Early Automotive Pioneers Among America’s Top Innovators

A Lincoln Motor Company stock certificate, issued in October 1918 and signed by Henry M. Leland, sold for $500 at an October 2013 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Doctors called it a “chauffeur’s fracture,” the radial styloid or wrist fracture that occurred when a driver tried to start a horseless carriage by turning the crank at the front of the car. If the engine backfired, the crank would spin backward, often causing broken bones. Those early automobiles motoring down the streets of American cities were considered engineering marvels.

But what a challenge to start!

The two requirements were a blacksmith’s arm and a perfect sense of timing. The driver had to adjust the spark and the throttle before jumping out to turn the crank mounted on the car’s outside front grill. Once the spark caught and the motor fired, the driver dashed back to the control to adjust the spark and throttle before the engine could die. Oh, and if the car started, but was in gear, it could lurch forward and run over the cranker!

Sound farfetched?

In 1908, tragedy struck when Byron Carter (1863-1908) – inventor of the Cartercar – died after trying to start a stalled car. The crank hit him in the jaw. Complications with gangrene set in and he died of pneumonia. It was a fluke involving a stalled motorist he was trying to help. The driver forgot to retard the spark. Whamo!

The car involved was a new Cadillac, one of the premier luxury brands, and Carter was good friends with the man who ran Cadillac, Henry Leland (who also owned Lincoln). When Leland found out his friend had been killed, he vowed: “The Cadillac car will kill no more men if we can possibly help it!” Cadillac engineers finally succeeded in manufacturing an electric self-starter, but were never able to scale it for commercial use.

Enter Charles Franklin Kettering (1876-1958), a remarkable man (in the same league as Thomas Edison) whose versatile skills included engineering and savvy business management. He was a prolific inventor with 186 notable patents. One of them was a self-starter small enough to fit under the hood of a car, running off a small storage battery. A New York inventor (Clyde J. Coleman) had applied for a patent in 1899 for an electric self-starter, but it was only a theoretical solution and never marketed.

After graduating from Ohio State College of Engineering, Kettering went to work for the invention staff at National Cash Register (NCR) company. He invented a high-torque electric motor to drive a cash register, allowing a salesperson to ring up a sale without turning a hand-crank twice each time. After five years at NCR, he set up his own laboratory in Dayton, Ohio. Working with a group of engineers, mechanics and electricians, he developed the new ignition system for the Cadillac Automobile Company.

Leland sold Cadillac to General Motors in 1909 for $4.5 million and there is no record of any Cadillac ever killing another person, at least from turning a crank to start the engine! Since Cadillac had been formed from remnants of the Henry Ford Company (the second of two failed attempts by Ford), it was renamed for Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, sieur de Cadillac (the founder of Detroit 200 years earlier).

Later, Leland would sell Lincoln, his other marque luxury brand, to Ford Motor Company for a healthy $10 million, while Kettering and his crew formed Dayton Engineering Laboratories Co., which became Delco, still a famous name in electronic automobile parts. Kettering went on to have a long, sterling career and was featured on the cover of Time on Jan. 9, 1933 … the week after president-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt was named the magazine’s Man of the Year (Jan. 2).

My only quibble is the work Kettering did with Thomas Midgley Jr. in developing Ethyl gasoline, which eliminated engine knock, but loaded the air we breathe with lead (a deadly neurotoxin) for the next 50 years. And he developed Freon … a much safer refrigerant, but which released CFCs, which will be destroying our atmospheric ozone for the next 100-200 years.

I don’t recall ever personally turning an engine crank. My cars went from ignition keys to keyless and I plan to skip the driverless models and wait for a Jet-Cab … unless Jeff Bezos can provide an Uber-style version using one of his drones.

Things change.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Carnegie Coveted Crown of Richest Man in the World

This Andrew Carnegie photograph – inscribed, signed and dated Dec. 11, 1917 – realized $1,015 at a September 2011 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Jeff Bezos of Amazon is the world’s richest man, with an estimated net worth of more than $100 billion. A hundred years ago (1916), John D. Rockefeller became America’s first billionaire, which in today’s economy would be two to three times greater than Bezos’ fortune. In the late 19th century, Andrew Carnegie coveted this crown and saw steel as his road to stardom.

In the post-Civil War era, America grew rapidly as railroads crisscrossed the country and extended their reach to all four corners. Electricity arrived to light up buildings and homes, oil supplemented kerosene and coal, iron and steel production grew as demand soared to keep up with rapid economic expansion. Occasional booms/busts occurred since the markets were unregulated and coordination was difficult.

Carnegie had led the growth in the American steel industry and his ambition to snatch Rockefeller’s crown became more acute. One of the key industry developments involved the construction of a steel bridge to connect St. Louis and East St. Louis on opposite banks of the mighty Mississippi River. The Eads Bridge, named for its designer, engineer James B. Eads, relied heavily on steel for its revolutionary design. It was set to become the first significant bridge using steel girders and a cantilever form.

