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The First Outboard Motor

The story of the first successful outboard motor

Courtesy ASME

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Outboard motors to propel boats had been around, in one form or another, for more than 40 years when Ole Evinrude designed and built his first outboard in 1907.

Some were little more than foot-powered paddlewheels. Others were steam powered. Electric outboards powered by storage batteries in the boat, heavy four-cycle engines for outboards . . . all had been tried and, for one reason or another, had failed to win customer acceptance.

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Ole Evinrude’s 1907 outboard changed all that, and revolutionized recreational boating in the process. It was everything other outboards were not: light in weight, easy to use, dependable and relatively powerful.

The landmark internal combustion two-cycle Evinrude motor developed 1½ horsepower at 1,000 rpm, weighed 62 pounds, and used an engineering design that has remained the standard for outboard motors ever since. The cylinder was horizontal, the crankshaft was vertical, the direction gears were housed in a submerged lower unit.

After two years spent refining his prototype, Ole Evinrude and his wife, Bess, formed the Evinrude Motor Company in 1909 and began production of what almost immediately was the world’s first truly commercially successful outboard motor.

The Idea...

It’s a hot August day in the early 1900’s. Ole Evinrude, Bessie Cary and some of their friends are picnicking on Wisconsin’s Okauchee Lake, west of Milwaukee. Miss Cary suggests it might be nice to have some ice cream on such a warm afternoon. Mr. Evinrude gallantly volunteers to row their boat to the ice cream store, “Schatz’s,” and get some. History has misplaced the flavour of that ice cream, but one thing remains clear: by the time Ole had rowed back, the summer heat had melted the ice cream to ice cream soup.

The melted ice cream did little to dampen the fun of the day, nor the romance between Ole and Bess (they were married a few months later, in 1906), but it did spark an idea in Ole's inventive mind: develop a new kind of outboard motor for a rowboat, one that wouldn’t require bulky batteries, or weigh too much, one that would be dependable and quick enough to keep the ice in the ice cream the next time.

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Ole Evinrude was uniquely prepared for the challenge. Born in 1877, he was five years old when his family emigrated from Norway to America, eventually to settle on a farm in central Wisconsin. But his interest lay with things mechanical, not things agrarian, and in his late teens he moved to Wisconsin’s capital city of Madison, where he became an apprentice in a farm machinery shop.

After Madison, he moved on to work the steel mills of Pittsburgh and the giant machine tool factories of Chicago, returning a few years later to Milwaukee where he opened his own pattern shop.

About this time, the internal combustion engine was coming into its own, so a few years later, Ole and another man formed the Motor Car Power Equipment Co., to build a standardized motor that could be installed in any “horseless” carriage. Bess Cary was the company’s office manager.

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Using his mechanical and engineering genius, spurred by the never-forgotten ice cream incident, in 1907 he designed and built the first prototype of an Evinrude outboard motor. This “coffee grinder,” as Bess Cary Evinrude called it, moved a boat through the water better than any other outboard on the market . . . but Ole, more the inventor than the businessman, at first had difficulty seeing its commercial promise. Fortunately, though, his Bess did.

At her urging, Ole made ten, then 20, then 25 “coffee grinders.” These quickly were sold and, in 1909, the Motor Car Power Equipment Co. was in the past, the future was the Evinrude Motor Co., and Ole’s outboard was about to usher in the modern world of recreational boating.

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Ole and Bess were, as he was fond of saying, “the perfect partnership.” Ole’s place was the factory, where he designed, and built, and supervised and motivated. Bess was at home in the office, handling the books and managing the sales (many a man was more than a little surprised when he discovered the “B. Evinrude” who signed the letter or the sales contract was a woman!) and writing the ads.

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DON’T ROW! This was the theme of the advertising campaign created by Bess Evinrude that proved so successful that, in 1911, the Evinrude company had to find new larger manufacturing facilities.

300 Employees

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Three years later, the Evinrude outboard business had grown to more than 300 employees, with sales throughout the U.S. and Europe. But despite her enthusiasm and hard work for the company, Bess Evinrude was not a physically strong woman. Her health was failing, and Ole wanted to devote his full time to her. In 1914, he sold the Evinrude Motor Co. and they retired.

As the Evinrudes motored around the pre-Interstate highway with their son, Ralph, the “modern” outboard industry that Ole had begun was growing, with companies like Caille and Koban and Arrow and Lockwood-Ash joining the competition. All used the basic Evinrude design concept.

When Ole sold the original Evinrude company, he agreed to stay out of the outboard business for five years. Still, once an outboarder, always an outboarder, and even as they enjoyed their early retirement, and as Bess was regaining her health, Ole was “mind designing” his second generation outboard, one that would use two cylinders instead of one, weigh 50 percent less, yet develop 50 percent more power.

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By 1921, “the perfect partnership” was back in business in Milwaukee, this time as the Elto ( for Evinrude Light Twin Outboard) Outboard Motor Co. Aluminium had come into common industrial use during World War I, and the Elto was the first outboard to substitute aluminium for the traditional heavier metals. As promised, it developed three horsepower instead of 1½, and weighed 47 pounds.

By now, the outboard industry had followed the trail blazed by Ole Evinrude, and innovation followed innovation: streamlined lower unit, full tilting, waterproof ignition system (Elto), full pivot steering (Johnson), underwater thru-the-prop-hub exhaust system (Evinrude), anti-ventilation plate on the lower unit for more efficient propulsion (Johnson), water-scoop cooling system (Elto), slip clutch propeller (Lockwood- Ash), auxiliary gas tank (Elto), combined steering tiller and throttle control (Caille), and remote outboad steering (Elto).

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Under Ole Evinrude’s leadership, Elto led the way in outboard engineering. In 1928, it broke the two-cylinder “barrier” when it introduced the four-cylinder outboard to meet the public’s growing demand for more power and speed. Elto was the first outboard builder to completely enclose the powerhead in a water-resistant motor cover. In 1930, along with a few other outboard companies, it introduced electric starting on outboards.

But as the outboard industry and Elto were growing, Bess’ always-frail health was again failing. She passed away in Milwaukee in 1933. A year later, Ole Evinrude died suddenly in his Milwaukee home. He was just 57 years old.

*The Evinrude outboard is an American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) International Historic Engineering Landmark. The text of this story appears by agreement of the ASME. Go to http://www.asme.org/Communities/History/Landmarks/Evinrude_Outboard_Motor_1909.cfm for more on this Landmark.

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