Lucean Arthur Headen – an African American inventor in Camberley
American independent scholar and writer, Dr Jill D Snider, reveals the inspiring and fascinating life of a Black American who became a leading industrialist in Camberley and whose inventions played a important part in the British war effort.
As he stepped aboard the S.S. Majestic in New York harbour in late May 1931, bound for England, Lucean Arthur Headen looked ahead with excitement and apprehension to a long sea journey, and to an unknown future. The almost 52 year-old inventor and entrepreneur was long past the age when many would have risked financial stability for a dream, but Headen had never seen the value in a conventional life. Born the child of former slaves in the small town of Carthage, North Carolina, he had aspired since his earliest years to be an inventor, and his passion had already carried him on some impressive journeys.
One of the first Black Americans to take to the air, Headen learned to fly at Mineola, Long Island, in 1911, eager to test an aeronautical stabilizer he had developed. In World War I he demonstrated to the U.S. and British navies an optical camouflage method to prevent “submarine chasers” (sent to destroy German U-boats) from being detected. Teaching himself automotive engineering in the early 1920s, he started a company in Chicago to manufacture his ‘Headen Pace Setter’ and ‘Headen Six’ cars, and in mid-decade steered a ‘Headen Special’ racer at breakneck speeds around dirt tracks from Chicago to New York, to Savannah. He then united fellow auto enthusiasts across the country into the first national African American auto racing association.
Headen took his inspiration from his creative forebears, who instilled in him a love of mechanics and a spirit of enterprise. His grandfather had been a highly regarded wheelwright for a buggy company, his father the owner of a prosperous sawmill, and his great-uncle a noted toolmaker. The artisanal community of which they were a part provided Headen an education and the critical support he needed to navigate the dual challenges of racial segregation and a changing inventive landscape. Just as Jim Crow laws took effect, blocking his access to advanced technical training and skilled work, the “hero inventors” of his childhood, men such as Marconi and Edison, began to cede ground to the new “industrial scientists”. This development complicated the work of independent inventors like Headen, who now had to compete for attention and financing with well-trained teams funded by corporations.
Headen kept his ambitions alive through his family’s social networks. Financing and practical strategies often came from figures in the Presbyterian Church, in which his grandparents, his father, and his first wife were heavily involved. He also garnered aid from the political and fraternal allies of his childhood minister, his aunts and uncles, and his siblings. The commitment of so many to his career gave Headen the means and the encouragement needed to transform his talent and determination into tangible results. Recruiting additional supporters on his own, by 1930 he could at last hold in his hands his first patent. Shared with white inventor Henry Petit, it introduced a new ignition method that provided multiple sparking points for fuel within an engine’s cylinder. The new ‘Headen-Petit spark ignition’ system made it easier to use plentiful, cheap crude oil in automobiles and lorries designed to run on petrol.
That same year Headen applied for a solo patent on a related design – this one for a device that turned thick crude oil into a fine, dry vapor, increasing its combustibility. Hopes of marketing his ‘vaporising manifold’ abroad were what had brought Headen aboard the Majestic. As the steamer pulled free of the dock, and Headen scanned the vast waters ahead of him, he was anticipating the particulars of a scheduled test of his invention by the Royal Auto Club.
The outcome of that test changed Headen’s life, and turned a temporary business trip into a permanent residence. Over the next twenty-six years, he realized his dream in Britain, eventually receiving a total of eleven patents. Most were related to improving the efficiency with which vehicles could burn crude oil. Others reflected his eclectic interests, and included anti-icing methods for aircraft, a replaceable plough tip that tripled the life of a share, and raingear for cyclists. Even today Headen’s influence can be seen. A patent assigned in 2015 to Vestas Wind Systems for a means to keep ice from forming on wind turbine blades includes a citation to his work.
Headen chose Surrey to manufacture his inventions. Establishing Headen Hamilton Engineering Ltd. in London after his demonstration to the Royal Auto Club, he operated the company first with George Hamilton, a Sunderland native then living in the United States. The two maintained an office on The Strand, but they manufactured their first product – an engine converter kit described as “One of the first devices for running petrol engines on vaporizing oil to be extensively used in this country” – in a factory off Victoria Avenue in Camberley.
Renaming his firm Headen Keil Engineering Ltd. in 1934, when builder James Richard McLean Keil replaced Hamilton as his partner, Headen went on to design specialty gaskets and carburetors distributed across the British Commonwealth by Motor Accessments, Roadless Traction, and others. By 1937, according to the Camberley News, he had become one of four local leaders responsible for the industrial development of Camberley, and his wares were spreading the town’s name “far and wide.”
Part of a community of local engineers, many employed by companies that had moved into factory buildings James Keil constructed at the nearby St. Mary’s Works, Headen often filled the role of ‘consulting engineer’. The work done at St. Mary’s by Vivian Loyd, a maker of small tanks, Aerolex, which crafted aircraft parts, and Wilkinson Linatex Rubber, which developed a novel sealant that could stop fuel tanks from exploding when hit by enemy fire, became significant in World War II.