A young Carnegie supplied the financing and the steel, despite skepticism over the sturdiness of the structure after it was completed. A man named John Robinson came up with a clever way to dispel any doubts. Elephants were believed to have good instincts about where they stepped, so Robinson borrowed a fully grown one from a traveling circus. On June 14, 1874, he led the beast across the length of the bridge, with crowds on both ends going wild. Later, a convoy of locomotives were driven back and forth as a further (and final) test of soundness.

On July 4, 1874, the bridge officially opened with General William Tecumseh Sherman driving the last spike as 150,000 people looked on. Demand for steel exploded, forcing Carnegie to develop creative ways to boost production. One was a modified vertical production technique that maximized factory output. But that was still not enough. It became obvious that a 12-hour, six-day workweek was needed. The only problem was that workers’ health couldn’t keep up. Carnegie hired tough managers to impose the onerous schedule and he left for Scotland to escape the critics. Later, his guilty conscience led him to an unprecedented binge of philanthropy after he sold the Carnegie Steel Company to J.P. Morgan for $480 million. It became U.S. Steel, the first billion-dollar corporation in the world.

John D. Rockefeller took an even more devious strategy to his domination of the oil-refining industry. In 1872, he formed a shell corporation: the South Improvement Company (SIC). He then struck an agreement with large railroad companies whereby they sharply raised freight rates for all oil refineries, except those in the SIC (notably Standard Oil), which received substantial rebates – up to 50 percent off crude and refined oil shipments. Then came the most deadly innovation – SIC members also received “drawbacks” on shipments made by rival refineries. So when Standard Oil made shipments from Pennsylvania to Cleveland, they received a 40-cent rebate on every barrel, plus another 40 cents for every barrel of oil shipped by every competitor!

It has been called “an instrument of competitive cruelty unparalleled in industry.” In fact, it was collusion on a scale never equaled in American history. And it was only one of several techniques employed. But it did help Mr. Rockefeller and his investors achieve a 90 percent share of the entire U.S. oil business.

All Bezos has is the internet.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

We Should Let Geniuses Do What Geniuses Do

This signed photograph of Thomas Alva Edison, taken sometime around 1910, realized nearly $3,900 at an April 2013 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Thomas Alva Edison was awarded about 1,100 patents in the United States and more than double that worldwide.

They are generally grouped into categories that include electric power, telegraphy/telephony, recorded sounds, batteries, cement and motion pictures. His practice of keeping meticulous records to protect his intellectual property became the “gold standard” for future scientists, engineers and inventors in general.

Naturally, he made a lot of money, which proved useful when some of his ideas turned out to be expensive commercial failures. At times, he appeared to lack practical sense or perhaps he lacked the “Steve Jobs gene” when it involved customer preference. Another more plausible explanation is that he simply did not care, period.

One of the more interesting examples is his refusal to adopt the concept of movie theaters (people might sneak in without paying), so he held out for hand-crank, peep-show boxes. In 1908, he confidently predicted that airplanes had no viable future (the Wright brothers disagreed).

Then he became mesmerized by the possibilities for concrete and formed the Edison Portland Cement Company and built a huge factory. By 1907, Edison was the fifth-largest cement producer in the world and had four dozen patents to make a better cement, some of which was used to build Yankee Stadium.

But his abiding passion was to fill the world with cement houses.

The concept was to pour concrete into giant molds to form walls and floors, followed by baths, sinks, cabinets, toilets and even picture frames. A four-man team could build a new house every two days for $1,200 (one-third the cost of traditional structures).

The concept was scheduled to be showcased at a cement industry convention in 1912 in New York. However, when the show opened, the Edison exhibit was empty and Thomas Edison never discussed the issue publicly. There was also no word on the fate of the cement piano that was scheduled to be exhibited.

He was now interested in modernizing war and casually predicted he would be able to induce comas in enemy troops through the use of “electrically charged atomizers.” It is not clear how this idea was abandoned. He also worked on a plan to build giant electromagnets to catch enemy bullets in flight and then “return to sender.” It was another mysterious project that was abandoned.

One last example was a heavy investment in an automated general store where customers would insert coins into slots and then bags of coal, onions, nails or potatoes would come sliding down the chute. The system never worked. It never came close to working.

If you believe in reincarnation, then there is a good chance Thomas Edison is back. This time his name is Jeff Bezos, who had a nutty idea about selling books over the internet and now owns a major print newspaper and is in a race to conquer outer space, since NASA has scaled back. Elon Musk has managed to find time to enter the rocket business, too, while he tinkers with electric cars and batteries.

Our country seems to be blessed when it comes to producing geniuses. Let’s hope the government doesn’t put up too many regulations or red tape as we go hurtling into the future.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].