NAHA Header


Ole Evinrude and the Outboard Motor {1}
By Kenneth Bjørk (Volume XII: Page 167)

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 patternmaking. 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.

When Evinrude began to produce his outboard motor in 1909 he was not alone in the field. A "detachable rowboat motor" called the "Waterman Porto Motor" was on the U.S. market the year of the Evinrude picnic [1906]. The Porto Motor was a dismally inferior product by modern standards, and the most enticing statement the manufacturers could think of to advertise it was "Don't be afraid of it!"

So what Ole Evinrude did was not to invent the first outboard but to construct the first model that was practical, the first that would start at least half the time. It took him two years and it is not easy to say just how he made his motor better than the Waterman. Both operated on the same principle, and about the only visible difference between them was in the placement of the single cylinder. On the Porto Motor it was parallel with the drive shaft, whereas Ole located it above and at right angles to the shaft. Beyond that the Evinrude was simply a better engineering job, and while more Evinrudes have been added and refinements like the cord pull and underwater exhaust introduced, Ole's original design has been only superficially changed since 1910. {2}

With their motor perfected, the Evinrudes began a successful venture in manufacturing. Ole apparently had never planned beyond local orders for motors. At best he would have only a few extra motors on hand. But even before the company began production on a large scale, orders began to pile up. A friend borrowed Ole's motor for a Sunday outing. Next day he appeared with ten orders and cash to pay for them. Sensing a large potential market for her husband's motor, Mrs. Evinrude sat down at her kitchen table in 1910 and wrote the company's first advertisement. "Don't row," the advertisement read. "Use the Evinrude detachable rowboat motor." The response that followed this notice necessitated an office and a suitable plant to meet a flood of orders. Mrs. Evinrude assumed management of the business, and Ole took full charge of the shop. Capital was needed. A friend, C. J. Meyer, advanced five thousand dollars and became a partner in the new firm. (It was assumed, for partnership purposes, that the motor was worth that amount.) The following year, 1911, Mrs. Evinrude began a national advertising campaign. Ole was forced to increase his shop force to a hundred men. Soon the original five thousand dollars was gone. Pressed for money, Ole designed his own machinery. "By turning materials into finished motors," his wife later explained, "and selling the motors for cash before the bill on the materials was due, he made a hundred dollars do the work of a thousand in the ordinary plant. And we worked! There wasn't a night that we closed our eyes before twelve or one o'clock, and some nights it was two or three." {3}

While its volume of sales increased, the firm nevertheless had problems to overcome. One of its biggest problems was the seasonal nature of the demand for outboards. Seeking a relatively stable market, Mrs. Evinrude contacted export houses through form letters and circulars. She succeeded in getting one large firm to stock a few motors only because the Danish manager of the Scandinavian department, Oluf Mikkelsen (now Evinrude's largest distributor), seeing an Evinrude circular in the general manager's wastebasket, suddenly exclaimed that he could sell such motors to Scandinavian fishermen. Cautiously starting with two motors, this firm increased its orders to many thousands, as Danish and Norwegian fishermen set up a clamor for Evinrude motors. By the end of the third year in business, the Evinrude Company was employing three hundred people and had a new factory building.

By the end of the third year, too, Bess Evinrude's health, never too good, was seriously undermined. It was so bad in fact that Ole decided to sell out his share in the Evinrude Company to Meyer and his associates. The understanding when he left the firm was that the Evinrudes were not to re-engage in the outboard business for five years. Then began a strange interlude in the Evinrude drama. While Meyer and his associates substituted a modern flywheel magneto for the old battery ignition and generally stayed ahead of competitors in the outboard motors field, the Evinrudes during the summer months toured the country with a bed in the back seat of their car and then in the fall set sail on the Mississippi in a cruiser with an engine designed by Ole.

The winter of 1917, which the family spent in New Orleans, saw Ole tinkering around with another motor. "By 1919 the fooling around had resolved itself into a finished model of the Evinrude Light Twin Outboard." {4} The new two-cylinder motor, called the Elto (Evinrude Light Twin Outboard), was the first of its kind, and it marked Evinrude's second major contribution to the development of the outboard motor. Capable of developing three horsepower as compared to two for the one-cylinder Evinrude, it weighed only forty-six pounds, or twenty-seven pounds less than the Evinrude, and substituted aluminum where possible for brass and iron.

Ole's next move was to take his "silvery" Elto to Meyer in Milwaukee and offer it to him for production. Meyer was not interested; the Evinrude was holding its own against competition, and he decided not to try the new article. As a result Ole started the Elto Outboard Motor Company in Milwaukee and put his motor on the market in 1921. Though he took a financial loss the first year, he later built up a successful business. The Evinrude Motor Company, on the other hand, went downhill in almost inverse ratio to Elto's climb, and Meyer stepped out of the business in 1924. Ole and Bess were now sole partners in the new firm, dependent only on themselves for financial support. Ole designed his own manufacturing equipment, and his wife served as secretary and treasurer of the new firm.

