of a plan for the complete re‑armament of the Field Artillery of the United States with modern quick-firing guns on long-recoil carriages. In connection with this report Colonel Lewis designed a very successful three-inch rapid fire field piece which was one of three to meet the requirements of the exhaustive competitive field tests at Fort Riley, Kansas, in 1902, and which led to the adoption of the present type field gun.

He also did much original and successful work as an electrical and mechanical engineer along non‑military lines. He was the first to develop and put into use the differentially-wound, self-regulating dynamo which is practically constant in voltage under widely varying speeds. This dynamo formed the basis of the Lewis Electric Car and Windmill Electric Lighting Systems, and is still used as a modern form for railway car lighting. He also took out a number of patents on internal combustion engines.

Ike Lewis was a member of the class of 1884 — a class that is unique in at least one respect. Almost since the date of graduation we have published a Class Bulletin twice each year. The material for the Bulletin is furnished by members of the class who send on to our secretary from time to time such items as may prove of especial interest to our members. For more than forty years '84 has published this bulletin, and it has proven wonderfully effective in holding us together. Our ranks are thinning, our hair is whitening what any at all remains — but no member of '84 has yet suggested giving up our class bulletin. In each issue there is published the names and addresses of all members, including class widows, as well as class children — who automatically become junior members of our association. The funds are provided by a yearly contribution of five dollars which serves to provide not only for publication of the bulletin, but also to furnish p155flowers for each member as he passes on to the great beyond. Ike Lewis loved his class. He never missed a class reunion nor a class gathering of any kind. How much Ike Lewis loved '84 is shown by one single fact: At the time he passed on he had already paid up his dues to include the year 1984 — he was fully paid up for fifty-three years following his death.

In the summer of 1921 there occurred a little incident which I like to recall because of its pleasant associations. It so happened that six members of '84 had foregathered in the Army Building in New York City. It was nearing the luncheon hour and somebody suggested that we call up Ike Lewis and ask him to join us for luncheon. One of the boys called his office and when his secretary answered he explained to the secretary that he wanted to ask Colonel Lewis to join us for luncheon. "Here, what's that," I asked. "Give me that phone." By this time Colonel Lewis had himself taken over the phone in his office. "Hello, Ike," I said. "There are six of '84 here and we are coming up to lunch with you. Where and when?" In a voice that plainly showed his joy he asked us to meet him within a half hour at the Lawyers' Club. When we arrived there was served us in a private dining room a luncheon fit for a king. Never did seven classmates sit down to a better meal, in a more delightful atmosphere, nor with a more genial host. No man who attended that luncheon can ever forget it.

Brigadier General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Geo. O. Cress was the baby member of the class of '84. On September 28, 1926, when he went on the retired list by operation of law we celebrated that event by a banquet in a private dining room of the Army and Navy Club in Washington at which General Cress was our guest of honor. Every member who could possibly attend was there bringing friend wife along with him. Ike Lewis was there, and it was my good fortune to sit next him. It was the last time I ever saw Ike, and I shall always remember his geniality, his wide fund of information and his splendid powers of conversation. Not only was Ike there, but he brought with him as his guest, including railway fares and hotel bills, another well beloved member who otherwise could not have been with us. Is it any wonder that we of '84 love Ike Lewis. Within his bosom was a heart as big as a stove. At his burial a class wreath of bronze chrysanthemums showed, all too inadequately, '84's affection for our departed comrade.

When he retired from active service Colonel Lewis made his home at Montclair, New Jersey. From the royalties on the Machine Guns which he had sold to the Allied Governments he had amassed a considerable fortune. Notwithstanding the million and a quarter dollars p156he had turned back to our government on account of royalties he had sufficient left so that the home he established at No. 1 Russell Terrace, was notable for its comfort and its hospitality. It falls to the lot of few officers to be able to spend their years of retired life in such pleasant and comfortable circumstances. He became thoroughly identified with the town where he made his home. On his death the Montclair Times, his home paper, had this to say: "Montclair has lost a friend in the passing of Colonel Isaac N. Lewis. Though a figure of international fame Colonel Lewis was distinctly a citizen of Montclair in every sense of the term. Throughout his residence here he devoted himself to the town's best interests. His benefactions, though unostentatious, were great. His leadership, though unobtrusive, was marked. As a member of the board of directors of the Family Welfare Society and of the original budget committee of the Montclair Community Chest he was earnestly interested in the problem of caring for Montclair's needy. As a member of the Board of Directors of the Bureau of Occupations he felt deeply and worked hard to relieve the condition of the unemployed. The scope of his influence, however, was by no means limited to his extensive benefactions. In many organizations for civic betterment and social advancement his counsel was highly valued and freely given. And throughout the town in every circle and condition of society his close friends and hearty admirers were legion."

Mayor Phillips of Montclair issued this statement: "Colonel Lewis was always one of our public-spirited citizens, a man whose counsel and advice were sought. He never turned a deaf ear to any request for service on his part. Colonel Lewis will be greatly missed by his fellow citizens, and a large group of Montclair citizens will mourn his loss."

His passing was doubtless as he would have preferred — sudden and painless. In his usual good health and spirits he left his home in Montclair on the morning of November 9, lunched with friends in New York, and, while waiting for a train in the station at Hoboken, passed suddenly away, the result of a heart attack. He was buried with full military honors in the cemetery at West Point.

During the last years of his life he served actively and with great personal interest as Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Research Corporation, and was active also on other boards. He was a member of several scientific and engineering societies, and of several clubs including the Army and Navy Club of Washington and the Lawyers and the Union League Club of New York.

Early in January in 1919, he was awarded by the Franklin Institute p157the Elliott Cresson gold medal and diploma for his invention of the Lewis Machine gun. This medal is awarded from time to time for discovery or research adding to the sum of human knowledge, embodying substantial elements of leadership and unusual skill or perfection of workmanship.

On October 21, 1886, Lieutenant Lewis was married to Miss Mary Wheatley, daughter of the late Rev. Richard Wheatley, D. D. Four children were the fruit of this union: Richard W. Lewis of Montclair, graduate of the class of 1910, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.George F. Lewis, graduate of the Military Academy, Class of 1914, and present Director of Safety in the town of Montclair; Mrs. R. H. Ranger of Newark; Mrs. William Myers, Jr., of Providence, Rhode Island. All of these children, together with the widow, Mrs. Mary Wheatley Lewis, survive Colonel Lewis.

"The old order passeth," and with the passing of such men as Isaac Newton Lewis there is left a void which can never be filled. Genial in disposition, pleasing in personality, soldi in character, his beneficence and charity endeared him to many. Unobtrusive, unostentatious, there was about him a depth and a genuineness which none who knew him can ever forget. He has passed on, but his memory will ever be green and fragrant in the hearts and minutes of those whose privilege it was to greet him as friend.

David C. Shanks,

Class of 1884.


Thayer's Note:

a See for example its use by the First Yale Unit in 1917‑18: R. D. Paine, The First Yale Unit, p207 (with two photographs), p261 f. (note the modifications), and passim, Chs. 10, 33, 39, and 45.


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Page updated: 23 Dec 13