The History of Outboards- The Idea of Portable Power Plant is As Old As the Gasoline Engine Itself.

By Bob Whittier, from the January,  1957 issue of Yachting Magazine.

Today outboard motors are so common that few of us, on seeing one, are ever prompted to wonder just where and when the idea originated. Some inventions, such as the airplane, the telephone and the steamship, have had their histories written in exhaustive detail - but have you ever tried to find out who invented the steam-shovel, the welding torch or the fluorescent light? Historians are a strange lot; they've eulogized some things and ignored others which serve equally important needs in our complex modern civilization. Outboard motor history is one of the things which have, for the most part, been ignored. To be sure, an article has appeared here, or a chapter in a book has appeared there . . . but the whole interesting tale does not seem to have been put in front of the boating public. This series of articles will try to fill the void.

You may be quite surprised at bow far back the outboard idea goes. The idea of having a portable power plant which could readily be attached to any small utility boat is certainly as old as the gasoline engine itself and quite probably even older, for we have records of pedal driven contrivances dating back to 1864 and of an outboard steam engine which appeared in Europe before 1900.

Thus it is not really so startling to learn that a real gasoline outboard motor was manufactured in this country as far back as 1896! Called the "American," it was produced by the American Motor Co., of Long Island, New York. It is shown in Fig. 1 and, as is clearly evident, its basic layout bears a remarkable resemblance to modern practice. It had "gear shift" in the form of a variable pitch propeller and even boasted a remote fuel tank! Not only was the latter carried inside the boat but the carburetor appears to have been attached to it and the engine's intake suction drew vaporized fuel to the cylinder through a flexible tube. By this stroke of genius the need for a special miniature pump to transfer liquid fuel from tank to pump was done away with.

The American was a four-cycle, air-cooled motor rated at one and two horsepower, apparently being built to burn either kerosene or gasoline at the buyer's option. It turned up from 400 to 600 revolutions a minute and was claimed to be able to propel a 12- to 16-foot rowboat at six to eight miles an hour. The problem of vibration, which has always plagued single-cylinder outboards, was very neatly taken care of by clamping the crankcase directly to the boat and arranging the underwater unit to turn port and starboard via a sector gear and steering handle. As you can see by studying Fig. 1, power impulses would be transferred to the boat's transom instead of directly to the operator's hand and quite evidently the operator felt little or no reaction in the handle. About 25 of these motors were built, which for those very early days should be enough to qualify it as a "production motor."
There also exists evidence that a large, clumsy outboard was built in Germany around 1900, and between 1902 and 1904 in France there was a "Motogodille" outboard.

What was destined to become the first outboard motor accepted by the American public was originated in 1905 by Cameron B. Waterman. The story of the Waterman outboards might be obscure today if it were not for the coincidence that the author of this series happened to be looking for outboard historical data for his "The Outboard Motor and Boat Book" in 1948. He had encountered the "Waterman" name a few times in his research work but had been unable to locate any information on the firm or its motor. While leafing through a current copy of "Time" magazine his attention was attracted by an advertisement of the International Correspondence School. It carried the success story of a graduate, Oliver E. Barthel, a consulting engineer of Detroit. According to the advertisement, Mr. Barthel had engaged in a number of interesting technical pursuits including work with Henry Ford . . . and work in developing an early outboard motor.

A query addressed to Mr. Barthel brought a reply which indicated that the early outboard motor referred to in "Time" was indeed the Waterman, and Mr. Barthel most kindly made available information and photographs of the machine. The very first Waterman was assembled in 1905 from a Curtis motorcycle engine. As can be seen in Fig. 2, it was fitted with a chain drive and one can imagine the shower of water it must have thrown up!

Waterman applied for a patent on this outboard on Dec. 6, 1905 and it was granted April 23, 1907. The patent number was 851,389.

Early in 1906 Waterman engaged Oliver E. Barthel to refine the motor and develop it to the production stage. This resulted in the water-cooled model shown in Fig. 3. The propeller was driven by exposed bevel gears which were lubricated by the water. This was
a perfectly logical arrangement for water is a good lubricant and we use it even today for the stern bearings of our inboard motorboats. Of course sand and debris would be a problem, but at this early stage there were far more important mechanical points to be concerned with. By the spring of 1906 an air-cooled cylinder had been substituted at Mr. Waterman's preference. Twenty-five of these engines were made, the firm being located in Detroit.

