Recently, we were touring the Lexington Mine Hoist House when someone looking at a control panel asked, “What is a Lilly?” I was happy to say that I knew exactly what it was thanks to Dorothy McBride, William J. Lilly’s great-niece. They were referring to the Lilly Controller that was still in the hoist house. The Lilly Controller was invented by William because of the dangers of deep-shaft mining. At one time, there was no way to control or stop the speed of the mechanism that ran the cages, and the safety of the miners was completely reliant on the dexterity of the man running the hoist, so the Lilly Controller was born.
Lilly was born in Goss Moor, Cornwall in 1859 to a mining family. His father Richard, brothers Robert and John, as well as his sister Annie, came with him to the U.S. All of them lived in Butte at one time or another, and all but Annie worked in the Butte mine machine shops. Dorothy’s great-uncle had a mining career that took him from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, South Dakota, Mexico, then finally to Butte, Montana. So he had witnessed first-hand the dangers that faced miners. Dorothy shared with us that William patented a throttle valve on March 7, 1911, and kept experimenting. By 1913, he had a mechanism called a hoist regulator. It became the Lilly Hoisting Engine Controller in 1914, and he got a patent on it in 1915. The device was simple, small and would shut off the hoist if it got away or went too fast. It was adopted throughout the Anaconda Company, and then at the Homestake Mine in South Dakota. By 1969, the Lilly Controller could be found on any mine hoist in the world.
Dorothy went on to tell us that Henry Logan, a friend of William’s, eventually took over the management of the device and redesigned it to adapt to technological changes in mining and hoists. Today it is known as the Logan/Lilly Controller. We spoke with a mining engineer who was very familiar with the Controller, and he marveled at its simple, yet greatly effective design.
In addition to the Controller, William also invented the Lilly Lettergraph, which was a device that helped people with their penmanship. Thanks to Dorothy, we now have one in our Archive. William Lilly was a man of many talents, and in addition to being an inventor, he was also a machinist, electrician, penman, and poet. He passed away in 1945.