Ole Evinrude and the Outboard Motor – Part 1

Ole Evinrude and the Outboard Motor
by Kenneth Bjørk (Volume XII: Page 167)

The Norwegian-American Historical Assoc., Northfield, MN

Submitted by Andreas Jordahl Rhude

Ole Evinrude was several things at once that carry weight with the American public. A self-made inventor, engineer, and businessman, he also lived the success story par excellence. Though of humble immigrant origin he founded in his adopted country, after years of hardship and disappointment, a new and important industry. Big and genial – a veritable mountain of a man – he graciously attributed all success to his frail wife, Bess, who was also his partner in business. But more important still, he won the enduring gratitude of thousands of hunters, fishermen, and vacationers, who were freed by him from the drudgery of rowing a boat. For Evinrude designed and produced the first practical outboard motor, which must be
considered a piece with the automobile and therefore a part of this motor age. He belongs to the saga of the out-of-doors, of sports, and of fun, but he also has written his name large in the story of the American economic revolution.

The fact that for a great many people “Evinrude” and “outboard” are synonymous is proof that no detailed description of the outboard is necessary. The many thousands who each summer fish the inland lakes and rivers of America, the hunters who lie in wait of ducks and geese, the crowds who watch the outboard races in the newsreels, or the fishermen in salt water whose livelihood itself in a large measure depends on the performance of their motors – all these know the outboard. For those, however, who may never have seen one, it is a two-cycle, internal-combustion engine that burns a mixture of gasoline and oil and is usually attached by clamps to the rear of a rowboat. One starts the outboard by wrapping a knotted cord around a groove in the flywheel and pulling the free end. In the recent motors, one merely pulls at a handle, which internally is connected, with the flywheel. Once started, the motor’s speed is regulated by a lever. Steering is simple; a tiller arm is easily held in one hand, and when moved from side to side, it turns the whole motor. The noise of the early outboards has been reduced in the new models by placing the exhaust under water, just above the propeller. While some of the largest models will push a boat at the speed of thirty-five miles an hour, the average small model does well if it attains to a speed of ten miles.

In price the outboard is within the reach of the average man. Fortune speaks of the “put-puts” or outboards as the petite bourgeoisie of the nautical world, and well it might. One can buy an Evinrude Mate for $34.50, f.o.b. Milwaukee, and prices go up, not too speedily, from this figure. Attached to an ordinary rowboat, the outboard will do what the average person wants it to do -take one across a lake or up a stream to a favorite fishing spot or spin one smoothly over the water on a cooling ride. It is light enough to be carried by hand and compact enough to fit into an automobile trunk. In short, it meets the needs and ability to pay of the typical American who takes a two weeks’ vacation and wants to spend this time doing other things than rowing.

The inventor of the first practical outboard motor was born April 19, 1877, on a farm about sixty miles north of Oslo, Norway. The father took his family to Wisconsin when Ole, the
oldest son, was five, and the family acquired a homestead at Cambridge, near Lake Ripley. Here Ole worked on his father’s farm during the summer, and in the winter he found employment as a sorter in a near-by tobacco warehouse. But Ole’s real life began at a very early age to center about ships and engines. It is said that during the crossing to America his mother and grandmother had to rescue him repeatedly from the engine room of the ship on which they were traveling. An uncle, a sailor, taught the boy the different kinds of ships, models of which Ole carefully carved from wood. At the age of sixteen the boy made a sailboat in his father’s woodshed. The parts of his first boat found their way into the family stove, but his second attempt was successful, and the boat was launched on Lake Ripley. The curious who crowded about the boat were charged a quarter a ride, with the result that Ole became a capitalist in a small but significant way.

Life on the family farm was no easy one. In all there were eleven hungry boys to feed. It is little wonder that his father frowned on Ole’s somewhat unorthodox ways. What was needed, the father insisted, was heavy farm work in the summer and a steady job for the slack season, not tinkering in the machine shop or woodshed. The launching of the sailboat, however, and its surprising earning power overcame all paternal opposition to a mechanical career for the brilliant young tinkerer.