In 1907 Waterman went hack to water cooling and in addition twin enclosed flywheels were used in place of the earlier exposed one. Quite probably this change was in the interest of vibration control . . . still a major concern of the outboard designer! The weight of the single exposed flywheel is several inches removed from the cylinder's centerline and it is easy to imagine the gyroscopic forces of the heavy flywheel fighting against the reciprocating vibration of the piston and connecting rod. The 1907 motor (Fig. 4) had two internal flywheels, one on each side of the cylinder centerline and the pair of them formed the crankshaft via the connecting crankpin. Their combined weight was thus symmetrically disposed to both sides of the cylinder and the tendency to build up a rocking vibration must have been reduced. This twin-flywheel layout is widely used even today in many single cylinder European motor-cycle engines. Three thousand Watermans were built in 1907.

Production continued and a 1909 advertisement which appeared in "National Sportsman" is shown in Fig. 5. Even at that early date the chief customer was assumed to he the fisher-man! By 1915 the Waterman had been developed to the point where it was fitted with a reversible propeller and a removable power bead which could he used for stationary power around the camp or farm. By the end of that year over 30,000 of the outboards had been sold. In 1917 manufacturing rights were sold to the Arrow Motor and Marine Co., of New York, and production of "Waterman Porto" outboards was continued until 1921. The Arrow people went out of business in 1924.

Meanwhile, a young man named Ole Evinrude, the son of Norwegian immigrants, had been growing up on a farm in Dane County, Wis. He did his farm chores as a good son should, but it was hard for him to repress a very strong inclination toward mechanical things. At the age of 16 he decided to go to the big city-meaning Madison-and take a job in a machine shop. He went to work in the farm implement shop of Fuller & Johnson at 50 cents a day. Quickly learning all he could from the machinists, he moved along to other places, ever in search of new knowledge. He worked in the Pittsburgh steel mills and Chicago machine shops, learning all he could from his daily work and evenings spent studying mathematics.

A very competent machinist and patternmaker, he eventually settled in Milwaukee and became a consultant to the E. P. Allis Co. Spare time experimenting with the then-new gasoline engine led to his building himself a four-cylinder, air-cooled car which he used for his own transportation. This in turn led to the establishment of the firm of Clemick & Evinrude, the goal of which was to pioneer in the manufacture of a standardized engine for the many small, inexperienced automobile builders springing up all over the country.

The venture prospered, although some of its work was not connected with auto engines. To pursue his interest in a standardized engine, Evinrude terminated his partnership in Clemick & Evinrude and established the Motor Car Power Equipment Co. He had little success in spite of much hard work and when the business failed he went back to patternmaking in a small shop near Milwaukee's Kinnickinnick River.

There had been a girl at Clemick & Evinrude who came in after school to take care of the firm's bookkeeping. She was Bess Cary, a very small girl with bright blue eyes and a mind of her own. An orphan, she was struggling to support six brothers and sisters and knew what it was like to have an uphill fight. It was obvious to everybody before long that she and Ole had fallen in love, although big Ole was terribly shy about it. When he was struggling along with Motor Car, it took him weeks to get up enough courage to ask her to handle the books for him. When Motor Car failed, Ole buried himself in pattern-making and waited patiently until such time as he had saved some money, before popping the big question. They were married privately because Ole just couldn't bear the thought of an elaborate wedding in front of a lot of people.

One hot August weekend in 1908, shortly before Ole proposed to Bess, they went on a picnic with some friends on an island in one of the many lakes near Milwaukee. As it turned out, this has become the most famous incident in outboard history. It started Ole thinking about a detachable motor which could be clamped to any small boat. They had rowed out to the island and there Bess remarked that she wished she could have some ice cream. Quite probably this was just a woman's indirect way of commenting upon the heat-but the shy and sincere Ole took it literally and forthwith rowed some two miles to shore to buy it. The row
back was against the wind and as he strained over the oars Ole began to get mad. It wasn't that he minded rowing much, but Bess' ice cream was melting! The following Monday morning Ole went back to his pattern shop and took out his drafting equipment.

Here's how Bess Cary's brother Russ described the result:
"I was Ole's apprentice boy in the shop. Ole did pattern work in exchange for material for his motor. When it was done, Bess said it looked like a coffee grinder. Ole and I took the motor down to the Kinnickinnick River at the foot of National Avenue. Never will forget it. We rented an old tub for 50 cents. That was real money. We clamped on the motor and started 'er up. It was in April, 1909. The big coal boats were outfitting for the season. We passed a half dozen of them tied up at the docks. The crews came running down to look at us. They waved and yelled, but we couldn't hear them. They'd look over the side at us going by as though they couldn't believe what they saw. They'd wave, and when Ole'd open 'er up, they'd wave harder. Couldn't hear a word they said. Those deck hands were all for us.