The war also gave Headen’s products new importance. To conserve petrol for military use, in 1939 Aveling-Barford of Lincolnshire began offering his converter kit to owners of its commercial vehicles and dumpers. More important, after petrol was rationed, farmers across the United Kingdom snapped up the kit from their local garage or farm supply store to install on their tractors. The Royal Air Force, too, may have relied on an ‘antidilution’ gasket Headen designed to protect engines from damage caused by unburned fuel. The RAF purchased a lot of tractors from Roadless Traction in 1936, when the company was fitting machines with the gasket, and following the outbreak of war, they pressed these into service to clear and mow airfields.
Headen’s contribution to the war effort was also personal. In September 1940 he eagerly queued up outside the Camberley Police Station to offer his services to the Camberley regiment of the Surrey Home Guard’s 1st Battalion. One of only a small number of Americans to serve in the Guard, Headen never gave up his American citizenship, but the war forged an unbreakable bond between him and his wartime neighbours. His emotional life, too, planted deep roots in Surrey. At war’s end, he wed Gladys Hollamby of Frimley Green, and moved to the village to be near her family. Three years later the couple adopted a child, proudly naming him Lucean Arthur Headen Jr.
This photograph of ‘C’ Company, 1st Surrey [Camberley] Bn Home Guard shows Lucean Arthur Headen prominently sitting on the ground in the front row. Headen enlisted in September 1940 and the photograph dates from around this time. The photograph mount carries the insignia of the paschal lamb and flag of the The Queen’s Royal Regiment (West Surrey).This image was kindly sent to us by Anne Beal whose father, George William Clarke, appears second row down, third from left. Mr Clarke was manager of WH Smith & Son at Camberley Station, 1940-1964.
David Richard McLean Keil, son of Headen’s business partner, James R.M. Keil also features in the photograph (5th row from front, far left). David was then only 16 and he later became an engineer and emigrated to British Columbia, Canada.
There is very little information on the 1st Surrey Bn (Camberley) Home Guard. The County of Surrey was quick to respond to the call in 1940. The first elements of the Volunteers were formed at Camberley and Farnham where the police stations were besieged by men of all ages from all walks of life who were eager to enrol. For details of the Home Guard battalions in Surrey see Surrey Infantry Museum website http://www.queensroyalsurreys.org.uk/ww2/home_guard/hg002.shtml
Tragically, just after his son turned nine, Headen suffered a sudden heart attack, bringing his remarkable journey to an end. On 24 September 1957, the keeper of the register of burials for St Peter’s, Frimley, carefully entered Lucean Arthur Headen into the parchment-bound volume. The next month, a clerk in the American Embassy in London slipped a form, Report of the Death of an American Citizen Abroad, into a typewriter and pecked out the same name. These records – the first housed in the Surrey History Centre in Woking, the second in the National Archives of the United States in College Park, Maryland – capture the dual allegiances of a man determined to follow his ambitions. They also reflect the importance of community. In both England and America, it was those dedicated to Headen’s well-being and who shared his goals and passions that enabled him to succeed.
Thus the next time you find yourself in Frimley, take time to stroll through the churchyard of St. Peter’s, where Headen lies, and think of the man the Camberley News eulogized as “An American Who Settled in Frimley Green.” And think, too, of all those who made his dream possible.
Jill D Snider’s biography Lucean Arthur Headen: The Making of a Black Inventor and Entrepreneur is available through online book sellers and the University of North Carolina Press (direct link to the book order page: https://uncpress.org/book/9781469654355/lucean-arthur-headen/).
For Black History Month 2020, Jill D Snider was due to talk about her biography of Headen at Surrey History Centre but unfortunately this was postponed because of Covid-19. Not to be deterred, Jill has recorded some of her talk in which she reveals more about Headen and her research in a Q&A with Di Stiff, Collections Development Archivist at Surrey History Centre.
Read an online article on the GoSurrey website featuring Lucean Arthur Headen and the Surrey History Centre Black History collections https://www.gosurrey.co.uk/celebrating-black-history-month-in-surrey/.
Read an online article on the windowthroughtime blog featuring Lucean Arthur Headen https://windowthroughtime.wordpress.com/2020/09/24/on-my-doorstep-20/
Headen’s converter kit is described in “An Improved Automatic Vaporizer, Simplicity of Control a Feature of the Latest Headen-Hamilton Apparatus”, The Commercial Motor, 23 February, 1934, p. 53.
Headen, James Keil, Edwyn T. Close, and W. Sturmy Cave, were noted as the leaders of Camberley’s industrial development in ‘New Camberley Industry’, Camberley News, 20 August, 1937, p. 5. For further information on Camberley industries, see Mary Ann Bennett’s excellent Camberley: A History (Chichester: Phillimore & Co., Ltd., 2009).
Headen was noted as a consulting engineer in the 1939 Register for England and Wales: entry for Lucean A. Headen, 1939 Register for England and Wales, FindMyPast.com.
Headen’s obituary can be found in ‘An American Who Settled in Frimley Green Dies’, Camberley News, 27 September, 1957, p. 6.