Meyer's departure from the motor scene did not, however, leave the Evinrudes free of competitors. The original Evinrude Company continued under several managements until 1929 and offered very serious competition indeed. What followed the Evinrudes' second business venture was a typical struggle for mastery and financial control made still more exciting by the great depression after 1929. In 1926 the Evinrudes put a new Super Elto Twin on the market, confident that this superbly designed motor would steal the outboard market. They had not counted, however, on a notable trend of the twenties. The Johnson Motor Company of South Bend, Indiana, in 1926 came out with a motor that caused a sensation in the outboard world. The Evinrudes had always stressed lightness of motor, ease of starting, smooth performance, and general dependability. The new Johnson motor weighed almost a hundred pounds, thus defying the trend toward lightness, but it could push a boat along at a speed of sixteen miles an hour while other motors could do no more than ten. Besides catching the Evinrudes napping, the new emphasis on speed was in harmony with the mood of the later twenties. The result was that the public, suddenly demanding speed, "forgot all about its preference for light motors and became obsessed with the idea of getting there fast, not just getting there." {5}

The speed fad proved to be no more enduring than the prosperity of the twenties. Its chief value, in fact, was to advertise the outboard motor. In the words of Fortune:

Speed was spectacular, speed was glamorous. A dinky little boat traveling around forty-five miles per hour and leaping six feet in the air every time it hit a wave looked exciting and got into the news reels and roto sections with the frequency of babies and maneuvers of the U.S. navy. . . . For about three years the only function of the outboard motor seemed to be the providing of cheap thrills; then gradually it reverted to its former primary role of substituting for oars. {6}

After 1930 sales took a big drop, and until 1935 the outboard industry was a sick one. Motors now had to fit a new and shrunken purse. A demand for smaller and lighter engines, ease of starting and control, and smooth performance helped put the industry back where it had been before it succumbed to the speed mania. A still greater demand for cheapness brought the selling price down from $115.00, the price of the cheapest motor in 1930, to $34.50, the price of an Evinrude Mate today. A $42.50 model now can do what the $115.00 model of 1930 could do. Since 1935, the trend has been toward greater attention to details -- streamlining, covering the motor, putting in self-winding starters, and compactness. {7}

In 1929 the first of two mergers occurred, when the tottering Evinrude Company was combined with Elto and the Lockwood Motor Company of Jackson, Michigan, to form the Outboard Motors Corporation, with Evinrude as president and largest stockholder, and Stephen Briggs as chairman. The new company, though somewhat battered, weathered the depression. Smaller competitors, without sufficient capital reserves, were eliminated. The Johnson-Motor Company, as a result of overexpansion and a reckless advertising campaign, went into receivership in 1932. The reorganized company, after trying a fling at the refrigerator compressor business, was acquired by Ralph Evinrude, Ole's son, and Briggs in 1935. Johnson was formally merged with the Outboard Motors Corporation in 1936, the new firm taking the name Outboard, Marine and Manufacturing Company. This company, which thus manufactures Evinrude, Elto, and Johnson motors, constitutes the largest factor in the outboard field, accounting for about sixty per cent of all motors sold.

Ole Evinrude died July 12, 1934, a little more than a year after his wife and business partner. His son Ralph is president and a heavy stockholder in the new corporation. About two thousand men in all are employed by the corporation, whose shares are also listed in the New York Stock Exchange. Markets are maintained abroad, Outboard, Marine and Manufacturing, Ltd., of Peterborough, Ontario, making all products for Empire consumption. Though financially the original companies are now one, each maintains a separate engineering department, a fact which preserves much of the early competition though its sting is gone. Mr. Finn T. Irgens, once Ole Evinrude's chief engineer, who was likewise born in Norway, still retains his original position with Evinrude Motors in Milwaukee, and has complete charge of manufacturing. Thus another small American industry which grew out of the tinkering propensities of a mechanical expert has passed through various stages to attain to a position of stability and usefulness to our daily lives. There are many reminders, however, in the outboard industry even today that it was Ole Evinrude, not an impersonal corporation, who freed America from the need of rowing.


<1> The information contained in this article was derived from a number of sources. Chief among them are the articles "The Put-Put," in Fortune, 18: 56-59, 108, 112, 115, 118 (August, 1938), and "He Invented a 'Fool Novelty' That Founded a New Industry," in American Magazine, 105: 37, 148, 151-155 (February, 1928); the biography of Evinrude in the Encyclopedia of American Biography, new series, vol. 5, p. 216-219 (New York, 1936); articles in Tidens tegn (Oslo), July 16, 1934, and Skandinaven (Chicago), July 20, 1934; and an interview with Mr. Ralph Evinrude in Milwaukee on April 22, 1941.

<2> Fortune, 18: 59.

<3> American Magazine, 105:151.

<4> Fortune, 18:108.

<5> Fortune, 18:108.

<6> Fortune, 18: 112.

<7> Information furnished by Mr. Ralph Evinrude.

<<  Previous Page   |  Next Page   >>

To the Home Page