Inventing on Wisconsin’s Waterways

I grew up in Wisconsin, a place well known for its waters and woods. It seems like you can’t go more than a few miles before running into a stream, pond, or lake. But little did I know that the waterways I grew up on were the same as those of an inventor and were the inspiration for his invention.

Ole Evinrude emigrated to Wisconsin in 1882 when he was five, growing up in Cambridge, WI, on the shores of Lake Ripley. Like Ole, I also grew up in Cambridge, went swimming and fishing in the lake, and enjoyed meals along its shore.

Sunset over a Wisconsin lake.

Sunset over a Wisconsin lake. By peterrieke (Balsam Lake Sunset) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Cambridge is about thirty minutes from Madison, so I spent plenty of time not just at Lake Ripley but also on the four lakes the capital is built around. Ole spent plenty of time in Madison too, gaining experience with machinery from various positions in machine shops. In addition to his hands-on experience, he used the university’s library to teach himself advanced mathematics, mechanics, and engineering. After briefly working in Pittsburgh—where he had first hand experience working with steel—he returned to Wisconsin for positions building engines.

Both of my parents grew up in Milwaukee and most of my family lives still lives there. Ole moved to that city to work and began building his own engines during his spare time in the basement of his boarding house. All the times that I drove to and from Milwaukee (about an hour past lakes and woods) I never guessed that the blue waters of Lake Okauchee that I saw from the road was the site of an event that got Ole thinking about using his homemade engines to power boats in a new way. On an outing on Lake Okauchee, Ole, his future wife Bess, and some friends rowed their boat across the lake. They bought some ice cream that they intended to take back across the lake with them but it melted by the time they reached the other side of lake, two miles away). This inspired Evinrude’s idea to clamp a motor to the stern of a boat.

Although forms of outboard motors for boats had existed since 1896, and had even been patented in 1905, in 1907 Evinrude designed the first commercially and mechanically successful outboard motor. His outboard motor had a mechanical arrangement that became the standard for all outboard motors.

Outboard motor patent drawing.

Patent drawing for “Marine Propulsion Mechanism” by Ole Evinrude.

Evinrude tested his invention on the nearby Kinnikinnic River. Having myself canoed on the Kinniknnic on many occasions, with its mix of forested, beach, rock, and house lined shores, I can easily picture Ole’s first trial. Without a muffler, when the motor started it was so noisy that it brought dozens of people to the river bank. It obviously needed a little tweaking before being sold, but Ole was able to go about five miles per hour. Ole’s first motors (built in 1909) were all hand-built, weighed 62 pounds, and had two horsepower. They sold quickly and in 1910 Ole had nearly 1,000 orders. By inventing the first commercially and mechanically successful outboard motor Ole forever altered the boating world. Outboard motors can be easily removed for repairs, storage, or use on other boats. Can you imagine a world without water skiing or motor boat racing?

After World War I, Ole utilized new techniques and processes of using aluminum to develop a lighter (48 pounds), two-cylinder, three horsepower outboard motor. He also invented a quieter underwater exhaust system. This new motor was on the market in 1920. Over the years Ole continued to develop lighter motors with greater horsepower.

1910 and 1924 outboard motors.

Evinrude’s 1910 and 1924 motors. Courtesy NMAH Archives Center.

Wisconsin is known for its waters and woods. Growing up in a place where a body of water nearly is never far away is not only beautiful and enjoyable but inspiring. Ole Evinrude designed the outboard motor we use today, but perhaps Ole would have invented a motor for an entirely different purpose if hadn’t been surrounded by the waterways that we both grew up on.

One thought on “Inventing on Wisconsin’s Waterways

  1. Oh my! I love this post! A truly inspiring one. Great inventions are timeless indeed. I’m so impressed with this and of course I really enjoyed reading such an awesome article. Thanks for sharing all these great ideas.

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