Ole was elated. His engine worked, and pushed a rowboat along at all of five miles an hour! The mechanical genius had done his part and now the business wizard, in the form of Bess, took over. "Now that you've got it, what are you going to do with it?" she asked. Ole really didn't know.

Bess suggested he make a better one, which he did. It looked better and started easier. A friend borrowed it for a fishing trip and to everybody's surprise brought back orders for 10 motors! Ole built them himself. They were single cylinder, two-port, two-cycle engines having battery ignition and developing 1 1/2 hp. at about 1000 r.p.m. Their weight was 65 pounds and they sold for $62. More orders came in and before the first 25 motors had been built and sold Bess Evinrude wrote her now famous advertisement in a Milwaukee paper which boldly states, "Don't row! Throw the oars away! Use an Evinrude Motor." Fig. 6 shows the first production Evinrude. Fig. 7 shows a typical Evinrude advertisement which appeared in the July, 1910, issue of the old "National Sportsman" magazine.

Mrs. Evinrude was the guiding light behind the marketing of Evinrude and the later Elto outboards until she retired from business in 1928. The team of Ole and Bess has often and justifiably been described as the perfect business team, he the mechanical genius, she the marketing expert. To Ole Evinrude, although not the originator of the outboard motor, must go credit for producing the first commercially and mechanically successful outboard motor, and to his creative genius a large proportion of major outboard improvements owe their origin. And to Bess Evinrude, as she became known in the trade, must go credit for recognizing the economic importance of this new type of transportation.

The volume of replies resulting from initial advertisements soon indicated that the pattern shop would not be able to cope with the amount of business this new motor was bringing in. While Ole ran the shop, Mrs. Evinrude managed selling and the office. There was need for capital and, after several unsuccessful attempts, she obtained the financial assistance of a friend, C. J. Meyer, who invested $5000 and became a partner in "The Evinrude Detachable Rowboat Motor Co."

Evinrude prospered from 1911 to 1914. After Mrs. Evinrude launched an extensive advertising campaign in 1911, new and larger plant facilities had to be secured. These were obtained on Walker Street in Milwaukee. Here Ole designed and built the machinery needed to produce the motors. When Bess' health began to fail - she had never been too well-the Evinrudes sold their interest in the company to Mr. Meyer in 1914 with the understanding that Ole would not re-enter the outboard business for at least five years. Between that time and 1921, when thev brought out the Elto motor, they spent much of their time in traveling and boating.

The Waterman and Evinrude motors were the only outboards produced until about 1913, when there appeared the Caille, the Ferro, the Motorow and a few others. The idea of a portable motor for small boats was catching on and others were entering the field. By this time reasonable mechanical dependability had been achieved, for the advertising began to show women and children operating the motors, even as it does in these modern times. Their heavy bronze and iron construction made them intrinsically durable but, to be truthful, starting required some skill at manipulating the controls, and vibration was severe what with single cylinders, unbalanced crankshafts and heavy moving parts. Mufflers were rudimentary and the "bang-bang-bang" of an old-time outboard is a familiar memory to many an older boatman. Yet, these motors filled a real need and sold well because they met the public demand for economical, convenient small-boat power.

Mechanical features of these motors are interesting. With but few exceptions they were similar in appearance, which must be regarded as evidence that the Evinrude was being taken as the model. Of course, in this early developmental stage there were some novelties. The typical power head was made of cast iron and much resembled the numerous small inboard engines of that time . . . bulky and heavy. Some had battery ignition systems, which provided a hot spark for starting, while others had an ordinary magneto bolted on in some convenient location. The flywheel was merely a spinning weight at first and the idea of building a magneto into it did not come until later.

Steering was accomplished in three general ways, two of which reflect the necessity of insulating the steering handle from the strong torque vibration:

  1. The whole motor pivoted as per modern practice.
  2. The power head was held rigid and the drive shaft and underwater unit were arranged to pivot.
  3. The whole motor was rigid and a steering rudder was fitted.

Starting was usually accomplished bv means of a hand knob on the flywheel -origin of the old nickname "knuckle-buster." Naturally it was harder to spin a motor fast with a knob mounted at the rim of a large flywheel than with a rope wrapped around a pulley of less diameter mounted on the hub, which meant a weaker spark from the slow-turning magneto. Even today the secret of getting quick, rehable starts out of one 5 motor is to put enough zip into the starting cord to give the flywheel enough speed to develop a really hot spark.