All the fault of a melted ice cream! Thus was born the legend of the outboard motor


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It was a request for ice cream expressed by a young lady that prompted Ole Evinrude to row across a lake during the hot summer of 1906. It was particularly muggy that day, so much so that it turned the rowing crossing into a long, tiring, and sweaty endeavor: And what’s more, when brave Ole showed up again, in a pitiful state in front of the delightful Bess Cary, the ice cream wasn’t much better off than he was. It was at that moment that the young American wondered why no one had ever thought of putting an engine on small rowboats. After three years of development, the first Evinrude outboard was made in 1909. That same year the 15 engines made were all sold immediately. In 1910 1,000 were sold, and the following year the number doubled. The Evinrude became the first mass-produced outboard motor as Ole and Bess married happily.

Not only the romantic legend: there is more!

This is the romantic story told about the invention of the outboard motor. While it is undeniable that Evinrude was the first to undertake mass production, it is likely that the then 29-year-old Ole, who immigrated with his family to the U.S. from Norway in 1882, may have seen or may have heard of an engine developed (about) four years earlier by Cameron Waterman. According to Waterman himself (and supported by U.S. Patent Office records), the first tests of his engine took place on the Detroit River in February 1905. The following year Waterman began selling the first gasoline engines (which received, indeed, U.S. Patent No. 851,389 on April 23, 1907). The Waterman engine had a chain drive, but was soon modified with a drive shaft and bevel gears. Even with this modification, the Waterman engine was still a rather unpleasant tool, both in appearance and operation, so much so that it was called Choughing Sarah.


As Waterman recalls in a document kept by the Hystorical Society in Grosse Ile, Michigan, where he resided, “In the winter of 1905 we drove a boat with our engine across the ice-filled river. So we knew it would work… In 1906 we made 25 of these engines and sold 24. In 1907 we sold 3,000 and about the same number in 1908. Then in 1909, when the Evinrude Motor came on the market, our sales doubled, because that convinced people that we had a real useful machine and not a silly gadget.”


Cameron Waterman also tells about how he got the idea and the genesis of the engine

“In February 1902, I ordered a motorcycle that was delivered months later; I rode it until late fall. In September 1903, I removed the engine and hung it over the back of a desk chair in my room to clean and overhaul it. It was a four-cycle, air-cooled engine that weighed about 20 pounds (9 kg, ed.). It occurred to me that I could attach a propeller to it, hang it from the transom of a rowboat. If it had been hinged it could have been used to both steer and push the boat. Then, still in my head, I provided it with a tiller and mounted a gasoline tank (an idea taken from a lio lamp base) next to the tiller to make it self-sufficient; A final idea was to allow the engine to tilt to a horizontal position to protect it in the absence of a keel or skeg. All these features were realized in a series of sketches and provided most of the information for the patent application I filed in 1905. After graduating from law school, I worked for a firm specializing in patents. When I showed my sketches, they asked, “Have you done one yet?”


I took my drawings to a workshop in Detroit to a friend who agreed to build it if I had a motorcycle engine. I wrote to Glenn Curtiss and got a three-horsepower, four-stroke engine.

In February 1905, we took our working model to Grosse Ile in the Detroit River and attached it to a 15-foot steel rowboat. Although the river was filled with chunks of ice, the test was a complete success, except that once a chunk of ice got caught between the chain and the sprocket (which turned the propeller to which it was attached) derailing the gear. We paddled ashore to replace the chain. And it was that day someone in our group called it an “outboard engine” (and Waterman used it extensively in subsequent advertisements for his engine, ed.). The Dossin Navy Museum in Belle Isle houses the prototype’s engine and drive shaft.

We formed the Waterman Marine Motor Company, built several experimental models and then 25 models to see how they sell. In 1907-08 we built 800-1000 models per year. Our motto: “Turn any boat into a motor boat, in 5 minutes.” We sold our business in 1917, as there were 8 companies in the industry.”

Why didn’t he apply for the patent?

In 1906, the Waterman “Port,” the first engine sold was a two-horsepower gasoline engine, the first to be called an outboard and the first to be mass produced. The Waterman had the current features, including a crankshaft vertical to the water surface, also water-cooled. Made of cast iron, it weighed too much and vibrated excessively and could be lethal if placed on a boat that was too light. Without a mechanical starter, one had to turn the flywheel manually with a wooden crank, which, because of its speed once the engine started, became a killer for fingers that stayed too long in those parts. What’s more, it was direct drive and no crowds: when the engine started the boat took off, “From nothing to 3 knots: it took some skill to leave a busy dock,” Waterman recalled.

When asked why his 1907 patent had not protected him from competition, (the patent issued to Ole Evinrude for a marine propulsion system is from 1911) Waterman explained, “I never got a patent basically because I couldn’t get one — and neither could anybody else. This is because back in 1883, a guy whose name I have forgotten claimed to have stuck a small steam boiler on the back of a boat using a propeller. So I was granted a U.S. patent on what he called an outboard motor. His never worked and was never produced, but the issuance of that patent prevented anyone else from getting full protection“.

In 1950 Waterman stated that in recent years he had received two requests via letter “One came from Panama and the other from Alaska. One asked for a new casting for a cylinder and the other for a new crankshaft _ for the Port engines I produced in the early part of the century, so I think at least two may still be in operation.”

The company was taken over in 1922 by the newly formed Johnson Motor Company, which in 1972, celebrating its 50th anniversary, searched for the first Watermans produced: of the first ten made, four were found, two in working condition and one still in use.


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