Ole, as a result, went to Madison in the fall of the same year that he built the sailboat. He obtained a job as apprentice machinist in the farm-machinery shop of Fuller and Johnson and received a salary of fifty cents a day. Quickly mastering his trade, he soon found work in other shops and studied engineering during his spare time. From Madison he went to Pittsburgh, where he worked in the great steel rolling mills. Next we find him in Chicago, gaining experience in a machine-tool works. For five years he jumped from job to job, learning about steel at one plant, motors at another, designing at a third, testing at a fourth, until by experience and study he had become a first-rate machinist and a self-taught mechanical engineer.

At the age of twenty-three, or in 1900, Ole was back in Wisconsin, where he opened a pattern shop and was at the same time master patternmaker and consulting engineer for the E. P. Allis Company in Milwaukee. Ole at this time became intensely interested in internal-combustion engines, which were attracting considerable attention at the beginning of the present century. He worked for several of the early motor makers in Milwaukee, and took to designing engines and parts, seeking improvements here and discarding unsuitable ideas there. The results of his intense activity were several very good engines. His biggest troubles were financial rather than mechanical. Seeking to market his products, he succeeded, after several fruitless efforts, in founding the partnership of Clemiek and Evinrude, which was to produce internal-combustion engines to order and to make parts and castings. The venture proved successful, the tiny firm expanding its facilities to half a dozen shops within a few months. Included in its orders was one from the federal government for fifty portable motors.

In the firm of Clemiek and Evinrude, the book work was done by a Bess Cary, whom Ole had first met when he began to tinker in a rented shed near the Cary home. Bess had watched the big, serious Ole slowly put a horseless carriage together. When he finally found a suitable partner for marketing his engine, the shed remained his headquarters and Bess offered to write
letters for the firm. This she did in the evenings, for her days were spent as a student at a local business college.

The story of how Ole turned his thoughts to the outboard motor has been told a good many times, but it will bear another telling. With some friends their own age, Ole and Bess were picnicking near Milwaukee on a Sunday in August 1906. The temperature was well above ninety degrees. The group was on an island about two and a half miles from the shore of an inland lake when, as the story goes, Bess decided that she would like a dish of ice cream. Ole, romantically devoted to his young helper, rowed to shore for the ice cream. Besides severely testing his emotions, this grueling experience gave Ole an idea which he carried to a successful completion three years later. Somewhere along the hot five-mile stretch he asked himself, Why not a motor for these boats? He also recalled the fifty portable motors ordered by the government. Why not a portable motor for rowboats?

It was some time, however, before Evinrude produced his first outboard motor. In the meantime he parted company with Clemick and entered into partnership with a retired furniture
dealer and his son under the firm name of Motor Car Power Equipment Company. The purpose of the company was to manufacture a standardized motor that could be installed in any carriage. This firm, like the other, was successful until Ole proposed that it market a complete automobile that he had built. His partner was unwilling to spend the amount necessary for advertising; as a result Ole got out of the firm. The following year Evinrude built another car, which he called the “Eclipse.” He secured the consent of two men, who were brothers, to finance production of the new automobile. Difficulties arose, however, and the venture was dropped. Ole as a possible competitor to Henry Ford thus disappears from the scene, though there was nothing wrong with his automobiles. Back on Milwaukee’s south side, he opened a little shop and returned to the trade of pattern making. He made engine patterns of all kinds on order from machine shops. With five or six men working under him, he had plenty to occupy his time, and Bess, now Mrs. Evinrude, and mother of Ole’s child, typed his letters in her kitchen while waiting for dinner to cook.

But Ole had more on his mind than a busy shop, a none-too-strong wife, and a son. He was, in fact, hard at work on his first outboard motor. Working day and night, he came near to ruining his health. He suffered terribly from rheumatism, and finally, unable to stay on his feet, he had to take to bed. But his drawing board was brought to his bed and the work continued. With the return of warm weather he went back to his shop, where one day, his blue eyes shining, he proudly showed a strange creation to his wife. After first scolding him for spending time on a “coffee grinder” when they desperately needed money, she was quick to see the possibilities in the new motor and virtually assumed all responsibility for the business activities attendant on the invention.

End Part I