Although his name is well known in “Our River Town,” how much do current Petalumans really know about Lyman Byce? Most readers will respond, “he built the first incubator.” However, are there other tidbits of information we should be aware of?
An article in the Argus-Courier’s Centennial Edition (Section 4G), reports the following: “Byce was the son of a Canadian poultryman and had experimented with various forms of incubators, as well as many other devices and inventions, before arriving here.” (For example: a mold board for plows, a surgeon’s spring lancet, an acoustic telephone, and a potato digger.) His first box-like incubator was made in 1864; but before he was able to make incubators for commercial purposes, his father died. Byce decided to study medicine in Toronto, but his health began to fail in 1877.
Byce arrived in Northern California in 1878, from Canada, in order to regain his health. After exploring the valley north of San Francisco, Byce selected Petaluma in 1878 as the place to buy a small ranch, just outside the city, at Church Hill. Although the high price for eggs and fowl in San Francisco had eliminated chickens from the countryside, he did gather a few dozen chickens and became, once again, occupied with the workings of incubators. He was able to earn a profit, so he extended his stay another year in Petaluma beyond his original plan. In 1879, Byce moved his incubator workshop to an old blacksmith shop at the corner of North Main and Prospect Streets, where he worked 12-18 hours/day for almost a year experimenting on how best to control the temperature of the heater.
(Note: here is where the printed records reveal two different stories.) One source states that, “After trying, he discovered that the temperature could be held steady by using an oilcloth to spread the heat from a coal oil lamp and an electric regulator.” Author, Adair Heig, in her “History of Petaluma – A California River Town” book (1982), writes that one of his partners – Isaac Dias – has not been given proper for the role he played in the invention of the Petaluma incubator.) The world’s first practical incubator was completed in September, 1879 and was capable of maintaining a temperature of 103 degrees Fahrenheit for three weeks.
This strange looking device was exhibited at several regional fairs. It was reported that a 400 egg Byce incubator hatched 95% of the eggs it cooked on a 200 mile trip by boat, train, and wagon. Christopher Nisson, a local Danish farmer, purchased several of these incubators and became the world’s first commercial hatchery on his 100 acre farm near Two Rock.
Byce partnered with enterprising citizens and started an incubator factory on north Main Street, opposite Hill Plaza Park. Over time, the chicken and egg business gradually expanded throughout the Petaluma Valley. Eggs could easily be loaded and shipped to San Francisco overnight. Despite many risks associated with raising chickens or producing eggs, the poultry industry continued to grow. Petaluma, as a town was also growing in population and expanding building-wise. By 1917 Petaluma was considered the world’s leader in the chicken and egg industry. In 1918, Bert Kerrigan, secretary of the Chamber of Commerce launched a campaign that identified Petaluma as “The Egg Basket of the World.” Byce died at age 91, in 1944. His granddaughter, Lorraine Byce Skoog, who lives in Petaluma, has a silver medal from the 1882 California State Fair inscribed “Best Incubator.”
His incubator was certainly an event of “historical significance” in the history of “Our River Town.” “Lest we forget,” Lyman C. Byce, president of the Petaluma Incubator Company.