The burial entry for Lucean Arthur Headen, on 24 September 1957, age 76, can be found in the burial register for St Peter’s Church, Frimley, held at Surrey History Centre (SHC ref 9179/1/3/1).
List of names on the photograph of C Company 1st Surrey (Camberley) Bn. Home Guard
“C” COMPANY 1ST SURREY Bn. HOME GUARD
Back row, L – R: Ptes. J. A. Savill. J. H. Haycock J. F. Simmons. Cpl. F. J. Ewens. Pte. H. Keevil. L/Cpl. A. H. Osborne, Ptes. J. Booth, E. C. Goddard. C. V. H. Millet. W. J. Lacey. Cpl. R. B. Barnard Pte. T. Wooderson. Cpl. T. Collier. Ptes. C. Rogers. C. F. W. Hawes. Ptes. A. J. Chappell. H. Hayes. Cpl. A. J. Bushell. L/Cpls. O. White. L. D. Spiers. Ptes. T. H Angus. N. J. Clemson.
Row 6, L – R: Cpl. G. E. Wheeler. Ptes. C. W. Sommerfield. G. W. Clarke. R. Oborne. I. Gregory. G. E. Hunt. W. Harrison. E. Smith. L/Cpl. E. J. Harris. Ptes. D. G. Fowler. R. J. Blake. Cpls. J. Addington. W. H. Westcott. Ptes. W. J. Fowler. E. J. Moreby. P. J. M. Wilson. Cpls. A. Pike. A. H. Triggs. Ptes. R. L. Rickards. E Locke. G. G. Hodder.
Row 5, L – R: Ptes. F. Dawes. E. R. Williams. R. J. Ford. L/Cpl. E. Holmes. Cpl. H. J. Mason. Ptes. A. C. Taylor. R. G. Kemp. Cpl. F. W. Simmons. Ptes. G. W. Hudson. H. W. Garrett. Cpls. H. T. Austin. R. A. Evans. Pte. W. G. Simpson. Cpl. J. J. Duffy, Pte. H. F. Warrington-Morris. Pte. W. J. Jones. Cpl. F. B. Hicks. Ptes. P. A. C. Kemp. S. C. Yeomans. W. G. Hall. Cpl. F. R. Luke. Pte. A. B. Sparks.
Row 4, L – R: Pte. D. R. M. Keil Cpls. A. F. Thomas. H. R. Uzielli, C.I.E., J.P. H. C. Cartwright. Sgts. R. W. Easton. H. V. N. Draycott. H. D. Noakes. J. Mitchell, M.M. W. J. Mugford, M.M. M. M. Devaney. R. M. Hicks. L/Sgts. F. G. Luton. R. H. Harman. E. V. Lomas-Smith. Sgts P. H. Clarke. W. D. Rudge. L/Sgt. R. A. White. Sgts. T. J. Barr. H. Cranford, L/Cpl. H. Moon. Ptes. J. Mullard. E. Croombs
Row 3, L – R: Ptes. R. Bartlett. L. Travers. 2/Lt. F. E. Hunter. 2/Lt. W. G. Clarke. Lt. H. N. G. Puddephatt. 2/Lt. F. A. Large. Lt. W. C. Warren. Lt. J. H. Bridger. Lt. G. C. Vaughan-Morgan. Major L. W. Lucas, D.S.O., M.C. Lt.-Col. C. R. Gillett, D.S.O. Capt. C. G. Astley Cooper, D.S.O. Lt. D. Prime. Lt. E. G. Pounds. Lt. M. O. Depree. Lt. J. H. H. Burrows. Lt. E. T. Conduit Lt. E. H. H. Shaw, D.C.M. Ptes. A. E. Hawkins. F. Henry. R. A. V. Yeomans.
Row 2, L – R: Ptes. J. W. Wright. R. Moon. C. Bedbrook. J. Jackson. H. Fowles. L/Cpl. C. Booth. Ptes. E. Poulter. G. A. Ede. Cpl. C. W. Anderson. Ptes. B. Welford. F. J. Webster. W. A. Crumplin. E. E. Williams. Cpl. H. Portlock. Ptes. W. Vinall. H. H. Horne. J. T. Wells. L/Cpl. R. E. Pounds. Ptes. F. J. Herriott. W. Martin. B. Attewell.
Row 1, L – R: Ptes. G. A. Adkins. J. Day. G. A. Mackay. G. A. Broomfield. C. J. Pritchard. L/Cpl. A. Higginson. Cpl. A. J. Chapple. L/Cpls. S. W. Broomfield. C. Dare. Pte. F. A. L. de Gruchy. Cpl. J. Harrington. Ptes. H. R. Stilby. R. Childs. A. G. Haines. F. Mullard. R. F. Miller. L/Cpls. W. Catlin. F. Neale. Pte F. C. Mead
Front row, L – R: Cpl. R. Thomson. Ptes. W. Dexter. J. Wilson. J. M. Harrington. L. A. Headen. R. Evernden. E. J. Hall. W. D Edwards. Cpl. J. A. Mitchell. Ptes. C. Mullard. A. Cockell. A. E. Jacobs. Cpl. W. H. Barrow.