It was the request for ice cream expressed by a young lady that prompted Ole Evinrude to row across a lake during the hot summer of 1906. That day was particularly sultry, so much so as to transform the rowing trip into a long, tiring and sweaty undertaking: And what’s more, when the brave Ole returned, in a pitiful state in front of the delightful Bess Cary, the ice cream was not much better than him. It was at that moment that the young American wondered why no one had ever thought of putting an engine on a small rowboat. After three years of development, the first Evinrude outboard was built in 1909. That same year the 15 engines produced were all sold immediately. In 1910 1000 units were sold and the following year the number doubled. The Evinrude became the first outboard engine produced in series, while Ole and Bess flew with a happy marriage.
This is the romantic story about the invention of the outboard engine. If 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 USA from Norway in 1882, may have seen or heard of an engine developed (about) four years earlier by Cameron Waterman. According to Waterman himself (and supported by documents from the U.S. Patent Office), 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 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 in operation, so much so that it was called Choughing Sarah, Sara with a cough.
As Waterman recalls in a document kept by the Hystorical Society of Grosse Ile, Michigan, where he resided: “In the winter of 1905 we drove a boat with our engine through the river full of ice. So we realized it would work… In 1906 we made 25 of these engines and sold 24. In 1907 we sold 3000 and about the same number in 1908. Then, in 1909, when the Evinrude Motor engine came on the market, our sales doubled, because this convinced people that we had a real useful machine and not a stupid gadget.
“In February 1902, I ordered a motorcycle that was delivered months later; I drove it until the end of autumn. In September 1903, I removed the motor and hung it above the back of a desk chair in my room to clean and overhaul it. It was an air-cooled, four-cycle engine weighing about 20 pounds (9 kg). It occurred to me that I could attach a propeller to it, hang it in the transom of a rowboat. If it had been hinged it could have been used both to steer and to push the boat. Then, still in my head, I provided him with a bar and I mounted a petrol tank (idea taken from a base of a lamp to lio) near the bar to make it all self-sufficient, a last idea was to allow the engine to tilt horizontally to protect it in the absence of a keel or skeg. All these features have been realized in a series of sketches and have provided most of the information for the patent application that I filed in 1905. After graduating in law I worked for a firm specializing in patents. When I showed my sketches, they asked me: “Have you already made one?”
I brought my drawings to a workshop in Detroit to a friend who agreed to build it if I had the engine of a motorcycle. 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. Even though the river was full of pieces of ice, the test was a complete success, except for the fact that once a piece of ice got caught between the chain and the cogwheel (which made the propeller to which it was attached spin) derailing the gear. We rowed on the ground to replace the chain. And it was that day that someone in our group called it “outboard engine” (and Waterman used it extensively in subsequent advertisements for his engine, ed). The Dossin Marine Museum in Belle Isle houses the engine and drive shaft of the prototype.
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, since there were 8 companies in the industry.
In 1906, the Waterman “Port”, the first engine sold was a two-horsepower petrol engine, the first to be called outboard and the first to be mass-produced. The Waterman had its current features, including a vertical crankshaft at the surface of the water, which was also water-cooled. Made of cast iron, it weighed too much and vibrated too much and could be lethal if placed on a boat that was too light. Without a mechanical starter, the flywheel had to be turned manually with a wooden crank that, because of its speed once the engine was started, became a killer for the fingers that remained there for too long. In addition, he was in direct contact and without neutral: when the engine started the boat took off: “From nothing to 3 knots: it took a bit of skill to leave a busy pier,” Waterman recalled.
When asked why his 1907 patent hadn’t protected him from the competition, (the patent granted to Ole Evinrude for a marine propulsion system dates back to 1911) Waterman explained: “I’ve never had a patent basically because I couldn’t get it… or anybody else. That’s because back in 1883, a guy whose name I forgot, said he had blocked a small steam boiler on the back of a boat using a propeller. So I was granted an American patent on what he called an outboard engine. His never worked and never was produced, but the granting of that patent prevented anyone else from getting full protection.
In 1950 Waterman stated that in recent years he had received two requests by letter “One came from Panama and the other from Alaska. One asked for a new casting for one cylinder and the other for a new crankshaft – for the Porto engines I produced in the early years of the century, so I think at least two could still be in operation.
The company was taken over in 1922 by the newborn Johnson Motor Company, which in 1972, celebrating its 50th anniversary, looked for the first Waterman products: of the first ten made, four were found, two in working order and one still in use.