1850: A Jew Who Would Make Leonardo Da Vinci Feel Inadequate Is Born

On Isaac Rice: The lawyer, chess master, musicologist, author and businessman who made his fortune selling submarines, and whose wife didn't like noise.

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Isaac Rice, on backdrop of an Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine, the USS Wyoming.
Isaac Rice, upper right, on backdrop of an Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine.Credit: AP and Wikimedia Commons

February 22, 1850, is the birthdate of Isaac L. Rice, a turn-of-century renaissance man who had careers in music and law – and the railroad, automobile and submarine industries. He also played an important role in promoting chess internationally. Rice was an extraordinary example of one of those entrepreneurial German Jews who came to America in the mid-19th century and put his mark on the growing country’s economy.

Isaac Leopold Rice was born in Wachenheim, in Bavaria, to Mayer Rice and the former Fanny Sohn. When Isaac was about six, the family emigrated to the United States, settling in Philadelphia. There he attended Central High School, before he headed back across the Atlantic to Paris, where he enrolled in the National Conservatory.

During the three years Rice was in Paris, where he studied composition as well as several musical instruments, he also worked as a correspondent for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. Shortly before returning to the U.S., he dropped in for a visit in the United Kingdom, where he won a chess championship in Manchester.

During his first few years back in the U.S., Rice worked as a music teacher, and wrote a book called “What Is Music?,” a philosophical response to the question posed by the title. By 1878, however, he had enrolled in Columbia University Law College, where he studied law and political science, graduating in 1880 with top honors.

An interest in ___ (fill in the blank)

Rice taught for a number of years at the law school after graduation, but he also became an expert on the topic of railroad law, a field of rapidly growing importance. With his specialized knowledge, he went into private practice, working with numerous railroads as they merged and reorganized themselves.

Rice also became charged up about electricity – both its use in industry and its storage.

He bought the Electric Storage Battery Co., later called Exide, and he founded the Electric Boat Company, for the building of submarines. In 1897, EB bought out the Holland Torpedo Boat Company, and overnight became the supplier of submarines to the U.S. Navy and others.

Not surprisingly, the value of shares in the company skyrocketed during World War I, and Rice was able to sell of 16,000 shares in 1915 at a profit of $2 million. Electric Boat, which is today a division of the mammoth defense contractor General Dynamics, remains the U.S. navy’s principal submarine builder.

In 1885, Rice had married Julia Hyneman Barnett, from a New Orleans Jewish family, who that same year graduated from the Women’s Medical College in New York. Although she gave up the idea of practicing medicine after marriage, and bore six children, Julia was a formidable woman with a public standing of her own. One of her projects was establishment in 1907 of the Society for the Suppression of Noise.

Villa of the shattered nerves

Isaac had built a mansion on New York’s Riverside Drive in 1903, which he dubbed “Villa Julia,” but with all its grandeur, its namesake suffered from “shattered nerves” at nights from the whistles of tugboats plying the Hudson River. Julia Rice succeeded in getting the city to pass ordinances limiting the sounding of whistles at night, and later moved on to getting the areas adjacent to hospitals declared noise-free zones. Somehow, she managed to convince Mark Twain to become the president of the group running that campaign.

The family had to sell Villa Julia during a national financial crisis, in 1907, and they moved to the Ansonia Apartments, nearby on Broadway. Today, it’s the home of Yeshiva Ketana, which has struggled to keep up maintenance of the protected landmark structure.

In his leisure time, Isaac played chess and worked to promote the game by assisting clubs and putting up money for tournaments. He also devised his own opening series of moves, called the Rice Gambit, writing a book about it, and set up up a competition in which players were required to open with the gambit.

Isaac Rice died at his Ansonia apartment on November 2, 1915.