Thursday, September 4, 2014

American Automobile Industry Pioneers

Charles and Frank Duryea

Edgar and Elmer Apperson

Elwood Haynes
Ransom Eli Olds
George Pierce, Buffalo, NY
Albert Pope

American Pioneers
            The transition in national automotive leadership away from Europe and to the United States that took place during the first decade of the twentieth century is complex. One aspect that remains to be explored is the immigration of European automotive engineers to the United States. This matter of technology transfer is a phenomenon that certainly happened in the case of the Thomas Company located in Buffalo, New York where a number of French engineers were employed, and may have occurred elsewhere as well.25 The automotive history literature celebrates American innovation, but ignores European influence on the early development of the industry. It is as if the American industry evolved out of virgin soil, which is highly unlikely given the nature of the trans-Atlantic connections of that day. Certainly the United States had its native pioneers in terms of constructing prototype vehicles, or those made in small numbers, and also automobile manufacturers, who more often than not had previously been bicycle or carriage and wagon manufacturers.
            The pioneers included Charles and Frank Duryea, who assembled their first vehicle in 1893.26 The brothers would later engage in bitter priority disputes that continued to the early 1940s. Elwood Haynes, along with Edgar and Elmer Apperson, built their first car in 1894 in Kokomo, Indiana. In 1895 Hiram Maxim installed a gasoline engine on a tricycle, and a year later Henry Ford demonstrated his Quadricycle.27 Alexander Winton, a bicycle manufacturer in Cleveland, Ohio would soon follow with an unoriginal design of his own, but he was also among the first to manufacture vehicles in some quantity, marking him as a leader in the early automobile business, along with Colonel Albert A. Pope of Hartford, Connecticut.
            While Pope’s influence in the business would last only two years, to 1899, the Winton Motor Carriage Company flourished into the early twentieth century. Winton, like Henry Ford, raced his cars, and in 1903 a Winton became the first car to cross the continental United States. Other manufacturers of the period included George N. Pierce in Buffalo and Thomas L. Jeffery, who built the Rambler. Most significant was Ransom Eli Olds, whose curved-dash “Merry Oldsmobile,” built in Michigan, became an industry leader, with a production volume of 5,000 units in 1904. A dispute unfortunately followed – disputes were all too common among pioneer inventors and manufacturers of the era – and while Olds would later set up another company called REO, his influence on the industry diminished. Former employees of Olds who got their start there and then proved to be influential later in the automobile industry included Jonathan D. Maxwell, Robert C. Hupp, Roy D. Chapin and Howard E. Coffin.
            During the first decade of the twentieth century, the number of firms active in the industry is staggering by today’s standards. Some of the names of the early car companies were Orient, Monarch, Walker, Gale, Wolverine, Maxwell, Stoddard-Dayton, Wayne, Holsman, Logan, and Lambert. John Rae summarized the state of the infant industry as characterized by easy entry, virtually no government restrictions, literally hundreds of companies, and sources of capital varying from giants like J. P. Morgan to local banks and patrons.28
            As the superiority of the gasoline automobile was increasingly demonstrated over its steam and electric competitors, the geographic center of automobile manufacturing in the U.S. shifted from New England to the Midwest. The early, overwhelming choice of the internal combustion engine by Midwestern manufacturers was influenced by the region’s poor roads, which were nearly impossible for electrics to negotiate, relatively vast spaces when compared to the East, and by the availability of gasoline for fuel in sparsely-settled rural areas that lacked electricity. Since village blacksmiths were accustomed to repairing wagons and carriages, they can be considered the first generation of auto mechanics.
            The presence of a vibrant carriage trade and other economic and geographic factors contributed to the emergence of Detroit as the hub of automotive manufacturing in America. Most certainly, however, the elusive factor of personality and the presence of the likes of Ransom Olds, Henry Ford, Henry Leland, and Billy Durant proved critical to the rise of Detroit as the “Motor City.”
            To make a single prototype of a car is one thing, but to make it with uniform quality and in quantity is a very different challenge. The importance of high tolerance, uniformly machined parts like crankshafts and engine blocks, is usually credited to Henry Leland.29 Leland learned machine tool techniques from a craft tradition that can be traced back to Eli Whitney at the Mill Rock armory and then later diffused and improved upon by Simeon North at Springfield and Roswell Lee and Harpers’ Ferry. High volume and economies of scale would be the central achievement of Henry Ford and his key employees at Ford Motor Company after 1908. The spectacular rise in American auto production is reflected in Table 1:
Table 1: American Motor Vehicle Production, 1899-1910
Value ($)
Source:  “Motor Vehicles,” Encyclopedia Britannica (13th Edition), vol. 18, 920.

            Despite the presence in Cleveland, Ohio of pioneering firms that included Winton, Stearns, Gaeth, Washburn, Marr, Owen Rogers & Hanford, and Pennington, Richard Wager made the argument that Cleveland’s decline as the center for the automobile industry was the consequence of conservative bankers. In contrast, Detroit’s financial institutions were far more willing to take risks.30

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